Power Plays of Currencies, Desires, Energies

June 24, 2014 · Print This Article

A string of questions: What is the discourse of power that we subscribe to? Is it constrained by capital or physical strength? Is it supernatural or material? Where is it located? Who participates? 

Further: What are the material conditions that underpin these power plays? The currencies, objects, commodities? How physically present are they? Or, how virtual are they?

In Atlanta, three recent shows and a dance performance provoked these questions concerning the dynamics of power structures. Varying in methods of representation and subversion, the works materialize the many ways in which power pervades the multiple facets of our lives: spiritual, physical, economic, electrical, corporate, digital. While each of these, the exhibitions and performance, taken on their own offer a perhaps more simplistic notion of power, limited to a particular variable (some more limited than others), taken together, these works can lead the viewer to consider the complexities of our contemporary globalized world’s power structures.

***

Let this be an argument for synthesis. Individual artists and works do not exist in a vacuum. They live in an assemblage which the artist, discourse, institution, and viewer create. In keeping with my experience attending the 9/50 Summit at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center which brought together arts organizations from around the southeast region, it seems important to address the issue of making connections. Of particular interest here are the ways in which the region determines the shows and the works within them. 

Something that seemed to sit beneath the words spoken at the panel “Does Regionalism Exist?” at the Summit was the acknowledgement of one’s power or lack thereof. I realize how redundant and out-of-date this may sound in its Foucauldian inclinations and hints of institutional critique. However, I can’t deny that the ways in which I saw these works as an assemblage prompted the question: What is the meta-discourse here? As both a practicing visual/performance artist and a writer, I am always attempting to make sense of what I’m looking at, why it’s been placed before me, or why I’m before it. Sometimes it seems like there is no rhyme or reason to it.

The institutions that house the exhibitions/performance I mention here run the gamut – from DIY resourcefulness to larger budget non-profit institution. Layers of authority and administration surround these works many times over — the specific histories, practices, and objects addressed as well as the sites in which they lived temporarily.

Currencies

Simone Leigh’s solo show Gone South at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center offers the most complex rendering of power relations, providing the viewer with an image of the materiality, social history, economics, and spirituality of the South.

In Leigh’s installation Cupboard, she directly references the Mississippi restaurant Mammy’s Cupboard which is featured in the 1941 Edward Weston photograph Mammy’s Cupboard, Natchez, Mississippi. Using steel as the armature, Leigh creates what would be the skirt that the viewer/restaurant-goer walks into. However, instead of taking a seat and ordering pancakes, the viewer confronts Leigh’s 2013 work Topsy Turvy, which here reads as female reproductive anatomy. Since this biology is made from symbols of currency (the cowrie shell), stepping inside the skirt provokes anxieties. In the installation’s juxtaposition of histories, economies, infrastructure, and architecture, Leigh makes apparent the complexities of labor that undergird our current structures of capital.

Simone Leigh. "Cupboard." 2014. with "Topsy Turvey." 2013. Courtesy ACAC.

Simone Leigh. “Cupboard.” 2014. with “Topsy Turvey.” 2013. Courtesy ACAC.

The video work my works, my dreams, must wait until after hell, made with Chitra Ganesh, seems to solidify this reading in its juxtaposition to Cupboard. We see a woman’s exposed back and then notice that her head is covered in stones. The back’s subtle movement shows she is breathing, but it seems only barely so. In contradistinction to the suspended cluster in Cupboard, the cluster of stones weighs the woman’s head to the ground, burying her.

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Across town at The Low Museum, a potted plant in a virtual corporate office makes its way into actual space. In one instance, the potted plant is blocked from view by window blinds. A Starbucks cup is turned over in a virtual church. In an interplay of the virtual and actual, the digital and IRL, Cara Mayuski’s Area Moments confronts the viewer with a cheeky corporate (i.e., anonymous) visual language. 

Commodities, if we’ve learned anything from Marx, have become virtual objects, divorced from the materials and labor that went into producing them. While Mayuski might not intend for this reading, (instead she focuses on the digital/IRL experience dichotomy), expanding the discussion of the virtual and actual makes for a compelling take on our everyday experience, with all of its social, political, and economic dimensions. She notes that in her research of spaces that have a “public or communal aspect to them,” she discovered that when she brought elements of these spaces together, they “created highly impersonal spaces that were culminations of mass produced and familiar elements.” [1]

Installation shot of Cara Mayuski's "Area Moments." From left to right: "Untitled (indoor plant II), "Origin," and "Untitled (pool screensaver). 2014. Courtesy The Low Museum.

Installation shot of Cara Mayuski’s “Area Moments.” From left to right: “Untitled (indoor plant II), “Origin,” and “Untitled (pool screensaver). 2014. Courtesy The Low Museum.

Desire’s Physicality

Using the overhead balcony walkway of the performance space, Erik Thurmond and Nicholas Goodly created a viewing experience reminiscent of a Roman gladiator spectacle in their new work Meh Meh; the audience watches from above, the dancers move in the pit. At first Thurmond and Goodly, the dancers, displayed feats of physical prowess, strength, and agility. During this time, the two of them circle the floor, make eye contact with the audience, and point up towards particular members of the audience. As a commentary on masculinity and desire, Meh Meh brings together physical competition and gay club cruising. Meh meh means kiss kiss. However, when Thurmond and Goodly say it, scream it, at each other, the affectionate tone drops out and a bellowing of “ME” takes its place.

Erik Thurmond (left) and Nicholas Goodley (right). Lighting by Kevin Byrd. Fiber art by Aubrey Longley-Cook. Audio by Ben Coleman. "Meh Meh." 2014. Photo by Aubrey Longley-Cook. Courtesy the artists.

Erik Thurmond (left) and Nicholas Goodly (right). Lighting by Kevin Byrd. Fiber art by Aubrey Longley-Cook. Audio by Ben Coleman. “Meh Meh.” 2014. Photo by Aubrey Longley-Cook. Courtesy the artists.

It seems important to mention where the piece premiered: the Druid Hills Baptist Church, a place that hosts the Pinch ’n’ Ouch Theatre, artist studios, and performances, notably that of Thurmond and Mary Grace Phillips. What are multiple levels of power plays here? Between the dancers? The dancers and the audience? Meh Meh and the church?

Meh Meh is a DIY and self-funded project that subverts many of the Atlanta arts funding institutions. It lies on the periphery of what is available to artists. Funny how this takes place in a church – the church standing in for one of the oldest economic and political institutions.

Electricity

For Rich Gere, he started with a flashlight. He said that during the Millennium Juried Art Show (The Art Market Gallery in Knoxville, TN), he realized that “if the lights go out, we’re going to need light.” The flashlight: what you turn to in an emergency, a beacon of hope perhaps.

Gere says that this is all about the “management of power,” something that he has previously noted in interviews. This is apparent in the lightbulb of the flashlight’s beacon turned warning signal in the 2012 works We the People – Ideologies: four joules and We the People – Ideologies: ten thousand watts. Each Installed in a corner of Kibbee Gallery’s side gallery for his show Power Failure, the sculptures project audio at each other. For We the People – Ideologies: ten thousand watts, the audio is sourced from tape recordings of JFK’s and RFK’s conversations with the Ross Barnett, then governor of Mississippi, during the James Meredith Standoff. Also included are recordings of LBJ in conversation with James Meredith. For We the People – Ideologies: four joules, the audio is sourced from a 1929 recording of Charley Patton, a Mississippi Delta blues musician who was oftentimes barred from recording studios because of his race. The recording featured in the sculpture was made in Wisconsin, a place usually easier for black musicians to access.

Rich Gere. "Ideologies: ten thousand watts." Part of "We the People." 2012. Courtesy the artist.

Rich Gere. “Ideologies: ten thousand watts.” Part of “We the People.” 2012. Courtesy the artist. For video documentation, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Elv7BSmIs2A.

While the gallery installation wasn’t particularly compelling, I find the gestures towards both optimism (the flashlight as symbol) and despair or regret (the historical fact of JFK/RFK/LBJ/Patton) to be important. Issues of access and economies of power are still critical to examine in our supposedly post-race country, something that Gere describes. [2]

Refusals and Competition 

I’d like to end with gestures of refusal: Two of the works in the Simone Leigh’s Gone South show make reference to Southern spiritual traditions while rendering their intended functions obsolete. Her sculpture Jug, made from lizella clay that is found and produced locally, references face jugs, whose American history originates in 19th century slavery, are meant to ward off evil spirits. Her sculptural installation Tree also makes reference to the warding off of spirits; the collection of glass bottles is reminiscent of the Southern, particularly Louisianian, practice of making bottle trees, another product of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The bottle tree captures evil spirits in the upside-down-hanging bottles, keeping living inhabitants safe. However, these works of Leigh’s do not perform the task they are meant to. Jug is not adorned with a face that will scare the spirit. Tree’s bottles and jars hang right-side-up; only upside-down bottles are successful at trapping what should be trapped.

Simone Leigh. "Tree." 2014. Courtesy ACAC.

Simone Leigh. Detail of “Tree.” 2014. Courtesy ACAC.

In terms of the constellation of sources and symbols in Gone South — the cowrie shell, which is made from molds of watermelons, the mammy skirt, the plantain in wedgewood blue, the face jug, the bottle tree — Leigh’s simultaneous use and abuse of these symbols yields a potent historical/cultural/post/colonial mélange. This interplay, one that also incited Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, forces us to pay attention to the intricacies of what we decide to use as visual markers.  

*** 

I have to admit that each of these shows needs more words. Each taken on their own would provide multiple other readings and engagements. In a self-conscious disclosure of power, what I claim here institutes a precarious authority. 

Though these shows don’t necessarily speak the same language or even share the same discourse, I find it intriguing that multiple shows within a brief span of time all examine some discourse of power that suggest underlying economies of desire and material resources. This may seem like a vague topic, and in a sense it really is. However, in an attempt to identify a guiding thread that might indicate some sort of collective unconscious, this is where I’ve arrived. Considering the limitations that constrain Atlantan artists and art institutions, a problem that is not atypical for artists and organizations in the US, it seems to me that these works make apparent the overarching economic, and therefore social, infrastructures which limit. Many artists in Atlanta are both energized by what appears as endless possibilities, yet frustrated by certain constraints, namely, I would say, competition amongst artists for a limited pool of resources; the “winner” is usually easy to predict and tends to stay the same.

Notes

[1] Email interview with Mayuski.

[2] Phone interview with Gere.

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