Merry Happy Everything! We are closed on Christmas and New Year’s Day, but otherwise open regular museum hours. Come on by!
This week, join us on December 27th from 2:30-3pm for an ArtBreak led by artist Claire Cowie. We look forward to hearing her insights into the common S E N S E. Learn more about Claire and her artistic practice in this video from our Northwest Artists series.
Today’s blog post is written by Lauren Gallow, an independent writer and editor living in Seattle.
Arrived at the Henry by bus at 1:45 p.m. Bumped head on handrail when exiting bus. It was rainy and grey. Everything was horrible.
Walked in and it was confusing. What do I do? Where do I go? Finally got it straightened.
Grabbed clipboard, book, ledger, pencils, and stool. Instructed on how to proceed: enter the gallery, find an animal that speaks to you, sit, and speak back to it. Read from the book as though you were reading a bedtime story to your animal. Soothing it, calming it. Transcribe any sections of the book that feel meaningful or memorable.
“These joined processes of reading and transcribing are an address to the animals,” Ann Hamilton says of this aspect of her exhibition the common S E N S E. “These animals are represented in images and materially present in the cultural artifacts on display.”
I found my animal. A tan, white, and black quilt of feathers woven into a beautiful tapestry. But it wasn’t fabric, it was a scan of a bird’s plumage. A real bird. A dead bird. And yet in death, the most beautiful. It was the first image I spotted when I entered the gallery for the first time last Saturday. I remember wanting it, wanting to rip the newssheet off and fold it neatly into my folder. They said I could take only one animal image. I want that one.
The ripping. It was quiet, yet uncomfortable. Soft, yet violent. A noise to fill the empty silence, but a noise that emphasized taking, breaking, and folding it up into your folder. To take. Why? But I wanted it so badly. So I took one. And another. And then another. The stacks of photocopied newsprint seemed infinite, they would never run out. So I took them.
But today, I merely sat with my animal. I did not take him.
I settled my stool close, but not too close. I examined him. The newsprint was ripped in one section, the bottom right corner hanging loosely from the edge, dangling like a broken arm.
I opened my book. I chose my birthday as the starting date, because that seemed as good a day as any. Immediately, I got nervous. Self-conscious. Who would hear me read? What did I sound like? What if I messed up?
Finally, I convinced myself none of that mattered. I looked at my bird, his feathers the softest, downy brown with a spattering of black dots and dashes. I looked back at my book. I began.
“December 20: Mist cleared in the afternoon and widening rings of sunlight rippled out. A heron flew to a tree beside the brook. His legs reached down with a slow pedaling movement, like a man descending through the trap-door of a loft and feeling for a ladder with his feet.”
Immediately, I was launched to another time and place. These log books, accounts of days spent in the field looking for birds, bird watching… they were just like my mom’s. I have piles upon piles of old journals filled not with the juicy details of my mother’s inner thoughts, nor the daily accounts of people in her life (i.e. me). Instead, they are filled with birds.
“January 10, 2002. Woodland Lake still frozen over. Saw an eagle + great blue heron + belted kingfisher. Must be hard to fish when there’s no open water. The lake’s been frozen since mid-December. Sure do miss the ducks.”
“January 2, 2005. Drove from TX all the way to Bosque del Apache and got to see a few (thousand) birds before the sun went down. Tons of snow geese and sandhill cranes. It always takes my breath away to see the sky turn white with all the geese coming and going.”
Sometimes, every once in a while, there is an incredibly salacious entry: one including a drawing of a bird. Filled with color and the record of her hands, her touch. She spent time in these books, filling them up with her favorite birds. And what is immediately apparent in these journals is how much she loved these birds. The care she pays them in her drawings, the devotion that pours out of her words.
Sitting in the gallery at the Henry, holding this book about birds, looking straight at a bird, both of the birds dead and once, twice removed. Absence being the most present thing. In that moment, all I could feel was my mother. Here I was, surrounded by her in the biggest way, yet missing her in the other biggest way. I can’t touch her. Her physical body is gone. And yet I feel her. All the time.
How do I reconcile that? How is that possible? It defies everything I’ve ever thought about my physical reality and my relationship to it. Feeling doesn’t necessitate touch. I always thought, “I touch something, and then I feel it.” That was how it worked. But what if it was possible to feel—feel a person or a human presence—without the touch?
I can’t deny that I’ve felt my mother in a handful of holy moments since her death. In a coincidence so beautiful and perfect I couldn’t even have made it up, the first time I felt my dead mother’s presence actually involved a bird. I was walking her dogs and I looked up to see a hawk watching me from the streetlamp above. The hawk and I kept eyes the whole time I walked under her. I looked back to see her watching me still. She was my mom. I knew it beyond a shadow of a doubt. I wept uncontrollably and had to sit on the street corner while the dogs paced around my feet.
Everything’s the same since my mom’s death, and yet, everything is different. Nothing has changed in my physical world, but my interior world has been flipped upside down. All the furniture in there has been dramatically rearranged. Chairs reupholstered, carpet replaced. Nothing is the same. And yet, everything is the same.
And when I read this excerpt from The Peregrine to my dead bird friend, that sort of made sense for the very first time.
“Mallard fly along the line of the wood towards the lake. Looking up at them through binoculars, I see for the first time a falcon peregrine circling very high, beating and gliding in the fading light. She stoops, dilates like the pupil of an eye as it passes from day’s brilliance into dusk. She is the size of a lark, then of a jay, now of a crow, now of a mallard. Mallard spray outwards and climb as she dives between them. She bends up through the sky again, curves under and up with the momentum of her stoop, crashes into a mallard, bursts it into a drift of feathers. Grappled together, they glide above the wood, then sweep down to the frosted ride. Mallard fly along the line of the wood towards the lake. Nothing has changed, though one is gone.”
Lauren Gallow is devoted to the practice of being excruciatingly vulnerable, which informs her work with her storytelling art project, Desert Jewels. You can read more of her personal essays at Desert Jewels and her art criticism at New American Paintings.
There are so many amazing conversations happening at the Henry this week — join us!
INCITE•INSIGHT lecture: Daniel Joseph Martinez
Thursday, Dec. 11, 7 – 9 PM
Daniel Joseph Martinez engages in an interrogation of social, political, and cultural mores through artworks that have been described as nonlinear, asymmetrical, multi-dimensional propositions.
This week’s blog post is written by Emily Schmierer, Exhibitions, Collections, and Programming Assistant at the Henry and 2014 UW Museology graduate.
If you’re familiar with the video and digital arts scene, you may have heard the hubbub around town over Steina and Woody Vasulka over the last few weeks. If you haven’t heard of these video art pioneers, you’ve at least seen the direct result of their pivotal work in the video art world. Since the early 1970s, their experimentation with video as art, foundational development of electronic imaging tools, and exploration between analog and digital processes have paved the way for new media and video art as we now know it today. Their contributions have impacted the evolution of the medium tremendously, namely creating an articulate electronic vocabulary of image-making. Their early work centered on using analog signal, a convention since replaced by digital code used widely today.
The pivotal works of Steina and Woody Vasulka have influenced the genre since the late 1960s. Steina (who goes by the singular moniker when producing her own work) trained as a classical musician before receiving a scholarship at the Prague Conservatory in 1959. Woody trained as an engineer, and studied television and film production at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. The couple relocated to New York City after meeting in the early 1960s, where their video works were shown in a first major exhibition of the medium, presented at the Whitney Museum in 1971. That same year, they founded The Kitchen, a nonprofit, multidisciplinary art and performance space.
Involved in the burgeoning underground video art scene, the Vasulkas began experimenting with video equipment, revealing the ability to isolate specific video elements, building what have been termed a syntax and visual vocabulary specific to electronic imaging. The Vasulkas began to question the widely accepted role of video to reproduce the function of the human eye, and approached the medium in various ways. In Steina’s words, “[Video] was the signal and the signal was unified. The audio could be video and the video could be audio.”[i]
Since 1980, the couple has been based in Santa Fe, NM and have received numerous awards and recognition, guest taught, and presented works internationally. After a 20-year hiatus, the Vasulkas’ work is once again being shown in Seattle. Organized by Robert Campbell, 4×3: Data, Flux & Strange Objects: Video Pioneers and New Media Explorers opened at Cornish College of the Arts in late October, and will bring the Vasulkas to Seattle this month.
In partnership with The Institute of Emergent Technology + Intermedia (iET+I) at Cornish College of the Arts, the Henry is hosting a conversation with the artists, moderated by Edward Shanken, art historian and Visiting Associate Professor in the UW Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media. This conversation, scheduled for December 13th, should shed some light on the Vasulkas’ paths, and passion for video art, but could also lead just about anywhere. Read any interview or biographical piece about this pair, and you’ll see that they are charming, surprising, and offer anecdotes and trains of thoughts that tangentially lead the conversation in fascinating directions.
We’ll also be screening three works: The Commission (Woody Vasulka, 1983), Voice Windows (Steina, 1986), and In the Land of the Elevator Girls (Steina and Woody Vasulka, 1989), on Friday, December 19th.
Today‘s blog is written by Elissa Favero, writer and art enthusiast.
“Beauty is vapour from the pit of death.”
For the last six weeks, I’ve been coming to the Henry every Wednesday to read from a book about a hawk season in the fenlands of eastern England. To describe J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine as only that, though, would be to diminish it. Baker’s small book is extraordinary for the fineness of his observation, exquisite for the way his language summons color, temperature, light, movement, and longing. It is made all the more beautiful for the death that haunts its narrative. I had seen praise for it but hadn’t yet read it. Ann Hamilton: the common S E N S E was my pretext.
I read Baker’s book out loud to images of specimens from the Burke Museum of Natural History, printed on humble newsprint and bolted to the walls of the North galleries in piles, or to garments made from feathers, fur, or guts and presented in glazed metal carriages in a double-height gallery downstairs. These arranged skins, both the images and the finery, are like Baker’s writing, beautiful. As it was for The Peregrine, death is part of their marrow.
“…[H]e hung motionless, tensing and flexing his swept-back wings, dark anchor mooring white cloud…The wind could not move him, the sun could not lift him. He was fixed and safe in a crevice of sky.”
Mostly, I’ve read in the upstairs galleries, with their gatherings of images suspended against white walls. There, my eyes adjust as light coming through the open skylights weakens and brightens. I hear the drone of the HVAC system, feel its draft, and pull a wool blanket–furnished especially for the exhibition–tighter about my lap. I read, each time, to an image at eye level. I like to feel the thin paper with my fingertips, to connect the trajectory of my voice to the reach of my hand. There isn’t a word of Baker’s that has struck me as false or misplaced, but sometimes I find a passage especially remarkable, and I copy it into a leather-bound notebook I share with other reader/scribes, repeating and slowing my delivery to match the pace of my hand. I’ve been thinking, as I do this, about parallels. The areas of each specimen that were touching the image scanner are in focus, while what was farther away is blurred. Likewise, passages that touch me make their way to the page verbatim, while the other parts of the text are obscured, lost. They linger only as clouds of spoken words, hanging in the air.
“The sky shredded up, was torn by whirling birds.”
The Henry invites museum-goers to take an image from the North galleries home with them. When someone pulls a sheet, the newsprint tears, breaking the hum of air and incantation. I feel a pang of loss. But I think, too, of the tearing sounds the birds in Baker’s book make as they fly and also of the tearing noise the tiercel makes as he pulls apart the bodies of his prey: woodpigeon, gull, lapwing, wigeon, partridge, fieldfare, moorhen, curlew, plover, duck. There are parallels here too, I think.
“Woodpigeons, gluttonous innocents, rise like grey breath from every frozen plough.”
My empathy shifts with what I address, though the images in the North galleries are unlabeled, and I guess at what I’m reading to. I give counsel through Baker’s words. To a predator, I provide as a model the mostly successful hunting behavior of the peregrines. “The short days of winter are lean, and you must eat,” I think. “Here, then, is how you stoop.” And to the woodpigeons and other prey: “This is how you avoid death.”
“I feel compelled to lie down in this numbing density of silence, to companion and comfort the dying…”
Rebecca Solnit writes in her recent book The Faraway Nearby, “A bestiary is buried in our language.” She refers to the great bear, Ursa Major, whose constellation gives name to the far north of the Arctic, to the Hog’s Head of the Cork-Kerry coast in Ireland, to the bashful human behavior we call sheepish, to the beelines we make in our directness, and to the things we crow about in our excitement. Our proximity to animals has fed our observations and fueled our imaginative language. “Language is humankind’s principal creation, a pale shadow of Creation, and one that needs to come back again and again to the nonhuman world to renew itself, to draw strength and color,” Solnit writes elsewhere.
But there is also a gulf that can never be bridged here. The images and objects I address, already long dead, will never understand Baker’s words or even interpret the rise and fall of my voice.
And so I read with no hope of response. But in my reading, I attend and attend to. I give account and am accountable for. These are the bounties and burdens I gain in exchange for my small sacrifice of time.
Elissa Favero has worked in education and public programs at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and at the Seattle Art Museum. You can read her essays about art, architecture, and landscape at Yellow Umbrella and geek out with her about local art and art happenings at Art Nerd Seattle.