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Ahistoric Occasion Artists Making History

  • Archive, Archive Exhibitions, Exhibition

  • May 27, 2006 - April 22, 2007

At a time when the very idea of history seemed under siege — by governments grown forgetful, by media assaulting already shortened attention spans with ever tighter news cycles, and by historians themselves, provocatively re-interpreting long-held truths — artists exploited the material of history to shape and give new meaning to the present. Ahistoric Occasion: Artists Making History spotlighted the growing interest in historic reenactment and revision in contemporary art. The show included over 30 works ranging from video to sculpture to photography. Participating artists included Paul Chan, Jeremy Deller, Felix Gmelin, Kerry James Marshall, Trevor Paglen, Greta Pratt, Dario Robleto, Nebojsa Seric Shoba, Yinka Shonibare, and Allison Smith, plus a new site-specific commission by Peggy Diggs.

“Historic reenactment is an emerging art form being used by artists who are particularly fresh, smart, and exciting,” said curator Nato Thompson. “Jeremy Deller’s most important work, The Battle of Orgreave, is richly detailed and has rarely been seen. Yinka Shonibare’s monumental Un Ballo in Maschera stunningly graces MASS MoCA’s Tall Gallery. Kerry James Marshall has miraculously produced three new works for the exhibition. And we are pleased to have such strong work presented by emerging artists Allison Smith, Paul Chan, Greta Pratt, and Trevor Paglen. History has a real resonance today — witness the popularity of the History Channel and PBS programs such as Colonial House and Frontier House — and this group of artists has an eye-opening take on how the past produces the present.”

The artists of Ahistoric Occasion addressed the question, “What are the stories from the past that make us who we are?” Momentous events such as the Civil War, the Battle of Verdun, or the Cold War may stand out, but the artists in Ahistoric Occasion asked, “What exactly do they mean?” In crafted sculpture, mesmerizing video, and ornate textiles, these artists produced a non traditional look at history at the beginning of the 21st-century. They forced us to consider the legacy of the epic battles we think we know and the residue of hidden tales buried by time.

Historic Reenactment
In 2001, artist Jeremy Deller made The Battle of Orgreave, a recreation of a 1984 miners strike in Sheffield — a pivotal moment in British labor history. This civil battle was the culmination of a summer-long strike by 5,000 coal miners, and the reenactment was richly detailed with vintage 1984 costumes, choreographed battle plans, 800 cast extras (including 280 local residents who had participated in an earlier strike), 1,000 fake bricks for miners to throw, and stadium seating for spectators. The accompanying film shot by Mike Figgis (with support by Art Angel) brought an intense moment of local history to national attention. In addition to the film, Ahistoric Occasion included Memory Bucket by Deller from 2003 and a video and series of C-prints, as well as his History of the World (1997-2004) wall drawing.

Felix Gmelin grew up in Stockholm as the child of a filmmaker/critical theorist and a world-renowned violinist. His take on history is often personal, juxtaposing contemporary perspectives in dialogue with his own parents’ work. Gmelin contributed his provocative video, Farbtest, Die Rote Fahne II (Colortest: The Red Flag II) (2002), for example, consisting of found footage of Gmelin’s father on one screen, and Gmelin and his Swedish art students re-enacting the original footage on the other. In the original 1968 footage, Gmelin’s father runs with his comrades through the streets of Berlin grasping the red flag of communism. The reenactment feels like a pale, sad shadow of the first. The flag is devoid of meaning, the reenactment utterly lacking energy and conviction.

Sculpture as History
Dario Robleto’s meticulous reconstructions and samplings utilized the stuff of history as both medium and as a kind of material evidence. From pulverized human bone to gunpowder from a Civil War battle, the list of media in Robleto’s works is itself essential. Objects that existed in one state and for one purpose are transformed into new objects that rely in large part on associations with their prior existence for meaning and purpose. For example, his work Our Sin Was In Our Hips (2001-2002) brought to life a pair of hip bones cast from the pulverized physical remnants of his parents’ lives. The vulcanized LPs that made up the female pelvis bone come from Robleto’s mother’s collection of 45 records, while the male pelvis is fashioned from his father’s 33s. The hips were locked in a perpetual dance joined by music and bone. The exhibition included six of Robleto’s installations dating from 2000 to 2004 with materials ranging from bacteria cultured from the grooves of Negro prison songs and prison choir records to pulp made from a poem a WWI soldier wrote while recovering in the hospital, to dried and crushed chrysanthemum petals.

Yinka Shonibare’s Space Walk (2002) included a male and female astronaut floating outside a large satellite. Their clothes were covered in a dizzying array of African-American pop icons including Martin Luther King, Billie Holiday, and James Brown. Outer space might feel like a strange site to celebrate black identity, but Shonibare’s juxtaposition forced closer consideration. Both outer space and Africa have often been described in literature, travel guides, and fiction as final frontiers in humans’ pursuit of progress and adventure. His work seemed to bring the very idea of historical progress into question. Nine mannequins from Shonibare’s 2004 film Un Ballo in Maschera were installed alongside the film, as well as ten still photos from the film.

For the ten years prior to Ahistoric Occasion, Allison Smith conducted an investigation of the Civil War reenactment community, a group of living historians and play actors who re-stage the events of the Civil War period. Smith is interested in “trench art” — art made by soldiers from the materials of war. Her Victory Hall (2005) was a large wall work made from a constellation of over 100 wooden rifles, sabers, pistols, and side knives — all weapons employed during the Civil War – arranged in an ornamental pattern. The work at once suggested an arms exposition hall and a disarming array of large toys. Three additional works from 2005-2006, Notion Nanny, Public Address, and Camp Curtain were on display.

Photography and Videography Chronicle Diversity and Change
Greta Pratt’s individual and group photographic portraits of members of The Association of Lincoln Presenters revealed a subtle luminosity against a soft gray and green landscape — referencing both historical portrait painting and what Pratt calls “the vast American wilderness where the common man was able to build a new life.” Each Lincoln impersonator gained nuance as his image contrasted with the next. With each re-interpretation of Lincoln, the differences became more prominent than the similarities. Of the series, Pratt wrotes, “These photographs are a continuation of my quest to understand how I, and we, remember history. My hope is to comment on the way a society, composed of individuals, is held together through the creation of its history and heroic figures.”

Nebojsa Seric Shoba’s powerful photographic series of battlefields were tranquil, almost touching, documentations of historic battles, prisons, and atrocities. The traumatic story of these sites felt oddly delicate. The potential of the sites of such large-scale violence and destruction to sink quickly back into the earth and memory haunts the viewing of Shoba’s photographs. Eight of the photographs were included in the exhibition.

Then a Ph.D. student in geography at the University of California at Berkeley, Trevor Paglen described himself as an “experimental geographer,” positing that history is literally built onto, and into, the face of the earth. Employing geography to examine and expose land use, his work focused specifically on sites expressly removed from public visibility, including incarceration facilities and secret military bases. His Restricted Area (2006) comprised 12 photographs, four documents, four patches, and two coins.

Born in Hong Kong and raised in Nebraska, Paul Chan culled from literature, film history, political philosophy, religion, and current affairs to create lush video landscapes rich with iconographic detail and symbolic resonance as well as charcoal drawings, double-sided flash-animated video projections, and unabashedly leftist pamphlets. His video included in Ahistoric Occasion, Happiness (finally) after 35,000 years of civilization (2000-2003), blended the utopian visions of nineteenth-century philosopher Charles Fourier with the sexually sordid world of outsider artist Henry Darger. Chan’s new 2006 series of charcoal drawings titled On Democracy was also part of the exhibition.

Exhibition includes new work
Four works by Kerry James Marshall were in the show, including several new pieces exhibited for the first time as part of Ahistoric Occasion. Marshall’s work has been directly affected by his upbringing. As he has stated, “You can’t be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and not feel like you’ve got some kind of social responsibility. You can’t move to Watts (Los Angeles) in 1963 and grow up in South Central near the Black Panthers’ headquarters and see the kinds of things I saw in my development and not speak about it.” His projects are — among other things — open-ended investigations of the representations of black figures in the canon of Western art history. Works on display included his triptych Heirlooms and Accessories (2002), a new Black Painting, the framed comic strips titled Dailies (2006) from his Rhythm Mastr (2005-2006), and Sculpture (Untitled African Action Figure) (2006).

The exhibition also included a new commission, Peggy Diggs’ Here + Then (2006), a site-specific project. Working with North Adams community members, Diggs identified sites in North Adams with personal or public symbolic importance. Questioning community members about their personal relationships to specific sites, Diggs documented responses on notecards, which were then pinned to photographs of the sites displayed in a temporary shop/museum on Eagle Street in downtown North Adams. The shop was a social space where residents of North Adams could construct their own history, part of which was new.

Performing Arts Focuses on History
MASS MoCA’s performing arts summer season also focused attention on history with film, music, and theatrical offerings. On stage, Ben Katchor and Mark Mulcahy presented a pop musical called The Rosenbach Company which chronicled the life and times of Abe Rosenbach, the world’s preeminent rare book dealer, and his brother and business partner, Philip. The brothers’ collection included such literary treasures as James Joyce’s manuscript of Ulysses and the original illustrations for Alice in Wonderland; Katchor and Mulcahy used their story to explore the obsessive nature of collecting and the relationship between cultural and commercial pursuits.

Film offerings included Bill Frisell’s performance of live music for a series of historic short films including artist Bill Morrison’s hallucinatory reconstituting of The Mesmerist, a 1926 film being lost to the natural process of nitrate deterioration, and two Buster Keaton shorts. Other films with music included the Chaplin classic Tillie’s Punctured Romance with live music by Tillie’s Nightmare Ragtime Band and Blackmail with live music by Alloy Orchestra. For kids, The Deedle Deedle Dees performed their catchy songs about historical figures.

Yinka Shonibare, Un Ballo in Maschera (Courtiers)
photo: Laura Mueller