It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story. It is a story which otherwise has yet to be told and which no American is prepared to hear. As is the inevitable result of things unsaid, we find ourselves until today oppressed with dangerous and reverberating silence; and the story is told, compulsively, in symbols and signs, in hieroglyphics; it is revealed in Negro speech and in that of the white majority and in their different frames of reference. The ways in which the Negro has affected the American psychology are betrayed in our popular culture and in our morality; in our estrangement from him is the depth of our estrangement from ourselves. We cannot ask: what do we really feel about him - such a question merely opens the gates on chaos. What we really feel about him is involved with what we feel about everything, about everyone, about ourselves. The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. James Baldwin, 1951
Upside Down: Pastoral Scene came out of a need to engage the issue of race in American history and culture, particularly in music. Race is the barely repressed issue in southern rock music, it surfaced repeatedly as I researched and completed Proposal for Monument in Friendship Park, Jacksonville, FLA in 1999. Working in a somewhat similar way to Friendship Park –a focus on music and sound as a way to unpack cultural identity- I constructed a large field of elements with a sound track, in this case a field of inverted tree stumps. The upside down trees are vestiges of an earlier interest, the work and ideas of Robert Smithson, in particular his sculptures of trees flipped upside down and buried with the roots sticking up. Smithson’s upside down trees had specific meanings for him, philosophical and scientific, as entropic emblems. In Upside Down: Pastoral Scene the tree form takes on an added symbolic dimension, invoking the history of slavery and white supremacy. The Billie Holiday song Strange Fruit forms the central axis for the soundtrack and positions the tree as a site of unspeakable violence, the site of lynching. Further symbolic concepts and interconnections are brought out by particular musical choices. For instance the Sister Sledge song We Are Family introduces the theme of family and the idea of the family tree to the work with a nod to its producer Nile Rodgers, a former member of the Black Panther Party. Ranging across genres and historical moments, blues, gospel, hip hop, jazz, classical and funk compositions are montaged together to form a polyvalent and multi-axial narrative of U.S. history. The long shadows of tragedy, loss and pain continue to haunt and yet are periodically eclipsed by rebellion, joy and triumph.
The twelve inverted tree stumps are constructed using Hollywood prop making techniques. Each tree contains a loud speaker and is placed on a square mirror. The sound track is digitally controlled, sending sound to particular trees across the field creating graphical patterns, crosses, x’s, squares, circles and spirals as the shifting sonic landscape unfolds. Ideas of the family tree, the tree of knowledge, the symbolic significance of the parts of a tree; roots, trunk and branches are re-oriented as various compositions play out in the field of reflected trees. To echo the James Baldwin quote above, Upside Down: Pastoral Scene proposes that African American creativity, imagination and survival has historically produced and continues to produce American culture and identity itself.
Crossroad Blues Robert Johnson, Come Sunday (a cappella) Duke Ellington and His Orchestra featuring Mahalia Jackson, Dialectics for Two Grand Pianos Donal Fox, Strange Fruit Billie Holiday, Destroy Babylon Bad Brains, Outer Space Employment Agency Sun Ra and His Intergalactic Arkestra, Fear of a Black Planet Public Enemy, We Are Family Sister Sledge, Blues for Abraham Lincoln John Lee Hooker, Piss on Your Grave The Coup, Mississippi Goddam Nina Simone, Police State Dead Prez, Meditations on Integration Charles Mingus, Assassination Elaine Brown, America the Beautiful Leontyne Price, I Wanna Kill Sam Ice Cube, Ascension John Coltrane, Black Unity Pharaoh Sanders, Maggot Brain (intro) Funkadelic, Underground Curtis Mayfield, Wars of Armageddon Funkadelic, (Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Gonna Go (intro) Curtis Mayfield, Dancing in the Street Martha Reeves and the Vandellas