considering things in glass boxes

Last Autumn, the University of Alaska Museum of the North was chosen to be the Alaska recipient of the Vogel 50x50 exhibition, a project which doled out 50 works from Dorothy and Herb Vogel's extensive collection of small contemporary American artworks to one public museum in each of the 50 states. I'd first heard about the Vogels early in my artistic education, due to Herb's passing in my second year of undergrad. The Vogel Collection is legendary- after his death, Dorothy donated most of their collection to the Smithsonian, with the stipulation that the 50x50 project take place before the entire donation was added to the Institution's permanent collection.


The story of the Vogels aside, my fascination with the show at the Museum of the North extended past the works themselves, and eventually settled on the experience of viewing works of art, mostly smaller 2D works on paper, in a space typically occupied by cultural artifacts and natural history. The Museum of the North hosts both of these genres of items in the vast majority of its space. Interspersed among the taxidermied polar bears and the carefully preserved Athabascan beadwork might be found historic paintings, sketches from journals, illustrations by expedition crews or local Natives, but the large majority of the Museum's collection of fine art and handicrafts reside in one gallery on the upper level. Paintings, photographs and other 2D works in the Rose Berry Gallery are framed and hung like they might be at any other institution, historic and contemporary works side-by-side. In the Special Exhibitions gallery, where the Vogel show was hung, wall-sized glass cases built for 3D specimens and artifact display dominate the space. Both the physical and visual space created between work and viewer created by these glass cases surprised me- if we're being honest, I spent more time considering the space than I did the work housed within them. Having matriculated at a museum school for my undergraduate degree, I feel justified in saying that I have spent more time considering, dissecting, docent-ing and generally hanging out in museum galleries than the average Joe. In processing the Vogel show, I was prevented from interacting with the work in the way that I was used to, and in a way that made sense to me. Space constraints seemingly caused the exhibition to forego more traditional styles of presentation. I couldn't find an anchor piece with which to start- I bounced from one case to another, trying to settle on a work to lead me in to the rest of the collection. The glass between the work and I interrupted my gaze, my considerations, and my ultimate experience. Lately, as I begin to makes choices about the finishing and sequencing of my thesis exhibition next Spring, I keep returning to my experience digesting the Vogel show, and the museum/gallery experience as a whole. 

I left the book in my car overnight, and got too excited flipping to Clifford's essay the next day. I completely broke the spine of the book and now have to tape the book up to keep all the pages intact. Oops.

I left the book in my car overnight, and got too excited flipping to Clifford's essay the next day. I completely broke the spine of the book and now have to tape the book up to keep all the pages intact. Oops.

On my birthday this past December, my best friend and I spent some time perusing a secondhand bookstore in the city near our parents' homes. It was in this book store that I stumbled across Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, edited by Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine.  Especially when organizing a show of photographic work, size, placement, sequence, and finishing are vital topics to consider, and as I begin to plan these things in reference to my own final show, I thought the book would make for some topical light reading. I've only read one essay in the collection so far, but it was one of the best introductions to considerations of cultural museum display that I've encountered in my time as an art student. In "Four Northwest Coast Museums: Travel Reflections", James Clifford, noted anthropologist, compares and contrasts the handling of Northwest Coast historic and contemporary cultural objects and artworks, as handled by four separate cultural institutions in British Columbia. Although it wasn't specifically what I was looking for when I began to read, the points and issues Clifford addresses are vitally important for any student of museum studies, cultural preservation or indigenous issues.

In 42 pages, Clifford (who acknowledges his place as a white student of anthropology dissection the presentation of indigenous North American cultures in the first two pages, points for him) breaks down the minute differences between the handling of various Northwest Coast permanent collections by four British Columbia institutions: the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, the Royal British Columbia Museum, the Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Center, and the U'mista Cultural Centre. He spends much of the essay describing, in detail, the environments that these museums inhabit, why they were founded/what greater purpose they serve, how their collections are organized, arranged, catalogued and displayed, and what moving through the gallery spaces is like. Some dissection of these topics occurs in the first half of the essay, though most of the more critical and detailed investigation can be found in the latter half. One of the sections that I was most interested in involved thoughts on presentation and intention:

pg. 240

pg. 240

On page 240, Clifford is discussing the collections of the Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Center, and the U'mista Cultural Centre. The creation of these two institutions occurred when, in the latter half of the 20th century, the Canadian government returned a huge cache of cultural artifacts, confiscated in the 1920's during a raid on an "illegal" potlatch hosted by Dan Cranmer on Village Island. By the time the collection was returned to the community, the descendants claiming ownership of the items were split between two Kwagiulth communities- one in Cape Mudge Village (location of the  Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Center)  and the other in Alert Bay (location of the U'mista Cultural Centre). The U'mista Cultural Centre has foregone a more Western styles of presentation in favor of a more organic system- viewers enter the big-house style gallery and are presented with the objects in the order in which they would have appear at the potlatch ceremony. There is no glass, and the lighting is low. Rather than title cards naming materials and dimensions, elders and community members were invited to provide cultural and historic context for the pieces, their comments recorded on large white cards place in proximity to, but not attached to, the items they reference. The Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Center takes a more recognizable approach to the display and categorization of the items in its collection- arranged thematically, the spotlit glass cases could seem at home in any Smithsonian institution. Title cards include, under the description of the item, the name of the family or descendent who claims ownership. Arguably, the Kwagiulth Museum seems to serve a more Western sensibility, laid out and labeled in a way that is familiar and recognizable to the passing cultural tourist. The U'mista Centre, on the other hand, would appear more centered around the community. Does the U'mista Centre, due to it's display and organizational choices, then become a museum of the potlatch, rather than the overall cultural heritage of the area? Does the Kwagiulth Museum exist for the community, or because of it? Do the answers to any of these questions effect the importance, significance or truth of these spaces? Does it matter?

Really, it always matters. I had a really productive critique in my graduate seminar a few weeks ago, centered around my most recent public presentation of a few images from my work. Mostly, the consensus was that the choices I had made were not doing the images any favors- which was fair, and true. We spent time troubleshooting some of the particulars associated with the story that I'm trying to tell, and weighed a lot of options. It felt good. Intention, sequence, space, organization- in the grand scheme of Looking, these are the choices that have to matter as much as the actual making of the work matters.

meandering thoughts on parts of a whole

I've been doing a lot of thinking about identity and belonging lately.

(This may seem like a nebulous statement, but stay with me.)

I've been answering a lot of questions in the last month or so related to the work that I'm doing with other Pacific Islanders. Who counts or doesn't count and why, why I even wanted to do this work in the first place, what the work is going to look like in the long run. Some of these questions were easier to answer than others, and some of the questions I don't yet have an answer for. I'm glad the questions are happening, but some days they weigh heavier on my mind than others.

The Pacific Daily News published an article about a week ago titled "Who counts as being Chamorro?" and even just the title set my teeth on edge. The author ends the article (which posed more questions than it answered) noting that that question, "who counts?" is a "great way to start a family discussion- or a bar fight." 

Blood quantum has been used by and against People of Color for hundreds of years, although my knowledge is limited largely to it's uses in the US and the Pacific. The One-Drop rule, Tribal registration, schools for native youth, land ownership, college scholarships- for better or for worse, being counted counts for something. 

Even though I'm mixed, even though my Father is white, it was pointed out to me from a very young age that I had to be something else. I didn't understand the concept of passing for white until late in high school, but it was an idea projected on to me from early childhood. I couldn't ever have a "typical" white American experience because I didn't pass- and so have spent my entire life fielding questions about where I'm "really" from. If I'm feeling particularly tired of the question in a given moment, I'll continue to deadpan-respond with "Virginia" until the person gets frustrated and drops the issue. What they're really asking me/themselves is, "what kind of brown are you?" "Should I be uncomfortable with your presence in this space?" "Am I going to tolerate your answer?" "Should I value your existence less based on your answer?"

A while back, I got an anonymous message from someone asking about how to start exploring a newfound part of their heritage without being appropriative or insulting or stepping on toes. I didn't have a very clear answer for them, and so I said what I could and then posed the question to my larger Pacific community to see if someone else could verbalize the complicated thoughts I was having. In part, it was a difficult question for me to answer because it's a process that I'm still undergoing. Although I generally self-identify as a Pacific Islander, that's a pretty unclear statement. I am a person of Pacific Islander heritage, who was born and has lived their entire life on the Mainland. My experience as an Islander will always be different than the experiences of someone who has grown up in the Pacific, who has lived their life grounded in the place their family comes from. I don't speak, read or write Palauan. Unless I become a citizen of Palau, potentially forfeiting my US citizenship in the process, I can never own land there- not even the land that legally belongs to my mother, who has retained her Palauan citizenship for the entirety of her time living Stateside for the express purpose of land ownership. In the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, as far as I'm aware, you have to prove that you're at least 25% Chamorro or Carolinian in order to own land. Just like in Palau, these laws were passed initially to protect what was left of their islands from further annexation by the United States (among other reasons). It makes sense, and I'm not against the laws. But where does that leave me?

These are some- though certainly not all- of the roots with which I am grounding this body of work. Children of any diaspora straddle a thin line between worlds, and it is vital that they know they're not alone. I saw little to no representation of myself in film, music, television, books or politics. I didn't know what other people like me were out there doing, and so it was difficult to picture where I could fit in. I grew up fully alienated from both of the worlds that I was made from, and though my experiences were certainly not the worst of either world, that doesn't mean it wasn't difficult. I am finally at a point in my life where I am reaching out and connecting with the community that I have wanted to be a part of for my entire life, and I want other people like me to see that too.

ceci n'est pas une pipe: on the truth of portraiture

Portraiture is arguably the most immediately accessible genre of photography. It's easy to understand a portrait- a photo of a person, usually. A face- something recognizable, something familiar. It's easy to look a photograph of a person and imagine what their life may be like, based on what we can see. 

The images above are selections from Alec Soth's Sleeping By the Mississippi. The first time I completed a body of work based in portraiture, the first feedback that I received from a professor was "I'm so glad these images don't look like Alec Soth". That single comment has shaped both the way that I photograph portraits and how I perceive them for the last four years. 

Allow me to rewind, momentarily.

These are selections from work made by Edward Curtis in the early 1900's. Curtis has been viewed as the father of ethnographic portraiture for the better part of the last two centuries, but in my own experience, people in the last ten years finally seem to be copping on to his crap. Curtis' Pictorialist style- softer focus and manipulation of the print color or chemicals in order to elicit a somewhat dreamlike appearance- renders the ethnographic validity of these images immediately null. Pictorialism is often spoken about as the catalyst for photography's exaltation to the realm of fine art in the mid 1900's. Why, then, have Curtis' images, especially those of indigenous North Americans, been viewed for so long as true representations of the people depicted? The idea of manipulation, of both the image and the viewer's emotions, are literally part of the definition of Pictorialism. Curtis' portraits are socio-cultural propaganda at their most basic.

Principal among the commonalities between Curtis' and Soth's photo is the anonymity of their subjects. The generally accepted idea of portraiture is to reveal the identity of a person- and while these two photographers may do that in the most superficial way, we cannot truly identify anything about these people outside of their frames. Seth's images, though most of them include some environmental context, are the height of Anywhere, USA. There are things we can infer based on the settings of some of his subjects- this person is on a bed, that person is outside, the other person is probably in a church. But the only reason we have a more specific geographic clue about his locations is because he gives it to us. Without a title, Sleeping by the Mississippi would become Sleeping Literally Anywhere. And suddenly, this anonymous mish-mash of folks becomes the precedent for what people look like in that part of the world. Likewise, Curtis' images of regalia-ed Natives provide little to no cultural context of the clothing or adornment portrayed. His subjects are depicted often in either ceremonial regalia, traditional clothing with a specific purpose, or, as in the case above, what appears to be an entire bear skin. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of pretty much any of the thousands of Native groups in North America should know that none of these things are everyday wear. How did the war bonnet become synonymous with typical Native garb? Curtis.

I'm reminded of another "ethnographic" work of pseudo-non-fiction by our dear friend Robert Flaherty, titled Nanook of the North: A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic, produced in 1922. The silent "documentary" tells the story of an Canadian Inut man, Allakariallak ("Nanook"), of the Itivimuit, his wife Nyla and their child Cunayou. In reality, various accounts from individuals who knew Flaherty and Allakariallak have revealed that this woman and child were not Allakariallak's family at all, but instead Flaherty's. Flaherty encouraged Allakariallak to hunt in the "traditional" way of his people, instead of with the gun that Allakariallak would normally use. Flaherty in fact refused to capture any film in which evidence of European contact was apparent, instead staging scenes capturing what were basically re-enactments of pre-colonial life in the Canadian Arctic.

But I digress. 

The two most important bodies of work that I am currently involved in are, at their most basic, works of portraiture. Not only in the sense that I am making photos that are mostly of faces and people, but in the sense that both bodies as a whole are meant to represent something. Like Stieglitz's Georgia O'Keeffe, A Portrait, the images I'm producing aren't meant to be viewed one at a time. They're a progression of an experience- one, a portrait of a matriarch with a terminal condition. The other, a portrait of a community grasping to stay rooted in our heritage. Obviously, neither of these works are as simple as what I've tried to boil them down to here, but then neither are my feelings regarding the totalitarian nature of the idea of a portrait. To believe that we can know someone by viewing an image of them is naive. To believe that we can capture even part of an individual's personality in a still frame is naive. To make our life's work out of depicting the faces of the world and to say that those images are a representation of everyone else who looks like that person is naive (cough, Steve McCurry). Making portraits never appealed to me until I realized that all we have to do is recognize that images of people are not the same as the people themselves. Ceci n'est pas une pipe, right? The image is not the object but merely a screen of a representation of the object. I just finished re-reading Jaques Lacan for the third time in four years and he still doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but that part I understand. 

I want to see aspects of my identity represented in the world so badly- on magazine covers, in movies and television, and in the music industry. I want to see people who look like me, talk like me, have similar experiences to mine out in the world, existing and being recognized. That's the main impetus for both the work I'm doing on my mother and the world that I'm doing with other children of Pacific immigrants. But through both of these works, I have to keep reminding myself that what I'm making will never be the same as what those people are living. My images are not their identities, my photographs are not their experiences. An image of the object is not the object.