June 25, 2015

Gift Horse

Hans Haacke’s sculpture for the Fourth Plinth, Gift Horse, installed in Trafalgar Square in March 2015 has been much on my mind. The prominent public location in London, the ribbon of stock prices scrolling in a bow around the skeletal horse’s neck, and the conversation Haacke had with Jon Bird at the Institute for Contemporary Art in March…artist as interlocutor of capitalism, toxic culture, animal relations, monuments. That horse’s skull is the stuff of nightmares.

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February 14, 2010

Images from College Art Association 2010

The College Art Association’s annual conference met this year in Chicago. Apparently there were 4000 registrants, but many were unable to get there because of bad weather. Suzanne Lacy was awarded the CAA Distinguished Artist Lifetime Achievement Award, Griselda Pollock received the Distinguished Feminist Award, Holland Cotter received the Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art, and Dawoud Bey was the convocation speaker. A terrific start to the conference, in my book. The conference ended with an all-day series of panels organized by the Feminist Art Project, open to the public.

Artists Heather Ault and Bonnie Fortune at Feminist Art Project, Chicago

Artists Heather Ault and Bonnie Fortune at Feminist Art Project, Chicago

Sharon Irish and Suzanne Lacy at Minnesota Press booth

Sharon Irish and Suzanne Lacy at Minnesota Press booth

January 1, 2010

The Cover Controversy

In September of 2009, the graphic designer at the University of Minnesota Press presented an idea for the cover of my book on Suzanne Lacy. Suzanne and I had both agreed that one image from her “Anatomy Lessons” series might be a good choice. The designer chose one that was a close-up of her in a pool, from the mid-70s, and then also flipped the image. I loved it, but Suzanne understandably had reservations. She objected to the manipulation of her work by placing it upside down as a double. She also (again rightly) felt that this one work was not representative of her entire oeuvre and that it was removed from the context of her lengthy visual consideration of violence against women. While I agreed with her on all counts, I also felt strongly that the cover worked powerfully and that its effectiveness made it worth the distortions. I am still not sure that I did the right thing pushing for this cover, but here is what I wrote several months ago, in support of the cover.

September 29, 2009

My relationship with Suzanne Lacy has been one of the most important of my life. (Did I say thank you?)One of the basic points of my book is that art exists in the relationships among people, who are anything but easy and straightforward. So this conversation is both “only about a cover” and about “everything” at once. Given the time crunch, the anxiety levels on all sides, and the importance of the issues, I think it helps to say that this is challenging work!

Here’s why I want to proceed with the current cover (beyond my own personal response of “I love it”):

This book is for an art audience. Using this work makes sense because it is beautiful and repulsive and not well known.Suzanne’s work is not merely pretty or gentle, and often edgy. This work is beautiful and repulsive, calm and alarming, and difficult, one reason why it is so powerful. Film historian Bruce Elder noted that Stan Brakhage [and Lacy in turn] set up a “tension between responding with horror at the images [in his film], and responding to the real beauty of the images (for they are astoundingly beautiful); that this is the character of the film’s central tension [and] suggests that beauty and horror lie close to one another, an idea that has long been a key to radical aspiration in the arts.” This is radical art. I don’t use “radical” lightly—by “radical art” I mean that art challenges glib assumptions and damaging values that have otherwise been normalized and are invisible.

By turning the image upside down, while it is not what Suzanne did, in a way brings out another aspect of the original: that floating can be like flying, disorienting, that bodies turn in water and air, that shadows in water alter forms. That bodies exist in space.

This is a work from early in Suzanne’s career—one of a series that is aesthetically very strong. On the cover, it provides a jumpstart to the beginning of the book. On the cover it supports the themes of the book: body, feminism, space.

I think this is an award-winning cover. If it won a design award, of course that wouldn’t hurt me or Suzanne that I can conceive of, but more importantly, I think it would be a small triumph for art of the seventies that was informed by feminism. Now of course it doesn’t represent all of that decade and certainly not all of Suzanne’s work. I don’t think there is one image that can do that, particularly because Suzanne has worked across scales, media and issues.

If feminism is a political position that analyzes power relations among people in order to foster social justice, how does this cover support that? I think it works more like a tactic than anything else. It is a beginning. People pick up the book to find out what that image is about, and look at the color plates in the middle. (Libraries will bind the book so the cover won’t show, so that eliminates some readers from this cover discussion.) They might even read some of the text!

Suzanne Lacy: Spaces Between

Book on artist Suzanne Lacy

Book on artist Suzanne Lacy

At long last, my book on Suzanne Lacy is coming out next month from the University of Minnesota Press. I will be tweaking my website over the next month to feature it more prominently, because this project was a very long haul and I am delighted to have it completed. I first corresponded with Suzanne in 1991 and worked with her a bit in Chicago in 1993. By 2000, I had made sufficient space in my life to start research on her work in earnest. From 2000 until 2008, then, I was immersed in archives, travel, article-writing, and generally trailing around after Suzanne, which was an intense, exhilarating endeavor.

I had long wanted to connect myself to someone whom I admired and learn their process from the inside. Because Suzanne is a most generous and amazing soul, I was able to be a participant-observer for a number of activities, as well as visit sites of many of her projects. I was able to fund Suzanne’s ten-day residency here in Urbana in 2001, and I visited her in Oakland and Los Angeles a lot.

Suzanne has just been awarded the Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement from the College Art Association and will come to Chicago to receive it in February 2010. Congratulations to her and many thanks to Jerri Allyn for spearheading the nomination process.

June 30, 2009

Art, Not Art?

Edgar Heap of Birds might be labeled a conceptual artist; unfortunately a lot of people find conceptualism off-putting because it doesn’t stress the visual and usually it isn’t conventionally beautiful. While that term doesn’t fully describe Heap of Birds’ whole practice, it still might be useful to provide people with a label for his signage. Art historian Alexander Alberro defined conceptual art broadly: “[T]he conceptual in art means an expanded critique of the cohesiveness and materiality of the art object, a growing wariness toward definitions of artistic practice as purely visual, a fusion of the work with its site and context of display, and an increased emphasis on the possibilities of publicness and distribution.”  Alberro’s definition helps connect Heap of Bird’s art to the importance of these larger art-world issues: He questions the art object, challenges the prioritization of the visual and explores the artwork in relation to site, distribution, and audience.

Artists have long worked at the edges of what was considered art, challenging accepted norms of beauty, materials, and craftsmanship. When an artwork is set outside of a gallery (the norm in most of the world and throughout many centuries), artists also question the location and audience for their artwork, just as they have often challenged gallery visitors to think about that context. Artists who have asked similar questions about the nature, material and location of art, whom people might be familiar with, include Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, and Pablo Picasso. Of course there are many less famous and more diverse artists who created wonderful art, but people often want to connect what they know to something new in order to validate it. We are pattern-seeking creatures, and we often convince ourselves of something’s worth by comparing it to something else accepted as valuable. Or we decide that something we don’t like or don’t understand is therefore worthless.

Facebook friends have been actively responding to the state’s attorney’s decision to charge a former UIUC student–who allegedly stole two of the “Beyond the Chief” signs–with a misdemeanor rather than a felony, because the SA decided that Mr. Heap of Bird’s work was worth only the materials it was made with, under $300, thus a misdemeanor rather than a felony. Smile Politely published an amusing response to that idea.

June 25, 2009

Yard Signs in Solidarity

In front of Native American House, U of Illinois, Urbana

In front of Native American House, U of Illinois, Urbana

Here’s the press release that a group of us wrote to accompany distribution of the yard signs created in solidarity with Edgar Heap of Birds’ art installation, “Beyond the Chief.”

Respect Native Hosts, a grassroots campaign in support of Native American artist’s public art installation

Student groups, local activists, and concerned citizens join today, Thursday, June 25, 2009, with the Native American House (1206 W. Nevada Street) and the American Indian Studies program (1204 W. Nevada St.) on the University of Illinois campus to confront racism with a creative and heartfelt response. The response takes the form of declarative yard signs that read: “Respect Native Hosts: Peoria, Kaskaskia, Wea, Piankesaw,” explicitly showing support for “Beyond the Chief,” a public art exhibit of twelve signs by the internationally exhibited Cheyenne-Arapaho artist, HOCK E AYE VI Edgar Heap of Birds.

“Beyond the Chief” was installed along West Nevada Street in Urbana in February 2009 and asks viewers to reflect on political and social histories of central Illinois, especially those related to indigenous peoples. Since their installation, there have been six separate incidents of vandalism followed by the theft of two of the signs, the latter resulting in the June 18 arrest of a recent University of Illinois graduate. Despite these egregious instances of violence directed toward the artwork, there has been little official response from University administrators.

With “Beyond the Chief,” Heap of Birds adapts his text-based artwork, at least in part, to respond directly to the local campus community and the ongoing conflict surrounding the use of the sports mascot “chief Illiniwek” that promoted University of Illinois intercollegiate athletics for 81 years. Though the “chief” was retired as an official mascot in 2007, music and graphics still appear at Illinois sporting events in an unofficial capacity. On each of the twelve “Beyond the Chief” signs, “Fighting Illini” is printed backwards above the words “Today Your Host Is…” followed by the name of an indigenous group such as the Peoria, Kaskaskia, or the Wea, to inspire reflection on those American Indian communities that formerly lived in this region and the complex histories of this landscape.

“One thing I have thought about the ‘Beyond the Chief’exhibit is that it marks in specific ways previously unmarked and unnamed removals, ” said Robert Warrior, Professor and Director of the Native American House and American Indian Studies, and curator of “Beyond the Chief.” “Perhaps the local signs can do the same sort of naming, remembering and respecting the Peoria, Piankesaw, Wea, and Kaskaskia specifically.” Responding to the continued defacement of the artwork, a group of Champaign-Urbana citizens came together to design a reproducible sign to extend the original message of the Heap of Birds artwork to the community at large.

The design for the “Respect Native Hosts” yard signs was created with the input of Warrior and the artist, Edgar Heap of Birds, who expressed appreciation for all efforts to counter negativity towards the exhibit. It is hoped that the yard signs will open up private spaces for public discussion, and quickly show that homes all over Champaign-Urbana are working to build a community based on inclusivity and justice. The “Respect Native Hosts” solidarity yard signs will be available for free at the Native American House until they are gone. Drop by the yard of Native American House (1206 W. Nevada Street)  between 10AM and 11AM and pick up yours today!

If you cannot make it and would like to obtain a sign to promote an anti-racist message in your own yard please contact Sharon Irish, via email.  If you would like to donate to the “Respect Native Hosts” project contact Sharon Irish as well. If we receive enough funds, we will print another run of the signs.


It was incredibly hot and humid, so we sweated together as we chatted in the shade. We spoke to two television cameras and a couple of reporters.

Two posts that used to hold the Ho-Chunk sign that was stolen

Two posts that used to hold the Ho-Chunk sign that was stolen

May 25, 2009

Memorial Day and Beyond the Chief

I have spent this rainy Memorial Day thinking more about responses to the vandalism of “Beyond the Chief,” by artist Edgar Heap of Birds. Because this art installation of twelve red and white signs is to honor and remember those tribes and peoples who have come before us, I wondered about parallels between the damage to these memorial signs and destruction of other markers of ancestral spots, like graves. In 1993, the Jewish cemetery in Billings, Montana, was desecrated. A film called “Not in Our Town” was made about the collective response to hateful acts in Billings, and then two more DVDs from The Working Group followed, on other towns that responded to hate crimes.

A useful, brief discussion–“Vandalism to Art at the University of Illinois Native American House”–among WILL-AM staff Celeste Quinn, Director of American Indian Studies Robert Warrior, and Mr. Heap of Birds is archived on the radio’s website. While this interview came up when I search the UIUC website, there has been no official post regarding the vandalism (that I know of.)

There’s a now-six-year-old article on Heap of Birds’ work at the Museum of the American Indian in New York City that Wilhelm Murg wrote in Indian Country Today. At that museum, which is in the former U.S. Custom House at Bowling Green, Heap of Birds displayed his “Diary of Trees” which included “large text drawings and full-scale maquettes (large Y-shaped forms used in his studio) for ‘Wheel,’ his 50-foot outdoor sculpture designed for the Denver Art Museum.” I have always thought that the Smithsonian’s acquisition of the old custom house for Native American art exhibits was at least a beginning step toward reclaiming Manhattan. The Daniel Chester French sculpture from 1907, one of the four “Continents” that still mark the entry to the building in lower Manhattan, is of its time in its depiction of white domination and Indian subordination. I have written and spoken about it elsewhere, but this image pretty much says it all:

D.C. French, "America" 1907

May 23, 2009

Art Reactions

I have been having useful conversations with friends and colleagues about “Beyond the Chief” by Edgar Heap of Birds. Here I have linked to Debbie Reese’s blog and her commentary on the art when it was first installed. Today artist Kevin Hamilton told me about this 35-minute documentary (2006), Fits and Starts: A Deer Diary, available on You Tube. It is about the vandalism of a life-sized, rhinestone-encrusted sculpture of a deer called “Fits and Starts” that was placed on the campus of Depauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, in 2005 by artist Marc Swanson. The work was so badly damaged in the two weeks that it was on display that it had to be removed. I was intrigued by the range of responses to the art and the subsequent vandalism, and found some of the reactions instructive for us at Illinois, in the wake of the numerous vandalisms of “Beyond the Chief.”

Administrators, faculty and students gathered at the site of the deer sculpture for speak-outs and represented a range of opinions. It was hard to tell in the film, but it also looked like there were large pieces of paper on the ground with written responses to the events. And two art students created a sculpture that they installed after the deer was removed, as a commentary on “what belongs on campus” and “what is art.”  The student collaboration was of a polo shirt that had been stiffened with the collar flipped up. That work was stolen within 24 hours!

Depauw’s response also included interviews by students of faculty and other students on the university television and radio stations, and a public forum that seemed to include the donors. The takeaway is that people were UPSET and felt that the vandalism reflected badly on the campus. Additionally, the controversy prompted extensive conversations in and out of class and postings on Facebook, which the faculty and students saw as a positive exchange of viewpoints.

Other ideas that have been shared with me in the past two days include implementing signage that has sensors embedded in it so that touch would trigger an alarm of some sort (this wouldn’t work if people continue to bring offerings); yard signs that would express solidarity with the artwork and its message; and protective cloth coverings for the signs, akin to Sarah Ross’s archisuits.

May 21, 2009

And What Else Beyond?

This morning I tied plastic-covered strips of paper to each of the signs in “Beyond the Chief,” an installation by Edgar Heap of Birds on the campus of the University of Illinois, in Urbana. The strips read:
On May 17, 2009, the artist Edgar Heap of Birds was quoted in The News-Gazette:
“[This is] really a memorial to the tribes that are gone….When natives make memorials to themselves or their losses that’s more important than a college mascot or other issue. Everything doesn’t have to be about the dominant white culture.”

Indeed, everything is not about the dominant white culture, but it is always a challenge to confront that dominance without simultaneously centering it. The most recent vandalism to “Beyond the Chief” (the sixth by my count, on May 20, apparently during the day) of course saddened and angered me, but I was also torn about an effective response. Would expressing outrage satisfy the vandal(s)? Could I respond creatively and respectfully to such acts of intolerance? (The vandalisms are acts of intolerance.) Are we inching forward, away from the toxic past of that mascot, toward a culture of respect? Or are we backsliding? Will it always be a push-and-pull between people’s hateful actions and words, and calls for conversation and dialogue? How to get past the irony that Mr. Heap of Birds’ art is property, with an assessed value, that comments on land that is stolen property, which wasn’t initially viewed as property, but rather as a gift to be held in sacred trust? Where do we begin to heal the many breaches of trust?

For a start, we must apologize to the artist and to the students, staff, faculty, and alumni who have worked so long and hard to make a (theoretically) safe space for indigeneities at UIUC because we have not been able to provide a safe space. Who is “we”? Ideally, “we” is the institution and its official subgroups, but I’ll say this now:
I am sorry. Out of that regret and sorrow, I will act with love, to the best of my ability.
Not a cursory sorry, not an unhelpful guilty sorry, but an apology that acknowledges from my heart that I share in and have benefited from a legacy of genocide, theft, greed, and hate in which John Iryshe, bastard son of an English mother, and all of his descendants from 1629 on, including me, participated, directly or indirectly.

I hold that sorrow together with joy, for my life, and for the variety of lives around me. I reach out from that joy as best I can. While I have long admired the work of Edgar Heap of Birds, I felt joy walking down Nevada Street to work everyday, before the vandals struck, and struck again, and again. For me, the public artwork of Heap of Birds goes to the center of vital issues, ideas that prompt questions and honor others. It is about respect.
And what else?

We must buy this work of art, to continue the implicit conversations among us, to continue to honor those who came before, whom we long dishonored.
And what else?

Retire the name “Fighting Illini.” Find a new mascot and new music for sporting events.
And what else?
Make this mission statement on the official “Illini” website real:
“To have the highest quality athletic program in all sports that allows the University of Illinois teams to compete for championships in the Big Ten Conference and the National Collegiate Athletic Association…with integrity and a caring community.”
See another post other for possible actions.

May 13, 2009

Reimagining Ourselves

The signs in Edgar Heap of Birds’ installation were vandalized for a fourth time on May 10, 2009. Someone wrote on one sign and two other signs were bent further.

I was reading Patricia J. Williams the other day: Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race (1997). She’s a lawyer and theorist who attended the recent Feminist Futures conference here at the University of Illinois. Here are the parts of her essay, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” that rang bells for me:

[T]he dilemma of the emperor’s new clothes, we might call it—is a tension faced by any society driven by bitter histories of imposed hierarchy.
…The ability to remain true to one self, it seems to me, must begin with the ethical project of considering how we can align a sense of ourselves with a sense of the world. This is the essence of integrity, is it not, never having to split into a well-maintained “front” and a closely guarded “inside.”
Creating community, in other words, involves this most difficult work of negotiating real divisions, of considering boundaries before we go crashing through, and of pondering our differences before we can ever agree on the terms of our sameness.
Perhaps one reason that conversations about race are so often doomed to frustration is that the notion of whiteness as “race” is almost never implicated. One of the more difficult legacies of slavery and of colonialism is the degree to which racism’s tenacious hold is manifested not merely in the divided demographics of neighborhood or education or class but also in the process of what media expert John Fiske called the “exnomination” of whiteness as racial identity. Whiteness is unnamed, suppressed, beyond the realm of race. …[T]he majoritarian privilege of never noticing themselves was the beginning of an imbalance from which so much, so much else flowed.
…[T]he creation of a sense of community is a lifelong negotiation of endless subtlety.
…[T]hose marked as Having Race are ground down by the pendular stresses of having to explain what it feels like to be You—why are you black, why are you black, why are you black, over and over again; or alternatively, placed in a kind of conversational quarantine of muteness in which any mention of racial circumstance reduces all sides to tears, fears, fisticuffs, and other paroxysms of unseemly anguish.
…I believe that racism’s hardy persistence and immense adaptability are sustained by a habit of human imagination, deflective rhetoric, and hidden license.

We must RE-imagine ourselves.