Acculturation in a Pre-Apocalyptic Age: Anne Mathern and Chad Wentzel at Crawl Space
Last spring, on a work trip to the Washington, D.C. International Print Fair, I found myself wandering around in the vicinity of the National Mall, killing time. As I turned a corner onto Independence Avenue, I was surprised and somewhat amused to see what appeared to be a cluster of teepees in my line of sight, situated on a lot directly adjacent to the unmistakable white dome of the U.S. Capitol building almost as if they were staring it down. The teepees, I discovered, were part of the new Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. I spent the rest of the morning being dazzled by the museum’s trance-inducing spiral architecture and a thoroughly inspiring exhibition on the various permutations of Native American cosmology. Unlike the static displays in the natural history museums that pepper my memories of childhood field trips, the SMAI does not focus solely on objects looted from decimated settlements or rely on the dispassionate descriptions of anthropologists telling other peoples’ stories in the past tense. Instead, guest curators from active Native communities all over the Americas have been invited to an international show-and-tell of sorts, where their experiences, rituals and perspectives are described through their own words and artifacts.
Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say this represents a decisive victory for Native Americans by any stretch. The original inhabitants of the western hemisphere were among the first of many casualties in an struggle for global dominance by what we have come to know as “America,” that loose but determined confederation of mostly Christians of mostly European stock, bound together by a few brief centuries of shared history and an unflagging belief that their own mass-produced way of life is so far superior to anything anyone else has ever dreamed up that they are morally obligated to forcibly impose it on the rest of the world. Here in liberal Seattle, many people don’t realize that the Duwamish, on whose tribal lands our fair city was built, are not even recognized as a legal entity by the federal government. And judging from the media’s current legitimization-through-complacency of xenophobia and racism in the form of inexcusably dirty campaigning by a presidential candidate in a national election, I cannot honestly suggest that we are even headed in the right direction as a society when it comes to admitting past wrongs, let alone seeking to make reparations.
Just don’t tell that to the kids. For the better part of a decade now, a crop of youthful, more-or-less underground artists and musicians in urban centers across America have increasingly used self-descriptors like “primitive,” “tribal” and “outsider” with varying degrees of sincerity to indicate that their work seeks, among other things, to identify positively with the marginalized “otherness” of those on the outskirts of so-called civilization. This generation has grown up watching the dominant culture show nothing but wanton disregard for its future, and so its memebers have spent their whole lives preparing for an immanent apocalypse, drawing inspiration from those groups outside our civilization that seem to have both the tools and cultural values we’ll need to weather such a thing. The lines between appropriation, homage, and authentic self-expression have been blurred a great deal, and not always for the better. There is a danger, of course, of the unintended consequence of further marginalization of the groups one seeks to identify with by the very act of one’s own superficial fetishizing of “otherness.” But at its best, the work driving this trend is interesting to me because it represents the first intimations of a viable and coherent counterculture since the wide-eyed optimism of the 1960s showed the first sad signs of becoming a caricature of itself. It won’t come easy, particularly because the longstanding dominant trend of bored, self-defeating irony still stands in opposition to a genuine self-expression, but in the end I think everyone stands to benefit from a meaningful renaissance of sincerity, ecologically informed spirituality, and a corresponding shift toward less narcissistic art.
Case in point: this weekend I attended the opening of This is the Worst Trip I’ve Ever Been On: Acculturation in a Pre-Apocalyptic Age, the current collaborative exhibition from Crawl Space members and best friends Anne Mathern and Chad Wentzel. I have been acquainted with both Chad and Anne for several years now and I think this exhibition represents a high point for both artists. The nucleus of the show is a body of artifacts related to a “quasi Vision Quest of solitary truth-seeking” undertaken by Wentzel in the Olympic Natural Forest and surreptitiously documented at a distance by Mathern. While the reference to a “Vision Quest”—a Native American ritual aimed at acquiring the guidance of spiritual forces in determining a life path for the individual—places Wentzel’s project within the overall trend I previously identified, the qualifier “quasi” suggests that the artist is not seeking to recreate the ritual per se, but is interested in occasioning some of the effects central to the ritual. The act is not necessarily one of appropriation, then, but of homage. The real “artwork” is the discovery of previously unknown information (which may or may not have taken place) and, assuming it did, the subsequent assimilation of this new knowledge into the life of the artist. This kind of personal transformation by its nature defies our ability to accurately record it, and so Mathern’s grainy photograph of her friend’s secret actions in the distant wilderness acts to simultaneously obscure the process while documenting it.
One of the show’s highlights is Mathern’s remake of a video in which Wentzel, dressed in nondescript white cotton duds, enacts a free-style rave dance. Mathern’s video consists of her own re-enactment of Wentzel’s dance. What originally emerged as a spontaneous expression of experiences from the artist’s past is transformed, by Mathern’s actions, into a meme: a cultural unit that can be learned, memorized, handed down and re-enacted in order to commemorate some original event in an earlier mythic moment. This is the base unit of culture, stripped down to a mere mechanism—and yet, as both artists are no doubt aware—there is something of both soul and substance lacking in the result. The piece, which gracefully navigates the overlapping territory between meaningful commentary and self-deprecating hipsterdom, manages to avoid being too much the latter through both the absence of any signifying articles beyond the dance itself and the seriousness with which it is undertaken.
This piece brings together some of the most salient features of both artist’s work. Back in August, Wentzel had a solo exhibition at Gallery 4 Culture which consisted of several wall-sized crocheted hemp doilies adorned with spinning feathers and silhouetted pot leaves in an exuberant display of neo-hippie craft. Anne Mathern, in last year’s ambitious exhibition-cum-performance spectacle Moses Lake at Lawrimore Project, explored notions of identity, ritual, and what she termed “cultural disconnect.” Many of the themes that both artists hinted at previously have come into full focus as the result of this collaboration.
For me, the most compelling object in the current exhibition is a photograph titled “Black” by Anne Mathern. I can’t stop thinking about it. The photograph depicts a beautiful but ostensibly feral woman, standing in the shelter of a massive, gnarly tree and gazing at the viewer with uncanny intensity. The model is a friend of the artist and the tree is located in a well-traveled public park, but the illusion is complete: this woman is the absolute embodiment of the wilderness, that dark and mysterious “other” that alternately terrorizes and seduces civilized men in their wildest blood-soaked dreams. Like the strategically positioned teepees along the National Mall, she is here simply to tell us that she is still here—even after all the broken treaties, all the demonized mother goddesses, all the wanton exploitation of natural resources—she is here, staring back at us with an unbreakable gaze that we are only now able to guess the meaning of:
I was here long before you were, Pilgrim. And I outlive you, every time!