On a sweltering July Monday a few weeks ago, a day where I was blessing the tall NYC buildings for providing me with the only shade, I walked into The Museum of the American Indian by Battery Park in Lower Manhattan. I was intent on seeing whatever pottery might be on display. After making my way through extensive security-reminiscent of going into a courthouse-I made my way up a winding staircase and found myself at the Rotunda. Going from that impersonal space to the cave-like environment of the East Gallery I was transformed. Literally! Unknowingly I stumbled into their current exhibit Transformer: Native Art in Light and Sound with rooms in near darkness except for the light from projected images or those bathed in a provocative red light, soothing yet weirdly disturbing-like being in a room of spilled blood or a bordello. Lingering in this quasi-womb-like environment I felt myself go out of time and space. I had gone from the impersonal vastness of the museum to rooms of...well transformation. In the distance I could hear the sounds from other installations all crashing together as I tried to orient myself. Clearly I had entered a different world-a clash of the ancient with the modern. All before I had even reached the pottery!
For me one of the most striking installations was Still Life (2015) by Raven Chacen. I think it is the absolute love I have of the feeling of being thrown into the future while still being able to apprehend the past and trying to orient myself in the present-to truly live in the moment in every way in spite of the distractions. Years ago as a visual artist I made these mirror containers in which I would place props and then photograph the resultant images in the containers. It was like a mini theatre with
a clash of worlds coming together in 1 image: the photograph. I felt as if Chacen, too, with his Still Life was taking a similar journey in a different way. With his arcing projection made up of speakers emitting various tribal sounds and surrounded by an ancient Native American creation myth along the walls, he was making these clashing worlds a point of reflection, a place where boundaries were able to coexist
But then again all the installations were about boundaries-a film of a breakdancer dancing to tribal music, a tribal dancer dancing to electronic music, buffalo skulls adorned in red neon light. It was about breaking boundaries and contemplating them-the brackish waters where boundaries became a place of reflections
themselves. And this is why it entices me so.
This got me to thinking about the pottery and the other artifacts I was about to see in the upcoming rooms. Pottery is so grounding, playing with the earth and shaping it and the connection with the self. The exhibition I was in the middle of was all about connection of different worlds. Reading "The Wisdom of Native Americans" edited by Kent Nerburn I felt how connected they are as a people to the Earth. Chief Seattle's words ring horribly true:
"We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of the land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on." (p. 45)
And I feel we as individuals have absorbed this disconnection in every way. We have pitted our bodies against ourselves instead of having them work for us, our intuition has been subordinated, what makes us happy is unidentifiable. So many of us have become so disconnected from the earth, me as much as anyone living in a city of steel and stone and trash. We have sacrificed the stars to city lights and lost connection to the earth that Native Americans possess so much of. When was the last time my eyes beheld the night sky? Once in a blue moon. Stars have become foreign to me, something I read about in a book disconnected from the actual world. For me stars are what you see in a planetarium. Which is why plunging my hands into the earth, into clay takes on an even deeper meaning for me aside from the fact that I am carrying on a tradition practiced by so many starting thousands of years ago. It is my way to connect to the earth while living in this magnificent hateful wonderful degrading life-giving life-crushing city of contradictions where so many boundaries crash head on.
One of the refreshing aspects of the Transformer exhibit was how much these artists comprehended that, and the supreme effort they were making to change that through their art, by pointing out to people that how we are living is untenable, how the white people caused this absolute disruption and alienation generations ago to the Native Americans and how that has never stopped. Hence the boundaries, the attempt at merging the boundaries, or making sense of them and trying to live as a result of that apprehension. Living itself can be so extreme and contradictory at times, plagued by boundaries filled with conflicting emotions and ideas and realizations with different points of focus all coming to play in an individual, in a society. To see this so visually and beautifully laid out before my eyes was indeed transformative.
Eventually I made my way to the pottery, an experience that took my breath away. Suddenly I had gone from installations of recently made art and then was smacked in the face by the amazing experience we call time. Before me were vessels as early as 600 b.c. How is it possible to comprehend such a vast expanse? I felt the same disconnect that I feel when I think of the night sky. While we still see their light some of the stars we see are dead-relics of the universe and now I was among
human relics. And yet we still survive in spite of this truly awesome construct of which we call time and our places within it-our boundaries.
And so I came to the end and found myself reading this on the bus on the way home:
"The spirit of the Native people, the first people, has never died. It lives in the rocks and the forests, the rivers and the mountains. It murmurs in the brooks and whispers in the trees. The hearts of these people were formed of the earth that we now walk, and their voice can never be silenced." Kent Nerburn editor "The Wisdom of Native Americans", p. 134.
And how strongly I felt that looking at the current instillation and their magnificent pottery of the past. I truly hope that their voice can never be silenced, but I wonder if that is not just my need, a white woman's way of trying to live with the absolute shame we as a country should feel about how cruelly we have treated Native Americans. And one final note...they sided with the British!