Lindsey Dorr-Niro: This Land

Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing —
[This land was made for you and me.]

Woody Guthrie, This Land is Your Land


Lindsey Dorr-Niro’s This Land depicts an image the artist took of a backside of a billboard as part of a Bloomington’s Your Art Here series. Both comical and arresting, the billboard beckons passerby pedestrians and drivers to rethink the incursions billboards present within the American landscape. Dorr-Niro’s This Land draws its title from a line in Woody Guthrie’s song This Land is Your Land and uses the original lyrics as a conceptual center. Within Guthrie’s original Marxist alt-national anthem, he recalls encountering a private property sign along the road but at once negates the sentiment through interpreting the blank backside of the structure instead.

The recorded version of Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land including this verse, however, was lost until 1997 when a Smithsonian archivist was reviewing the original acetates for digitization, and thereafter the recording re-emerged to the public. The long gap in its release, and rediscovery, was undoubtedly due to the prevailing anti-socialist political climate in the US during 1940’s, 1950’s and thereafter. Nonetheless, and despite the lack of a recorded version of the song with the complete lyrics, the original song was sung throughout the US around campfires, and in progressive schools from the time it was written.

The installation of This Land first evokes the humor of Roy Lichtenstein’s Stretcher Frame with Crossbars series (1968) through its depiction of the support mechanism the painting as the picture itself, but also nods to 1960’s conceptualism in its insertion of the radically strange into everyday experience. Here, This Land falls on a continuum with the displacement works of Robert Smithson through its subtle interplay between place and of image, while also nodding to Pierre Huyghe’s billboards depicting images of a street corner above the corner they depict.

This Land, in conflating Guthrie’s redacted lyrics within the literal site of the everyday distribution of product and capitalism itself of the billboard, effectively detourns the site into a mediation upon the very capital, inequality and ownership issues that Guthrie decries within the original lyrics. It also sharply draws a divide between the activity of art making and the activity of advertising within a public arena, thereby asking viewers to consider the difference between nearly every other incident of billboards within the American landscape and this one.

In combination with Guthrie’s bleak yet hopeful interpretation of the back of a private property sign, Dorr-Niro’s This Land characterizes a country that has always already been divided, sold and privatized. The tension within This Land lies acutely in its resistance to merge with the everyday function of billboards, namely, that of the incursion of advertising and capital into the otherwise continuous visual field of the American landscape. This very resistance comes in the moment of pause it affords the viewer when confronted by the support structure that enables the distribution of advertising for goods within the so-called free market.

lrdn performance lecture

The opening of the exhibition included an experimental lecture by Dorr-Niro in front of the This Land. Wearing a “This Machine Kills Fascists” t-shirt, a slogan that Guthrie had long emblazoned on the body of his acoustic guitars, Dorr-Niro elaborated on the ubiquity of billboards within the visual space of the American landscape. Further acknowledging that this phenomena is permanently inscribed into American landscape, she asked viewers to see this This Land as a moment of freedom within vision, and as a place of potential to create new thought about our relationship to the built world of American capitalism and division. Ultimately, by establishing a narrative linkage between Guthrie’s questioning of American society, its citizen’s ownership of the place itself, and this particular image, Dorr-Niro asks viewers a similar question. Simply, what does it mean to take ownership of our experience within the 21st century American landscape?

Image courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Image courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Lindsey Dorr-Niro: This Land is currently on view by Your Art Here at 6th & Walnut in Bloomington, IN. 

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