Making Histories at Artspace

The stories we tell about what happened in the past are not what happened. They are just that: (her/his) stories, shaped by their narrators, replete with curated conscious and unconscious perceptions, biases, and agendas. Now in the 21st century our sense of temporality is collapsing, fragmenting, speeding up, slowing down, opening up new entry points of inquiry for artists to explore the labyrinths of memory. Objective notions of history itself as a field of knowledge are in question, yet human consciousness remains fundamentally time-based. To mark its 15th anniversary, H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute had time on its mind in curating an international exhibition of living artists who delve into the time stream of the last century, using the methodologies of the historian in their art practices, to mine the collective memory and make their own histories anew.

In the first of three galleries, “Making Histories” begins with three starkly cinematic quilts produced in 2006 by Anna Von Mertens. On a space black ground the artist has hand stitched the traces of stars in subtle colors of cotton thread as they might appear in a time-lapse photograph of the night sky, only these blurring star tracks document the appearance of the sky at pivotal intervals of time-space evinced by a descriptive title: 8am when the air raid alert was lifted, until 8:15am when the bomb was dropped, Aug. 6, 1945 Hiroshima, Japan (looking in the direction of Tinian Airbase in the West Pacific).  By situating us in the precise locality and duration of an event (also The Battle of the Bulge and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.), while directing our gaze away and above these traumatic human events, we are reminded that our celestial sphere continues spinning in a vast cosmic field that dwarfs our self-inflicted disruptions. Such reflections are aided by the contrasts of the darkened, horizontal images against the white walls of an appropriately vertical two-story gallery.

Leaving the suggested motion of the starry quilts we enter the adjacent cave-like gallery to encounter moving image works that interrogate, recover, reimagine or rewrite micro events within official macro histories of the 20th century. Ink History (2010) by Chen Shaoxiong animates his ink drawings of 150 historic news photos in a relentless chronological compression of key events in the modern history of the Chinese state. Set to a jarring soundtrack of a ticking clock, martial music and sound effects, we are bombarded with the furious pace of change in the combative century that saw the ascent of the Chinese Republic into a global superpower. Given current conditions of state censorship in China, the video raises compelling questions: how do we know history? How do we access it through images? Who makes it – the leaders or the people?  The traditional ink medium in motion paints a gray scale paradox of party propaganda, protest, purges, and progress that evades any possibility of black and white historical truth.

Mary Reid Kelley also subverts the documentary quality of black and white imagery in her poetic, poignant digital video You Make Me Iliad (2010). Kelley evokes the marginalized stories of muted participants of history left out of official versions; in this case, that of a highly literate female Belgian sex worker exploited by the German army during World War I. In cartoonish theatrical makeup she plays dual roles as the soldier and sex worker engaged in rhyming dialogue rife with punny word play and disturbing historical details of medical protocols imposed on women instrumentalized by war. Despite its playful approach, Kelley rescues and articulates a potent, underrepresented herstory from the dustbin of history.

“Ask for one thing and you’ll get two.” So the Albanian proverb plays out in Anri Sala’s video documentary Intervista – finding the words (1998) in which he discovers a 16mm film of his mother as a militant communist youth leader from twenty years before under the totalitarian rule of Enver Hoxha. Devoid of its soundtrack he surprises his mother with the film in order to unravel its mysteries. Her initial response is laughter, followed by head-shaking disbelief as though watching her self in dreamlike detachment. Through gentle, persistent inquiry, Sala jogs his mother’s memory while surreptitiously seeking out the services of deaf-mute lip readers to reconstruct his mother’s speech in the film. As her recovered words come back to haunt her, with the hindsight of a civil war that led to Albania’s democratic reforms, Sala’s mother gradually confronts her past in extreme close ups that reveal conflicting moments of revolutionary ideals turned to disappointment and renewed hope in the form of her son/interrogator.

Providing a welcome break from the moving image in an upstairs gallery, Hank Willis Thomas’s timely series I Am. Amen. (2009) takes its inspiration from a historic photo of striking Memphis sanitation workers in 1968. Using the attention getting aesthetic of picket sign graphics, Thomas riffs on their original iteration “I AM A MAN” to produce twenty variations (eight of which are on display) whose entangled social, economic, and spiritual meanings resonate with powerful linguistic prescience in the current climate of protest for racial justice. 

Two longer form moving image works round out this strenuous historical walkabout. Lene Berg’s humorously lo-fi Stalin by Picasso or Portrait of a Woman with Moustache (2008) cuts, pastes, and collages her personal narrative of a strange episode in which two 20th century heavies meet face to portrait in Berg’s colorfully reconstructed art historical space. Jeremy Deller adopts a more self-consciously documentary approach in The Battle of Orgreave (2001). The film brings to life the bitter 1984 coal miners strike under then UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher by tapping into the oral histories of its participants, archival material, and by staging a live reenactment of a violent encounter between police and strikers. The mix of techniques destabilizes any overriding historical narrative to foreground the many sided truths inevitably marked by time and memory. “Making Histories” gives us a visceral experience of how 21st century artists are uniquely positioned and equipped to enrich historical narratives, and thereby multiply their meanings, through the manipulation of time itself.



Making Histories is on view at H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute in Kansas City, MO until April 4th, 2015.

Published in partnership with Plug Projects.

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