Beyond the Mirror: Indigenous Ecologies and ‘New Materialisms’ in Contemporary Art

Jessica L Horton & Janet Catherine Berlo

BEYOND THE MIRROR

Many Native North American artists working today do not accept the terms of ongoing negativity. Recent works by Durham, Rebecca Belmore, Will Wilson and Jolene Rickard share a concern with the liveli- ness of matter that can provide the grounds – at times quite literally – for looking beyond the mirror. While there is evidence of the indigenous phi- losophical precepts that inform the work, the artists locate their practices in an extensive and shared contemporary landscape that includes the space of exhibition, thus short-circuiting a romantic gaze that might locate indigenous art or bodies in nature somewhere else. Their works issue an invitation to a wider audience – including us, a pair of non-Native, English-speaking scholars writing this article – to seriously consider the relevance of indigenous intellectual traditions to the contem- porary global challenges of co-habitation.

Certainly, the four artists’ work dovetails with a wider trend in eco-art that TJ Demos describes as ‘comprehending ecology as a field of interlink- ing systems of biodiversity and technology, social practices and political structures’.15 But a systems approach to the environment can still support forms of anthropocentrism, so long as humans are treated as privileged arbiters of the future. In each of the four projects we discuss, artists grant environmental entities the agency to push back, to punish or reward human activity, to remind people of their precarious position in a relational world where allies are essential to flourishing, as the quotes that open this article emphasize. In lieu of an exhaustive account of these works, we focus on a single material agent in each project, tracing its complex forms of movement and affiliation into spaces of exhi- bition. Seeking to bind viewers into a shared fate with material friends and foes, the following works raise the possibility of an ethics premised on mutual recognition and shared livelihood.

In stone, a substance that is indigenous to every place on the globe, Durham has found a material ally to match the mobility of contemporary art and commerce.16 In Encore Tranquilite ́ (2009), the artist staged an encounter between a giant boulder and single engine aeroplane in an aban- doned airfield outside Berlin. In a widely published story, the antiquated ex- Soviet plane was deemed unsafe by European standards and was slated for sale in Africa, tying its fate to the ethical failures of the neocolonial market- place.17 The boulder came out on top, nearly splitting the plane in two. The implied buoyancy of substrate worked against European metaphors that link it to inertia: ‘stone dead’, ‘stone faced’, ‘stone cold’. While Franke reads Durham’s many works with stone as staging the disruptive force of Europe’s repressed ‘other’, we emphasize an equally affirmative strain: the lively rock acted as an unexpected ally in a tale of global injustice, a potential saviour of countless undervalued human lives that demanded acknowledgement for its intervention before the eyes of viewers. When stone and splintered plane were relocated to the foyer of the Muse ́e d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris for Durham’s 2009 retrospective, ‘Rejected Stones’, the materials indexed an encounter that took place in the past.18 Visitors could only scan the scene for clues: Did the stone fall from above or sail through the air? Was it local to Europe or a hit man from Africa? Was the plane it targeted in motion, empty, defunct? Here, material evinced not only liveliness and ethical orientation, but also the ability to know things, marking the limits of viewers’ capacities to control their sur- roundings. Durham lets stone tell its own part in the story.

While relating to Durham’s work does not necessarily depend upon recognizing indigenous influence, highlighting such connections across the intellectual boundaries we have described can certainly enhance an understanding of its philosophical and political dimensions. Personified stones are a well-established feature of indigenous landscapes across the Americas, appearing at travellers’ shrines, in sentient architecture, or as people temporarily stilled: Durham has written of Indian pilgrimages to the sanctuary of Chalma in Mexico, during which ‘those who give up or try to stop or turn back become stones’, awaiting new life via the decisive kick of a future pilgrim. In a famous 1960 essay that we quote in the epigraph, anthropologist A Irving Hallowell likewise recounts Anishi- nabe peoples’ understandings of stone as ‘other-than-human persons’ whose animate potential can be latent or active. Anishinabe language grasps stones in a state of becoming – a concept communicated word- lessly in Encore Tranquilite ́, where resting stone threatens to spring back into action.20 Durham (who is Cherokee, but widely intellectually engaged with transnational indigenous materialities) articulated a politi- cal role for animate stone under colonial conditions in a poem published in 1983, following his involvement in the American Indian Movement (AIM). ‘They Forgot that Their Prison is Made of Stone, and Stone is Our Ally’ was inspired by the incarceration of AIM leader Russell Means.21 In it the stones spoke ‘the language of the Sioux; what other language could a South Dakota stone speak?’.22 Conversing with the walls allowed the jailed man to forge sustaining networks of communi- cation and alliance, thus keeping objectification at bay. While Durham’s early poem described the stones’ address in English, his work since the late 1990s foregrounds a materialist language of collision and debris – one in which the agency of stones no longer needs linguistic translation to be ‘read’ by international visitors.23 If befriending stone could help humans shed their shackles in what Michel Foucault deemed the quintessential architecture for modern surveillance, the prison, then why not also in the neocolonial marketplace – and the modern museum?

Jessica L Horton & Janet Catherine Berlo (2013) Beyond the Mirror, Third Text, 27:1, 17-28, DOI: 10.1080/09528822.2013.753190

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