by Jonathan Griffin

Site Santa Fe, New Mexico


Javier Tellez, To Have Done with the Judgment of God, 2016, digital film, 37 minutes

On the campus of the Santa Fe Indian School (SFIS), about a mile from SITE Santa Fe, one of Italian architect Paolo Soleri’s most important buildings is crumbling behind a chain-link fence, out of bounds to students and the public alike. The extraordinary cast-concrete Paolo Soleri Amphitheater was commissioned in 1964 by Lloyd Kiva New, the Cherokee cofounder of the Institute of American Indian Arts. New’s vision for the school was to use Native American heritage as the basis for contemporary artistic expression. Conservative Pueblo tribal leaders were skeptical of this approach, however, and in 1981 the All Indian Pueblo Council routed the school from its premises and replaced it with the more traditional SFIS, which had formerly occupied the campus and, after a complicated history (it was originally a government institution devoted to forced assimilation, for instance) and a dissolution, was being reformed under the leadership of the Pueblo tribes.

A wall-size photograph of the amphitheater welcomes visitors to the galleries of SITE Santa Fe, which has organized a biennial since it opened in 1995. “SITElines.2016: much wider than a line” is the second edition of a rebooted version of the biennial, which now exclusively focuses on art from the Americas rather than offering a more international purview. The photograph of the amphitheater serves as an ambiguous symbol of the contested stewardship of Indigenous culture. Although the structure was designed for Native American ceremonial performance, Soleri was also partly inspired by two-tier Elizabethan theaters. Many in the Native community would like to see the radical structure torn down, and since it is unprotected by local or state preservation orders, the Santa Fe Indian School is within its rights to do so. Progressive voices have so far managed to protect the structure, although it remains to be seen whether its renewed visibility as part of SITElines will affect its fate.

Five curators—Rocío Aranda-Alvarado, Kathleen Ash-Milby, Pip Day, Pablo León de la Barra, and Kiki Mazzucchelli—have wrangled thirty-five participants from seventeen countries into an exhibition whose stated mission is to represent a multiplicity of shared perspectives from throughout the Americas. Perhaps such an ambitious project never had a hope of being cohesive, but there is almost as much evidence here of incompatible positions as there is of points of convergence. The biennial’s subtitle is borrowed from Indigenous Canadian scholar Leanne Simpson, who, in her book Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back (2011), explains the porous nature of the borders of the lands inhabited by the Nishnaabeg people, around the Great Lakes, where their territory overlaps with that of their neighbors: “communication is required to jointly care-take this region, which is much wider than a line.”

What do the Americas, stretching from Inuit territories in the north to Tierra del Fuego in the south, really have in common with one another anyway? One binding concern noted by the curators is the negotiation of postcolonial identity and—as with Soleri’s amphitheater—the need for Native communities to adapt traditional concerns to contemporary global culture. Almost every work in the biennial relates to this idea in some way.

Paradoxically, some of the freshest works on view are historicalcontributions by senior artists. The best (and smallest) piece, for instance, is by Cildo Meireles and dates from 1969–70: Cruzeiro do Sul (The Southern Cross), a tiny cube of pine and oak, intended by the artist to point to the belittling of the expansive cosmogony of the Tupi people, in Brazil, by missionaries. Margaret Randall, a poet based in Albuquerque, published with the Mexican writer Sergio Mondragón the radical journal El Corno Emplumado/The Plumed Horn in the 1960s. Bringing together Beat poetry and experimental Mexican writing, Surrealist art and Indigenous voices, the bilingual journal combined international and regional perspectives. Reprinted pages from El Corno Emplumado, alongside some original issues, share a gallery with a presentation of Marta Minujín’s marvelous Comunicando con Tierra (Communicating with the Earth, 1976), in which the Argentinean artist combined samples of earth from Machu Picchu with those from across the Americas to make a human-size version of an ovenbird’s mud nest. Photographs and textual documentation of the project accompany a contemporary reconstruction of the hutlike structure, inside of which visitors can watch videos of 1970s performances by Minujín.

Throughout SITElines, there is a profusion of documentary film, video, and photography. Images like photographer Graciela Iturbide’s 1979 series depicting the Seri people in Mexico, or photojournalist Pierre Verger’s 1940s shots of practitioners of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé, function in the biennial primarily as historical and anthropological record. Javier Téllez’s 2016 video To Have Done with the Judgment of God, however, demands a more nuanced reading, as the artist knowingly builds on—and subverts—such precedents by implicitly acknowledging his own involvement in the situations he documents. Téllez retraces Antonin Artaud’s 1936 journey to the Sierra Tarahumara, in Mexico, to participate in a peyote ceremony of the Rarámuri people, who are indigenous to the area. He commissioned a local radio station to broadcast a Rarámuri translation of Artaud’s text about his experience; the video intercuts footage of the presenter in the studio with shots of Rarámuri people going about their daily lives while listening on their radios. The work is challenging and dense, ambiguous in its quotation of Artaud’s fetishistic project, but ultimately all the more stimulating for the questions it raises.

Other, more easily legible conceptual work is not well served here, in its proximity to the idiosyncratic visions of older figures and to the erudite contributions of artists like Téllez. Margarita Cabrera’s cacti sewn from United States Border Patrol uniforms, Benvenuto Chavajay’s clay guns, Aaron Dysart’s tree pretend-crashing through a wall, Juana Valdes’s gradated skin-toned porcelain rags: all seem rather glib—dated, even—in their handling of political or environmental content. In other exhibition contexts, however, this directness might feel urgent and effective.

Most generous are the exuberant sculptural installations that integrate traditional craft techniques with contemporary forms. Xenobia Bailey’s crocheted Sistah Paradise’s Revival Tent (1999–) brings a psychedelic African-American funk aesthetic to a feminized remake of an evangelical missionary tent. Jeffrey Gibson exhibits a magnificent robe bristling with metal jingles that allude to his Choctaw and Cherokee heritage; the garment was worn by the artist in a ritualistic performance, a video of which plays nearby.

Does all this sound to you like a demonstration of shared territory? Or a mishmash of styles, strategies, and intentions? In reality, one does not preclude the other. This edition of SITElines shows that while there are many ways to incorporate vernacular aesthetics into contemporary art, there are as many regional vernaculars as there are regional understandings of contemporaneity.

First published: Art in America, November 2016