EMERGENCE by John Feodorov at Santa Fe’s MoCNA

John Feodorov, Domi - Nature, 2010

See this artwork before the exhibition closes on March 31st, 2011! Museum of Contemporary Native Art, Santa Fe.

A lot has happened in the world since my last posting on Not Artomatic. There was the usual problem of working too much. But a lot has gone on in the world, too – Egypt, Syria, Libya, Japan. It has felt rather like the fall of the Berlin Wall, but with a new event every two weeks or so.  I say that from the perspective of someone who was a high school senior in 1990. Something changed in the world then – I saw it on television[1], and there was intense emotion on a massive scale, but no real understanding of what might come afterward. My high-schooler imagination was excited, but I lacked the knowledge, the perspective to really understand much of it. Twenty-one years later, I find that hasn’t changed much! I swirled around news sources that didn’t even exist back then, looking for information, understanding, answers. I also swirled around my memories of conversations with artist John Feodorov about his new series of work, titled Emergence[2]. I wanted to write about this series, but kept finding something in the way. First, I told myself it was because I need to be more academic and I need good research on Navajo cosmology and the Emergence concept. I did research, and had trouble coming up with an explanatory, non-Eurocentric (yet possessing academic authority) source. Unlike many religions, Navajo religion does not proselytize.

But the artist’s conversations with me made it clear that this structuring worldview was very important. On a gut-level, I’ve been tying that in with the cascade of events in the Middle East, recent devastating earthquakes, the tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan. The Christian paradigm of apocalypse does not seem to help us deal with widespread change, whether that change is natural disaster, environmental disaster, or political collapse. For human cultures to survive, we have to have cultural foundations that help us recover from disaster and create some kind of order from entirely new conditions. I think that’s what appealed to me about looking at Feodorov’s Emergence series.

John Feodorov, Emergence #3, 70" x 70", Acrylic on unstretched canvas, 2010

Any of you who are reading this who are writers (and I’m sure you all are writers, even if you don’t think of yourself that way) are familiar with something we end up calling “writer’s block.” I don’t think it really exists. When my mind ducks away from writing something, there is usually a reason. Often, it is because I still need to think/feel my way through an issue and writing sometimes isn’t the best way to do so. Sometimes, making art helps me figure things out and then I can get back to the writing. Other times, words from another person (in conversation, e-mail, a song, Facebook) help me make a connection I was missing. And then here is something that floors me every time it happens. I occasionally get stalled because I ALREADY WROTE THE WORDS I NEEDED. The text in the section below is from an early blog post I wrote called “What is so important about Native American Art.”

“Indigenous populations have experienced multiple migrations, population losses, and recoveries. The conceptual unification of oral tradition and the production of material culture contextualize this history and provide us with models for survivance that are useful not only to our indigenous communities, but perhaps to the population at large during this current period of change marked by serious […] upheaval.

We still have the stories and songs of when we arrived in our Tlingit homeland, over 10,000 years ago, not only the stories of how we got to where we are now, but the stories of the people who had to sacrifice along the way. Part of our stories have to do with the sacrifices by clan mothers in order to get where we needed to be.[3]

– Larry McNeil

Such stories help us contextualize present issues. Our artforms give us the tools we need to cope with change, to be resilient, to make conscious choices that consider the long term. Thinking seven generations ahead requires imagination! Art is more than a reaction to events in our lives; artistic practice also leads to real-world changes.

In very practical ways, indigenous artistic practices lead to involvement in environmental issues.” All of this has been leading into actually addressing Feodorov’s Emergence, series in reference to the Navajo cultural framework that describes their origins as a people who have passed through a series of worlds or existences, with each new world arising from the out-of-balance destruction of the previous one.  The organizing principles, spiritual forces, and sacred terrain are different with each new emergence.

John Feodorov, Emergence #4, acrylic on canvas, 72" x 72", 2010

I always think it is important to pay attention to artists’ own statements about their work, as you will know from reading my writing in general. The following is John Feodorov’s exhibition statement, which was prominently placed at the entrance to his exhibition:


In 1979, the largest accidental release of radioactive material in USA history happened in Church Rock in the state of New Mexico.  A tailing dam burst, sending eleven hundred tons of radioactive mill wastes and ninety million gallons of contaminated liquid pouring toward Arizona into the Rio Puerco River.  Today, the Navajo communities still cannot use the water.” *

According to a Sept. 23, 2010 article in Indian Country Today, “The New Mexico Environmental Law Center filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court this month to reverse the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision to allow in situ leach (ISL) uranium mining in the Four Corners region of New Mexico. […] The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has granted Hydro Resources, Inc. a license to mine uranium in Crownpoint and Church Rock.”

According to the Associated Press, 11/17/2010: “Supreme Court justices Monday decided not to review a decision that allows Hydro Resources Inc. to leach-mine uranium at the aquifer used by 15,000 Navajos in the Church Rock and Crownpoint areas.”

The works in this room explore the transformation of environmental tragedy into possible new mythologies. This is the basis of the Navajo creation myth–one world’s destruction is another’s creation. With the acknowledgement by most scientists that our global climate is heating up, and with the recent oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, many people admit a sense of helplessness and even resignation. To be honest, I sometimes find myself among them and this ambivalence is reflected within this recent body of work. While watching the continuous live video feed of the BP oil well freely spewing into the Gulf, I couldn’t help but think of the Navajo creation story where animals, insects and gods climbed a magic reed, like the fabled Jack and his beanstalk, from the Third World into our current Fourth World to escape annihilation. I kept thinking of that leaking pipe as another “reed” in which spirits embedded deep within the Earth were now emerging into our world, like medieval demons charging through the mouth of Hell, or red ants marching towards unsuspecting picnickers.

With the Oil well now capped, it is easy for us to fall back into our daily routines. I hope this doesn’t happen. As demonstrated above, environmental pollution and exploitation continues to this day. Since we don’t seem to learn from the past, it might be a good idea for us to start looking around for another magic reed. * (Excerpted from “Pollution of the Navajo Nation Lands” a paper by Kimberly Smith of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, presented August 2007 at the United Nations International Expert Group Meeting On Indigenous Peoples And Protection Of The Environment, which took place in Khabarovsk, Russian Federation. This meeting was hosted by the Government of Khabarovsk, the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the Russian North, Siberia and the Far East (RAIPON) in the Russian Federation.)”[4]

Feodorov’s words (above) take on even more relevance in relationship to the current revisiting of nuclear policy going on worldwide as a result of the containment problems at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant. What about the work itself?

Rani Molla wrote a review of the exhibition for the Santa Fe Reporter, which is worth reading. Molla closes with this statement:

“The fifth world—entered through a sooty smokestack and in which we teddy bears are still defined by the items we buy—would already be dismal. Perhaps the point is that there is no fifth world—just this one, and it’s a scary place.”[5]

I was terribly disappointed with that statement. I didn’t think it was all that dismal. I found humor, irony, sarcasm, in many of the pieces, yes. There also seemed to be a cautionary aspect, too. If we don’t shift some core values, we’ll end up placing our power-generating capacity (and the corporations involved) into a position of deity-like power over us. I’m probably a bit too used to Feodorov’s work to look at it with fresh eyes. He’s been using the Teddy Bear as a symbolic element to his work since the beginning of his career as an artist.[6] The open-mouthed profile view of a human head is also repeated element in his 2D work. Sometimes the open mouth represents a scream, desperation, pain. Other times, it represents speech, breath, a connection to the sacred.

John Feodorov, Oracle, 2010

Maybe Molla and other reviewers are right – Emergence is about dystopia instead of  future potential. I keep asking myself how the work would have to be different in order to present a new mythology to help us feel our way into a Fifth World. What is the middle ground between naïve hopefulness and dystopic vision? Can the video feed, the antenna, the open-mouthed communication, the apotheosis of the stuffed bear, the grinding of candy corn, combine to show us the world we already live in?  Is Emergence really about the Fourth World? And can we really leave that world behind us? Can we alter those patterns in the next order of things? Does Feodorov need to show us a Fifth World that is better than the current state? I’m not sure I could set my own skepticism aside for that.

If you have the chance to go see this work – say you’re in Santa Fe at some point during the next two days – take a look at Emergence. See if you can find hope, despair, and a questioning of the  “natural order.” I think I did.

John Feodorov, Ambiguity, aprox. 3' x 4', 2010

[1] And by television, I mean I saw it on all three networks, with rabbit ear antennas, when we were amazed that the new tv had a digital display  of 1-99. All the channels were fuzz once we tuned it beyond channel 13. My family did not get cable television until after I left home.

[2] The exhibition is at IAIA’s Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It closes 3/31/2011. See it right away if you can!

[3] Larry McNeil, comments from the panel “Migration, Relocation and the Diaspora,” during the Creation – Migration – Change convening, February 2009.

[4] Wall text by John Feodorov, accompanying the Emergence exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art, Santa Fe, NM January 14 – March 31, 2011.

[5] Rani Molla, “Emergency: Emergence Shows the Environment in Dire Straits,” The Santa Fe Reporter, January 19, 2011.  http://sfreporter.com/santafe/print-article-5863-print.html

[6] I wrote a short essay as part of MoCNA/IAIA’s Vision Project and specifically address the symbolism of the Teddy Bear in popular culture and how Feodorov uses it in his work. This essay is not yet published. I will update this footnote after the publication is available to the public.

John Feodorov, Untitled, 2010

Video Installation – Kateri Tekakwitha

One of the current exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe right now is a selection of recent works created in response to the history of Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), an early Mohawk-Algonquian convert to Christianity. She is beatified by the Catholic church  and is in the process of canonization. I will be writing more about this exhibition and other work currently on exhibition at MoCNA – but time runs short! I took a brief segment of video of Marcella Ernest’s video installation work and wanted to make that available sooner, rather than later. The full video is four minutes long and is projected on a screen of pasted-together pages from a bible. I only have 30 seconds of it in the video above. It’s worth viewing in person. If you stand close to the screen, you can easily read the biblical passages. This work deals with Kateri’s physical disfigurement from smallpox scars and her exercise of physical mortification as part of her devotion to her new religion.

The works in Soul Sister examine the complexity of responses to Kateri Tekakwitha, from analytical to devotional.

To see the work in person, visit the Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe.


Kade Twist – Our Land, Your Imagination

Installation view of Kade Twist's two-chanel video "Our Land, Your Imagination"

A number of the artists I follow have made versions of their video installation work available on YouTube or other video-enabled websites. I find it helpful in terms of analyzing content and theme, but I find that the online versions  don’t help me consider the aesthetics of the work. I also have to admit to sometimes finding these kinds of pieces make boring viewing when I’m online. Maybe it’s the cluttered YouTube screen and the thumbnails of other videos that promise to be the “cutest puppy video ever.” I was reminded once again that seeing video work in person is vastly different than viewing it on a computer screen when I was at the opening for the exhibition It’s Complicated – Art about Home. The exhibition features work by 9 Native American/First Nations artists on the theme of “home.” The artist I’m writing about here is Kade Twist (Cherokee). I’ve previously written about work he has done as part of the artists’ collective Postcommodity.

 Kade Twist’s two-channel video installation piece renewed my appreciation of seeing video works in person. Twist’s piece in the exhibition projects onto two walls set at 90 degrees, with the projected images meeting up in the corner. The full title of the work is Our Land, Your Imagination: The Judeo-Christian Western Scientific World View. The lefthand screen has a series of videos of women singing Carpenter’s songs (We’ve Only Just Begun, Close to You, I Need to be in Love, I Won’t Last a Day Without You, Every Sha La La La),  mostly in karaoke bars. The right hand screen has video clips of traffic, a hot air balloon making a messy landing in a suburban tract-home neighborhood, a sandstorm approaching a similar neighborhood, a walk-through of an empty, foreclosed-upon house, and a long shot of palm trees against a clear sky. It’s hard to watch the videos of the singers because they are so large and the camera is sometimes uncomfortably close. I noticed that I focused more closely on the landscape-type shots on the righthand wall. The songs are about a search for fullfillment, love, belonging. The videos featuring identical homes give an impression of loneliness and emptiness, particularly the walk-through shots inside the foreclosed house. The piece stands well on its own, but knowing a bit more about the origins of the clips adds additional layers.

Essentially, the artist curated video clips shared by YouTube posters who identified their location as Phoenix, Arizona (where the artist also lives and works). The idea is that looking at video clips posted by people who live in the same town might give us an idea about that particular community. Twist hand-picked these video clips. They aren’t random, so there is a kind of postmodern narrative about place and yearning that comes from watching the piece in its entirety. Ultimately, it is a sad story of longing, emptiness, the search for connection/community, and the loss of identity in the face of assembly-line suburban living, where everything is a translplant and nothing belongs. I think what bothers me most about the piece – in a good way – is wondering why on earth some of these clips were posted on YouTube to begin with. Why several minutes of palm trees against a clear sky? Nothing happens! The camera doesn’t move! It’s boring… and puzzling. Why, oh why, was this clip shared with the world via YouTube? Most of the karaoke singers seem so desperately sad, too, that I wonder why they really posted these songs on YouTube. Trying to get famous? Trying to send a pointed message to an ex-lover? Or did some friend post the video with the intention of really only sharing it in a small circle of people. Do any of the originators of these videos know that their postings have been incorporated into an artwork over a thousand miles away? Does that even matter?

You can see Kade Twist’s video installation Our Land, Your Imagination at The Evergreen Gallery on the Olympia, WA campus of The Evergreen State College. The Gallery is on the main floor of the Library Building and is open Mon-Thurs 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 pm. You can view Twist’s work below or on Kade Twist’s website … but it’s definitely not the same as seeing it in person.

P.S. I have a class of undergraduate students with assignments related to this exhibition. It has really affected what I feel free to say about the work here on the blog out of fear that I’ll get them quoting me instead of thinking for themselves! Some of them are working on a podcast about this piece. I will post a link to their podcast when it’s finished in two weeks!

The Digital Dome at IAIA

Installation view of the Digital Dome at IAIA, Santa Fe, NM

As I am preparing to go to campus to look at options for installing a two-channel video projection piece in our college’s gallery, I see this video posted on facebook. I am not yet able to embed video in my blog (it costs money, apparently). It’s worth it to click on this link to view the short video on youtube. I heard about the Digital Dome at IAIA while I was in Santa Fe last month, but didn’t get to go see it. I’m sure I’ll be seeing it on my next trip to Santa Fe.

The basics? Instead of creating video art that must adhere to Western culture’s preference for the rectangle and for walls set at 90 degree angles, the digital dome is just that, a complete dome form, with a fabulous computer that can crunch the data to project over the curved surface. This is a form that fits well with pre-existing, fairly widespread native significance of dome, spherical, or circular forms, as found in oral tradition in many traditional architectural forms, and forms of material culture.

Thinking about the aesthetic potential of the Digital Dome has my mind spinning (sorry for the bad pun).

Digital Dome, IAIA

Friend or Foe – Part III: Photos from Rebecca Belmore’s Video Installation at Or Gallery (May 2010)

Rebecca Belmore, Friend or Foe, video installation. Photo Courtesy of Or Gallery.

Here are some photographs of Rebecca Belmore’s installation for Friend or Foe at Or Gallery (curated by Darrin Martens). This video installation includes documentation from two different performances by Belmore. In each case, video from each performance is projected by miniature projectors upon small surfaces set within a miniature sculptural setting that uses mirrors and a set of chess pieces upon a pedestal. The pedestal is topped with frosted glass and conceals a projector that also projects video footage onto the flat surface of the pedestal.

The two performances represented in this piece via their video documentation are Victorious and Against Glass. Victorious was performed in 2008 as part of the HIVE 2 festival in Vancouver, BC. Victorious presented us with a constructed personage – the iconic image of Queen Victoria – as a literal construction. Belmore’s Queen Victoria starts with a seated aboriginal female body, Daina Warren (Montana Slavey Cree Nation). Belmore uses strips of newspaper and honey to build up the throne and period dress of Queen Victoria around Warren’s own form. Musical selections that played during the performance included the British national anthem, God Save the Queen, which also plays as part of this new video installation piece at Or Gallery.

Belmore worked with performer Donald Morin in her performance Against Glass, which took place at University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology (MOA) in Vancouver, BC. Here is Darrin Martens’ description of Against Glass from the 1-page Or Gallery publication Friend or Foe: Rebecca Belmore:

“…Belmore methodically created a structure out of found, recycled, and natural materials that pressed up against the glass wall of the museum forming an enclosure for Morin. The act of creating a performance within the context of MOA’s Great Hall and the landscape setting signalled a challenge to the space that the museum inhabits and the experience that it evokes for its visitors. The idyllic scene, as viewed from the Great Hall, is interrupted and fractured by Belmore’s performance, the structure and the encased aboriginal man. This compartment was inhabited by Morin for nearly an hour while Belmore completed the structure, cleaned the area of unwanted debris and vacated the site. When Belmore returned, Morin left the structure; they systematically dismantled the enclosure, loaded the materials into Belmore’s truck and drove away. The complex performance raises intriguing questions related to aboriginal access and representation within MOA, the relationship between artist(s) and audience members within a performative situation, and the space for aboriginal performance within a Western museum context. The built structure, from the inside referenced a museum-like vitrine — an encasement for an object meant to be viewed.”

I’ve been thinking about this video installation work and the relationship between the objects, the projected images, and the original performances. I did not get to see the performances that make up the video part of this new installation. Does that matter? I suspect that it does. Everything that I know about the videos in this piece comes from reading the brief (but good) gallery guide that was available to take home from the exhibition, or from listing to curator Darrin Martens give a brief public talk about the exhibition. Chess is a metaphor for political maneuvering. With these videos placed on the same field, at approximately the same scale as the chess pieces, does that make the videos (and the original performances) function as another type of chess piece? Which side is which, and which side are the videos on? One miniature projection features Belmore’s co-performer from her performance Against Glass. The second miniature projector plays footage from Victorious. The larger projection that plays on the flat surface (under all the other objects) is documentation footage from Against Glass. And take a close look at the chess pieces… black and white, and all “Indians.” If a viewer does not know anything about these previous performances, what can the viewer make of this work? A tiny projection of a woman building (worshipping?) another woman sits on a screen amongst a set of chess pieces. A fuzzy projection of a man stands amongst chess pieces on the other side of the small tabletop. The same woman builds a lean-to out of junk in a projection that forms the base for all of this action. So many projected images are going on at one time that it is hard to know where to look at any given moment. Your attention is pulled from one video to another, trying to figure out the relationships between each. Is it about poverty, necessity, homelessness, and temporary shelter? Is it about how we work to build up other people into powerful icons? Are we all chess pieces on a board fabricated by homelessness and poverty in the shadow of wealth held in perpetuity by others?

Rebecca Belmore, detail view from Friend or Foe. Photo by the author.

It’s an ingenious installation, both in terms the technical aspects of the projections and in terms of that question about what to do with performance documentation in order to make it stand on its own. This seems to be something that Belmore is particularly good at working out. See my entry on her video installation The Named and the Unnamed for another example of Belmore’s transformation of performance documentation into an independent work.

It’s been two months since I saw Friend or Foe. Obviously, I am still thinking about it. I’ll KEEP thinking about it. I’m really interested in hearing from anyone who got to see either of the two performances (Against Glass or Victorious). I know you’re out there. What was it like to be in the audience? What did you think while it was going on? What did you think in the weeks/months afterward?

Friend or Foe, Part II

Terrance Houle, Friend or Foe, video installation, 2010 (Photo by Lara Evans)

My first entry on the exhibition “Friend or Foe” focused on a series of photographs by Terrance Houle in the exhibition. Part II focuses on his video installation work Friends and Foes at Or Gallery in Vancouver, BC.[1] The video is projected floor-to-ceiling on the wall of the gallery. It is a series of scenes with the artist standing in the middle or foreground, using hand gestures to sign meaning. Each scene ends with a black screen with a text translation of the hand signs.

Curator Darrin J. Martens had this to say about the piece:

“Houle directly addresses his audience through his gaze and signing. Once confronted, the artist sets out to relay a narrative documenting a series of personal relationships – the first being with the audience, whom he terms ‘friend’, the second, a self-identifying term in relationship to his heritage, the third identifies his affiliation with a white man, the fourth with the white man’s infant and lastly Houle’s location. The choice to utilize and portray seemingly ubiquitous terms such as friend, Blackfoot and Paleface as subjects of his video performance demonstrates a position that Houle has taken in relation to human classification systems. By categorizing the audience and terming them ‘friend’ Houle establishes a non-confrontational familiarity that establishes how the remainder of the performance will be executed. Self-identifying as Blackfoot, the artist locates his aboriginality visually, through the sign for Blackfoot and his apparel – loincloth, headdresses and moccasins. The following two series of signings position Houle in relation to his subjects – his white friend and infant. By utilizing terms such as Paleface and Paleface’s Baby, Houle confronts his audience with stereotypes of his friends, denying their individual identity. The presentation of the performance and the signs the artist presents demonstrates nonverbally, the power and influence that naming has when the classifying human social relationships and challenges the audience to consider the significance of racially motivated classifications of Native and non-Native persons.”[2]

What this description does not convey is the irony and humor involved in the piece. A normal-looking Indian guy (not a chiseled Hollywood Indian) stands on sidewalk in front of a movie theater with a marquee reading Machotaildrop (a skateboarder movie), Eddies (a documentary about an amateur beer commercial contest), and Surf Across Canada (yes, about surfing). He is scantily clad in the loincloth mentioned above. People walk through the shot. Some stare at Houle. Others ignore him. He gestures in silence. The screen goes to black, and then we find out what he said with his gestures. There is definitely absurdity and irony present. There is no sound attached to the video piece. That plus the use of black screens with text between shots reminds the viewer of old silent films from the first days of moving pictures. There are competing tensions between the genre as carrying historic weight and significance, and the melodramatic gestural acting that is so different from our contemporary notions of acting. Houle confronts us with references to several different historical moments: the contemporary (suburban, urban, and public park settings), the early 20th century (borrowing the conventions of silent films, such as intertitles), and the 18th-19th century (wearing loincloth from red trade cloth). Different historical moments overlay one another, as different methods of communication overlay one another. Houle uses traditional hand signs he learned from within his family. The terminology that he uses in his translation fits in with the early Hollywood Indian fantasies and stereotypes. The medium in which the work is executed is important. It would not work simply as a live performance or as still photographs. The development of narrative techniques in film between the 1880s and 1930s coincide with the development of popular stereotypes about Indians that were central to the new “American” literature that had developed in the 19th century. I see a subtle link between the stereotypical representations of Indians speaking in broken English, frozen in time at the moment of “contact,” and the power of the genre of film. Large numbers of silent “western” films were made – most of which have not survived. But the genre continued into the era of “talkies,” and moved into television as well. Houle references this past, makes use of it, but subverts it by taking center stage (so to speak), and claiming his identity as “Friend to Paleface” and “Friend to Paleface Baby.” There are no foes here.

The clip above shows a section of the projected video.

An interesting observation about the installation:

As I noted above, there is no sound to the video. However, it was installed in the same room as Rebecca Belmore’s video installation piece. Belmore’s piece incorporates the video documentation of two performances, Victorious and Against Glass. The sound from this installation occasionally intrudes upon Houle’s piece, with the triumphal music of God Save the Queen the most intrusive section of audio. As both pieces play on a loop and are different lengths, God Save the Queen cuts in at a different moment during each replay of Houle’s work. I don’t think it detracts from Houle’s work though. I might actually miss it if I were to see his piece installed without Belmore’s piece in such close proximity.

[1] The exhibition is no longer on display. It closed in July 2010.

[2] Darrin J. Martins, Friend or Foe (Exhibition Catalogue), Vancouver, BC: Or Gallery, 2010, p. 2.