Art That Moves

Art That Moves:

Images Courtesy of the Artists

The movement in Raven Chacon’s Still Life, #3 (2015) is more subtle. A multi-sensory exploration of belief and the understanding of the Diné creation story, this installation is rooted in our inception within a misty, undefined place followed by a journey through four distinct worlds, each defined by light and color. Retold for generations through the spoken word (although numerous anthropologists have tried to capture it in writing), the story is, at its core, one of continual movement by our Diné ancestors from one world to another. The concept of movement and story possessing a physical presence is embodied in Chacon’s use of sound. Using a row of analog speakers, he projects a female voice reciting excerpts of the Diné creation story in the Diné language. The voice palpably moves, traveling up and over the line of suspended speakers. Excerpts of the story, which alternate between Diné and English, are printed on translucent text panels that are positioned so the words appear to float through time and over the gallery walls. This visual effect is enhanced by the glowing light in the gallery, which slowly shifts through the four sacred colors – from white (dawn) to blue (midday) to yellow (dusk) to black/red (night) – casting shadows of the text onto the wall.

Storytelling is an essential component of tradition. It not only moves but changes with the teller and over time, though the essence of the story remains. This idea, that “stories are continually changing, yet they remain the same” – both a truism and paradox, as stated by curator Candice Hopkins – can be extended to the expression of storytelling within all types of technologically based art forms. In 3 (2011) by Stephen Foster, the story of the trickster figure Raven, prominent in the origin stories of the Haida and other nations in the Pacific Northwest, is told not with words but through shadow puppets cast on the walls of a two-person tent. In the story, the sun was hidden within a bentwood box until stolen by Raven and flung into the sky, bringing daylight to the people who had been living in darkness. As a witness to this narrative, you see the flashlight representing the sun and hear the subtle cawing of birds and sounds of nature; you are transported to another place and time. No words are written or spoken in this telling of the tale. Instead, you experience a child’s viewpoint of camping in the woods: the sounds of nature surround you while a parent or trusted elder tells you a story using the technology at hand. As co-curator David Garneau explains, “Though the tent and flashlight were bought in a store they are indigenized by the light play as a site of cultural transmission.”

Foster is not the only artist who engages nature through technology to tell a story. Julie Nagam has created an immersive 360-degree installation, Our future is in the land: if we listen to it (2017), which combines a sophisticated audio track of ambient forest sounds and voices of Indigenous storytellers with reductive line drawings of an arboreal landscape. This is not a static environment but is inhabited by animated forest creatures that appear periodically within the room. Aiming to draw attention to the destructive and complex relationship we have to the environment, she connects viewers to stories of the land through this experience. As she states, “Our survival and our continuation as a people are tied to Indigenous knowledge of the land and a return or an extension of these land-based practices is what will bring us into the future.”

Kathleen Ash-Milby (Navajo) is an associate curator at the National Museum of the American Indian – New York.