Otherwise Obscured: Erasure in Body and Text
On ViewFranklin Street Works
September 21, 2019 – January 26, 2020
Otherwise Obscured: Erasure in Body and Text opens onto the sidewalk with a flag that might be mistaken for an “Open” sign. Emblazoned with the stripes of queer and trans liberation, with added brown and black for BIPOC folks, the flag reads “I am here because I refuse to be unhappy.” Fluttering gaily in the breeze, the piece by Phil America immediately conveys curator Danilo Machado’s interest in language as an instrument of both exclusion and documentation. The flag’s boldface text, broadcasting the words of actress and comedian Wanda Sykes, asserts queer existence and joy. The urgency of the statement alludes to the violent policies and acts that seek their erasure.
Machado has assembled a diverse roster of 20 artists for the exhibition at Franklin Street Works, further exploring the use of redacted text that Heather Bause and Raphael Rubenstein began in a 2018 show at Pierogi gallery which focused mostly on text as a formal element. Machado expands their conceit by considering which bodies, which voices, and which injustices are most frequently and most violently erased, focusing on the work of queer, undocumented, BIPOC, ESL, disabled, and/or women artists.
Poet, artist, and Finnish translator Niina Pollari’s Form N-400 Erasures (2017) redacts the application for US naturalization with permanent marker, excavating questions from bureaucratic demands. “Do you Have awful associations [?] Have you been in total terror [?] Yes No.” We can read this emergent text as cynical, as the American government reduces routes to both citizenship and asylum it seems impossible for the questions to be genuine. Implicit are the ways in which borders create and enforce violence, ie. asylum-seekers waiting for court hearings in makeshift camps on the Mexican side of the desert border without sanitary facilities, steady nourishment, or basic records of who comes and goes. There’s your awful associations and total terror, never mind what you may be running from in the first place.
Ana Mendieta’s videos play in a side room in the basement of FSW. They are the last work the viewer arrives at, but her burning effigy in Alma Silueta en Fuego (1975), scorching the decaying leaves on the cold Iowa winter ground, forms a fulcrum of the show. The effigy lays in a depression, invoking a shallow grave and the conservation of matter. All bodies return to the Earth system from where they came. Mendieta’s work is about memory. Do we recognize the violence? Do we recount it? The piece works well as an anchor for the show, but risks tokenization. It is easy to decry and mourn the tragedy of her death and the unjust silencing of a celebrated voice, a woman of color, an immigrant.
Jennif(f)er Tamayo’s commissioned soundwork echoes around the foyer of the gallery, but the artist’s truncated ahns and ahs, read from Carl Andre’s Sculpture as Place, don’t crystalize into Ana until you’ve seen Mendieta’s piece in the basement. There’s a powerful resonance between the two floors, as if Mendieta is speaking through Tamayo from beneath the ground her effigy burned itself into. There’s a feeling that Tamayo is helping to keep Mendieta alive, countering the work of patrilineal memory.
In the second part of the soundwork, Tamayo addresses the gap between actions that society recognizes as violent and the transgressions it fails to see. Her truncated sentences feel like muted responses to injustice. The artist’s multilayered voice announces, “because I wouldn’t be menstruating for another week I…because an inch of happiness and sore… because my friends wept and I could feel the rage in my body, a chain of suffering undeniable and unobscured.” Tamayo delivers these words of unknown origin in a whisper that is at once angry, urgent, and unsurprised, connecting each discrete moment affectively. Relating menstruation to that mere inch of happiness, to the weeping of friends and rage.
The primary agent of erasure of course is time—eroding memory and landscape alike. The most salient question in looking at human history is how long are people remembered for, and why are they forgotten? Oscar Muñoz’s video, Re/trato (2003), depicts the artist’s hand painting a portrait with water into hot concrete. His mark evaporates nearly as quickly as he paints, creating a sisyphean circle of re-working. Here is the endless work of representing the marginalized against the selective memory of history’s writers.
Otherwise Obscured is a rebuttal to white-focused history, working in the vein of canon-broadening curation while reminding the viewer that erasure happens at the level of museum boards of trustees, immigration policy, and disaster relief funding. In The Social History of Art (1951), Arnold Hauser bemoans the lack of surviving secular art from Europe’s Romanesque period. He believes many works once existed, but were lost without the church’s preservation, that is, without the help of the hegemony. This show points us to the same problem in contemporary art. It is not enough to hire BIPOC curators, feature marginalized voices in group shows, and give too-late retrospectives to overlooked artists. To break the aristocratic hold on art history, we need to fill the top levels of influence with people whose perspectives reflect the breadth and diversity of American experiences. Following the lead of organizations like Decolonize This Place, we need to agitate to open those spaces of power to the interests of the people.