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Walker Art Center Garden Project - Artist in Residence
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The text below was written shortly after my artist in residency at the Walker Art Center was completed in 2003, it is the original unedited writing. It was written nearly 20 years ago and there are many expressions, phrases and descriptions in it that make my older self cringe. It is tempting to edit the past, to smooth out the rough edges, clarify the unclear and update the language to reflect all that I have learned in the meantime. I will resist the impulse, because to do so would change the text from a record located in a historical moment in particular place into something else. What is important is what the text reveals about what I did in that time and place, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in 2003, warts and all. I sought to bring the voices of Native American young people into the garden, to give them visibility at a time and place where they had none. I tried to do it in a respectful and celebratory way and according to their wishes. One of the things I learned during that time is that we all want and need to be heard and to be seen and acknowledged.
Notes on Residency and Sculpture Project for Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden, 2003
In 2001 I was invited by the Walker Art Center to become an artist in residence with the goal of completing a public project in the museum’s sculpture garden. The chief requirement of my residency at the Walker was to work with a “community” in some way. I decided to try and do something with the Native American community. Below I will detail the factors that led to this decision and how they determined the outcome of the project. I completed two interrelated works under one title at the culmination of the residency:
Walker Art Center Garden Project with Audio Narrative, Ojibwe, Lakota and Dakota Truths and Myths from the Invisible Present, Past and Future-plus Retrocession Monument: Direction Through Indirection (Bronze Version)
66 1/2" high × 74" × 60"
Audio system with outdoor speakers, bronze, stainless steel
At the Walker the bronze tree stump, a reference to Robert Smithson’s upside down trees, becomes “site specific” to the degree that it refers to the political history of the site (the land it occupies), the history of the Walker Art Center and to historical and contemporary issues in the local Dakota and Ojibwe communities. TB Walker (the art center’s founder) was a lumber baron in Minnesota. He made his fortune harvesting timber from Indigenous land, much of it illegally from reservations.[^i1] The site of the present Walker sculpture garden is on what was once indigenous land where Dakota people hunted, trapped and lived seasonally.1
The decision to work with the Native American “community″ originated in my long time interest in the American Indian Movement (AIM). I knew that the founders of the group were from Minneapolis and that they were still active there. Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt (Ojibwe), Dennis Banks (Lakota) along with others started the group in the late 60’s in order to begin resisting the oppression of Native Americans, organize political power and generate social programs in education, health and self-defense.2 They started the first Native American charter school in Minneapolis in 1970, The Heart of the Earth School. It is still going today and was one of the participants in my Walker project.
Artist Hachavi Edgar Heap of Birds did a remarkable work through the Walker in the early nineties about 40 Dakota Sioux that were executed for their role in the very first Indian uprising against white settlers in Southern Minnesota (1862).3 The Dakota lived in Southern Minnesota with many bands in the area of present day Minneapolis (the Ojibwe were primarily in the Northern parts of the state). The Dakota were semi-nomadic, hunter/gatherers, moving with the seasons. When white settlers came in they forced the people into treaties giving up land in exchange for annuities and tiny reservations in which they were meant to start farming (something they had never done before). The US government sent the annuity payments of money and goods through the white merchants in the area. Needless to say the Dakota never got what they were owed. Finally after several years of this the people were starving to death. The uprising finally ignited in 1862, some settlements were attacked and whites were killed. This was the first Indian uprising in the continental US and marked the beginning of the “Indian Wars″. There are a multitude of monuments in southern Minnesota to the white dead. This led me to think about doing a “monument″ (or anti-monument) in the Walker Garden- a monument to the “others″ who lost the war that started almost in that very spot.4
This spirit of resistance and activism manifested itself again in the late nineties when the city was expanding the airport and building infrastructure including the building of a highway that would go straight thru an ancient Indian burial site. There was an encampment of protestors living on the site to try and block the destruction of the site for the road. The mayor and Governor summarily ordered the removal of the encampment. The camp was bulldozed early one morning and the activists brutally arrested. Shortly after the trees in the area were clear cut and the bulldozing and grading began.5 As I started my residency at the Walker this road was being completed, driving from the airport on my trips into the city I watched as the work was finished, ironically coinciding with the completion of my work in the Walker’s sculpture garden.
Another tree related issue that came up as I was working on the project was an environmental problem on the Cass Lake (Ojibwe) reservation. There is a factory that pressure treats wood with chemicals to make it rot resistant. They had been leaking the chemicals into the ground water for years, poisoning the reservation’s drinking water and leading to health problems for the band. These reports surfaced in the local news as I was working on the project.6
Having decided to work with the Native American community and to use the upside down tree in some way as part of the project I came up with the following solution. I would, in a sense split the project into two components that would be linked but could also function separately. I decided to do an audio project with any Native Americans who cared to work with me. This solution grew out of my previous experiences combining audio with sculpture. One of the goals of the Walker residency program was to give “voice″ to under-represented or marginalized communities through the artist’s intervention. I thought the idea of loudspeakers in the Garden making literal the “voices″ of the unheard had a certain amount of irony and perhaps function in a critical way in relation to the whole idea of community based production.7
So, after contacting some existing organizations, housing projects and schools we settled on working with two Native American charter schools, Heart of the Earth and Four Directions. I asked any students who were interested to contribute whatever they wanted to what would become an audio track playing continuously in the Walker Garden for two years. The audio is divided into three channels. It plays on three outdoor loudspeakers that are in proximity to the bronze upside down tree. There’s a huge variety of material, from rap to public service messages and political reporting, to stories and poetry. Whatever was of interest to them would be included, I wanted it to, in some sense reflect the diversity and variety of this community-to show that a community is not homogenous or even unified but is made of many individuals that are sometimes in conflict. The audio is not meant to be a representation of the Native American community, nor is meant to be necessarily authentic. It is a collaborative work with the group of individual participants. I attempted to make this clear in the two markers that serve as labels for the project. One label lists all the participants, their schools and information about the collaboration. The other marker provides information about the bronze sculpture.
The bronze tree, while serving to connect the Walker’s history and site to Native American history and culture through the above detailed examples also can be seen in relation to the history of public sculpture. The Walker sculpture garden contains a catalog of historical conventions in public sculpture. The modernist bronzes are thrown into relief by the more recent contemporary inclusions like Dan Graham’s pavilion and Joop Van Lieshout’s mobile computer lab. By troping Smithson’s upside down tree as symbolic of entropy and inversion I wanted to both invert Smithson’s original and invert the institutional expectations of me. The temporality of Smithson’s upside down tree is made permanent in traditional bronze and rather than producing a work indicative of the expanded field of sculpture, a traditional, possibly retrograde singular object has been rendered. The figurative bronze sculpture is a signifier of permanence and autonomy, within the medium of sculpture it can be understood to signal originality, authenticity and individual genius. In the case of this work I hoped that all of the internal and external referents as well as its relationship to the site would provide a context for the viewer to question the work as well as the history of the site. I sought to make a connection to the various highly traditional monuments to the settlers killed in the Dakota Uprising of 1862. These monuments are almost exclusively large stone obelisks, overtly signifying the ideological position of those that erected them. The upside down bronze tree hopefully offers a different set of signifiers and referents, a sort of inversion of the phallic monolith.
Sam Durant 6/11/04
In the Shadow of the City: A History of Loring Park Neighborhood, Steve Trimble, Minneapolis Community College Foundation, no date. ↩︎
See Like A Hurricane by Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior, New Press 1996 for a complete history of AIM. See also In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Peter Matthiessen, Penguin Books, New York 1980, about Leonard Peltier’s case within the history of AIM and larger historical context of Indian-white relations. See also Acts of Rebellion, Ward Churchill, Routledge, New York, 2003. ↩︎
See Heap of Birds website: http://www.heapofbirds.com/ for more information. ↩︎
See The Dakota War of 1862, Kenneth Carley, Minnesota Historical Society Press, Minneapolis, 1976. See also Through Dakota Eyes ed. Gary Anderson ad Alan Woolworth, Minnesota Historical Society 1988. Also my Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions, Washington D.C., Sam Durant, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 2005. ↩︎
See http://www.culturechange.org/issue15/i-55.html, for more information. ↩︎
See http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/200210/24_robertsont_superfund-m/, Minnesota Public Radio website for more information. ↩︎
One Place After Another, Miwon Kwon, MIT press, Cambridge, 2004. Her analysis of the problems of site specific and community based public art describes many of my experiences and problems working at the Walker. ↩︎