Learning about the problematic relationship that land-art has with the cultures of the indigenous peoples of America.

The Face of the Earth (2015) by Stefany Anne Goldberg. The text states that Robert Smithson was directly inspired by the Serpent Mound and that he used it as a model for Spiral Jetty. Goldberg points to Entropy And The New Monuments (1966) to argue that Smithson wanted to produce “anti-monuments” that merged with their environment over time – Goldberg states he wanted to criticize the idea of an everlasting modernism (best exemplified in American architecture). I don’t buy this. Authors like Naomi Stead have shown that architects such as Albert Speer were particularly interested in imagining their designs as ruins. (Here are notes from an article by Stead).

Architects, Smithson once said in an interview, tend to be idealists. They look at their structures and think about how they will cover over the earth. They try not to picture their buildings fallen into ruin, sucked back into the landscape they once sat upon. American builders are especially idealistic because the land they were given to build on since the beginning has been thought of as empty space. […] “America,” said Smithson, “doesn’t have that kind of historical background of debris,” and so Americans don’t often think of monuments the way Europeans do, as potential ruins, subject to entropy, subject to change, involved in the story of Time. Time, for Americans, goes mostly in a straight line, from Point A to Point B, with all things getting bigger and better, even when they collapse. For Smithson, time was like a spiral dissolving in salt, neither static nor cyclical but just moving, just going, disappearing and coming back again.

The last quote from Smitson is from the Entropy Made Visible (1973) interview with Alison Sky. It shows a blatant disregard of the cultures of the indigenous peoples of America. Nancy Holt’s Up and Under (1998) looks like it has been inspired by the Great Serpent Mound and the Mound City in Chillicothe.

Rising Into Ruin (2017) Kate Morris. The article investigates the “Post-modern landscape” by comparing Smithson notes on ruins, to artworks by American artist Alan Michelson. Morris argues that Smithson saw ruins as static “end states” and points out that many indigenous cultures of Americas have an opposing cyclic view of time. The text offers a good overview on what Smitson was after with The Monuments of Passaic (1967) text/actions.

[…] I argue that the works of Smithson and Michelson differ in important ways that are reflective of their cultural perspectives: namely, Smithson regarded ruin as an end state, while Michelson posits it as a condition that portends other states to follow. The argument hinges on the distinction of ruin as a stage in a cycle rather than as a point in a purely linear progression.

A postmodern condition that [Craig] Owens failed to locate in Smithson’s work is an attack on the idea of progress itself, though it seems clear in retrospect that Smithson’s careful documentation of the decline of industrial infrastructures was exactly that. Moreover, it is this aspect of Smithson’s practice that resonates strongly in Michelson’s work, where the notion of progress is conflated with settler colonialism, and thus its dissolution can be regarded as not only a postmodern but distinctly postcolonial condition.

Entropy tells us that nothing can stay in suspension forever; dissolution is inevitable. In “The Monuments of Passaic” Smithson’s entropic vision may come across as temporally muddled, but phrases like “rising into ruin,” “limited eternity,” and “a lower stage of futurity” obfuscate what is actually a rather linear progression.

Sympathetic as he is to Smithson’s dystopic vision, Michelson has also been drawn, paradoxically, to the latent hopefulness of “entropy made visible.” In both Mespat and Shattemuc he focuses on the crumbling infrastructure of industrialization, and by association, of colonialism itself.

The Spiritual Legacy of the Ancient Ones (1992) Robert Houle. A text from the catalogue for Land, Spirit, Power exhibition organized at The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (almost 30 years ago!). Here is a very detailed review of the exhibition by Scott Watson. I was encouraged to study this exhibition by Richard William Hill and Jolene Rickard (Tuscarora), whom I was kindly introduced to at the Vera List Center Forum 2018: If Art Is Politics event. The text attempts to build a framework for reading the art of the indigenous peoples of Americas, in a way which would not rely on a colonial gaze for making forcing sense a particular-western-defined-sense.

Houle’s text is critical towards post-structuralism and postmodernity because it disregards non-western modes of existence. In short: Not all origin stories are bad, not all narratives should be deconstructed and the critique that post-structuralism engages in does not challenge the infrastructure that enables it. It is a smokescreen! Modernity is in dept to indigenous cultures – Artist such as Pollock and Picasso formulated their encounters with indigenous artworks into techniques.

The text also has a detailed history of how the indigenous peoples of Americas have been portrayed in Euro-Western art. It provides a critique of Monument for the Native People of Ontario (1984–85) artwork by Lothar Baumgarten. More on that particular artwork and Houle’s commentary on it in Naming and Reclaiming (2018) Shirley Madill.

The article is filled with interesting details. For example: “There is no word for ‘landscape’ in any of the languages of the ancient ones still spoken” and ” [I]ndividuality operates in the language of paradox, irony, and ambivalence”. The text ends in a beautiful invite: “[T]he spiritual legacy of art from any one culture offers reassurance that the human species has some commonalities which are important to knowing who we are, where we are, and where we are going”. Quotes from Houle’s text below.

It is important […] to use local and temporal narratives, and personal identities, in any critical investigation of current thinking, especially if one wants to examine the re-integration of the individual, culture, and environment in an intuitive zone that has been lost to Western civilization. Because there has always gaped so terrifying a chasm between the basic needs of humankind and our knowledge of the world as we first became conscious beings, we have always reached towards ways of understanding and controlling our environment.

To native cultures, the spoken word is sacred, is essential to our profound belief in the efficacy of language. Because we are governed by that tradition, our proper names exist at the level of the human voice as sovereign; and exerting on them the force of a foreign language, the script, is to vanquish. Another way of illuminating the place of speech for aboriginal peoples would be to ask, for example, whether the traditional oral recital of the Great Law of Peace by the wampum keepers of the Iroquois Confederacy Longhouse could be mimeographed for the Clan Mothers with the same authority and legitimacy. Oratory is a central feature of Iroquois ritual and spiritual life.

Finally, postmodernism, the creed of the disappointed revolutionary generation of ’68, the ‘new middle class,’ is not the significant intellectual and cultural shift it has been touted as. Rather, it is only a symptom of political frustration and social mobility. The centre of power has not moved; and any denial of this obvious fact should itself be considered as evidence of centrality. The First Nations of the New World are still not even in the picture. Nonetheless, it is important to examine at least two issues raised by the postmodernist critique in order to create a picture that will give the exhibiting artists of Land, Spirit, Power a representation with real images.

Second, there is the question of the artists’ proximity to the new omnipresent cult of dissatisfaction. Postmodernism has become the high priestess of the current age of sophistry, dressed in the basic philosophical garment of virtual reality. From the Western perspective, it offers an opportunity to be introspective about the inheritance of the Enlightenment. Although the metaphor of America as hologram for the world remains paramount (considering the coming world order), the New World is nonetheless still a construct of the Old.

Romantic images continue to govern the ways in which the identities of the artists in Land, Spirit, Power are perceived and constituted. One only has to look at the dismal statistics of social, economic, political, and spiritual deprivation to see what disinheritance by colonization, marginalization, and invalidation has done to aboriginal societies. It is a pitiful picture, painted through the spiritual transgressions of others.

There is no word for ‘landscape’ in any of the languages of the ancient ones still spoken. In Ojibwa, whenever the word uhke is pronounced, it is more an exaltation of humanness than a declaration of property. And Paula Gunn Allen writes of the feminine landscape of ceremony:

“The earth is the source and the being of the people, and we are equally the being of the earth. The land is not really a place, separate from ourselves, where we act out the drama of our isolate destinies; the witchery makes us believe that false idea. The earth is not a mere source of survival, distant from the creatures it nurtures and from the spirit that breathes in us, nor is it to be considered an inert resource on which we draw in order to keep our ideological self functioning, whether we perceive that self in sociological or personal terms”. –Paula Gunn Allen, The Sacred Hoop (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), p.119.

American sculptor Gutzon Borglum carved busts of four presidents into a stolen cleft of Mount Rushmore, known to the Sioux as the ‘Six Grandfathers’. However, to Euro-American tourists, this gigantic bas-relief on the cliffs now became a symbol of their ‘democracy’. The Mount Rushmore National Memorial was finished in 1941.

This symbol of a new republic’s venture into and conquest of the wilderness is also in some ways an outcome of the American obsession with emulating Europe’s grand monuments to national achievements. America’s myth about itself had to be given a concrete form. This takeover is in line with the practice of conquerors throughout history of appropriating sacred or religious spaces such as synagogues, churches, and mosques to their own uses. Ironically, after the Second World War, a request was made by Chief Standing Bear to convert an entire mountain range into a single statue in-the-round of Chief Crazy Horse; this absurdity, with all its implications, is still in progress.

It is unfortunate that virgin territory, a place where physiography and spirituality can be completely interwoven, must so often be stamped with civilization’s egocentric trappings. To the Sioux, the Black Hills, specifically the Six Grandfathers, is where the voice of the wind, the formation of the clouds and the sight of eagles hovering are mnemonic signs that their grandfathers, the ancient ones, are still with them.

The mere fact that there is an aboriginal population today proves that the invasion of this hemisphere has not been a total success. This is especially true if one looks at the picture of the aboriginal world as painted from our perspective — one that has been etched into our psyche and into the land itself.

Perhaps there is an inherent contradiction in thinking that any ‘new’ art can be ‘indigenous’; but so are the current art polemics used in this essay to try and contextualize the ‘contemporary’ artists in this exhibition — both new, and indigenous at the same time. There is, of course, the inevitable observation that anything new means, in dictionary terms, ‘having never existed, occurred, appeared’ before. Undoubtedly this becomes quite problematic if that art is not based on a revolt against its visual heritage. The revolt by these artists is against their exclusion from Western art; it is like a palace insurrection whose artisans want to create narratives different from those surrounding the residing, foreign, queen.

Any rethinking of the history of modernism has to include the question of whether Western art now includes indigenous art, particularly the contemporary art in question. Another important question, perhaps more immediate, is whether postmodernism, to reiterate [Jimmie] Durham’s cynicism, is just another fiction intended to exclude and protect: ‘There is no Western culture, but a power structure that pretends to be Western culture.’

To understand their art one does not need anthropological / sociological insights, but one does need an openness — much like that of Jackson Pollock to Navajo sand painting, or that of Pablo Picasso to African sculpture — in order to appreciate the inherent sensibilities, laced with knowledge and perception, which have developed over several millennia right here on this continent. It is important to acknowledge the basic fact that the spiritual legacy of art from any one culture offers reassurance that the human species has some commonalities which are important to knowing who we are, where we are, and where we are going.

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