PLACES WITH A PAST
by Michael Brenson
New Site-Specific Art in Charleston Belongs to its Place and Time
Place: Charleston. In 1958 Gian Carlo Menotti founded the Spoleto Festival in the medieval Italian hill town of Spoleto. In 1977 he moved the festival to the no less picturesque and pedestrian-friendly but even more hospitable South Carolina port city. Charleston is inviting. It breathes history. The city seems easy. Part of its appeal, I think, is that it makes convulsive American histories seem both ever-present and manageable. Slavery, the Civil War, the Military Industrial Complex—within the beauty of this city, they can seem benign. Yet as Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett has written, Charleston is “a living environment of memory (milieu de mémoire), not just a site of memory (lieu de mémoire) as found in museums and monuments.” It was for the Spoleto Festival in Charleston that Mary Jane Jacob organized the exhibition Places with a Past.
Time: 1991. In the belly of the Culture Wars. In 1989, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the grainy television image of a young man with a bag of groceries blocking a tank in Tiananmen Square, the world changed. That year Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc” was trucked from downtown Manhattan in the dead of night and the National Endowment for the Arts was thrown into crisis by right-wing indignation over impudent photographs of naked men and children by Robert Mapplethorpe and the incendiary “Piss Christ” of Andres Serrano. Magicians of the Earth (1989) at the Centre Pompidou and The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the Eighties (1990), a joint undertaking by the New Museum, the Museum of Hispanic Contemporary Art, and the Studio Museum in Harlem, helped usher in a spate of multicultural, postcolonial identity-based exhibitions that raised enormous questions: Who defines “contemporary” and “quality”? Whose art is institutionally worthy? Which histories? What kinds of exhibitions could engage the suddenly incontestable connection between art and history? Could the art experience be transformed when curators worked on site with embedded and different, or other, histories?
I convinced the New York Times to send me to Charleston. On May 27, my review appeared, accompanied by my photograph of four of Antony Gormley’s lead figures, cast from his body, their heads seemingly jammed into a ceiling of Charleston’s defunct Old City Jail, which Gormley had haunted with an astonishing multiplicity of sculptural images. Menotti did not want this exhibition. On May 30 Allan Kozinn reported in the Times that “in an extraordinarily fiery statement, delivered to the board on Monday, Mr. Menotti attacked the show again, describing it as ‘nothing more than silly, sophomoric stunts, justified by even sillier explanations.’ When a member of the board quoted Michael Brenson’s favorable review of the exhibition in the New York Times on Monday as part of a resolution in support of the curator, Mary Jane Jacob, Mr. Menotti stormed out of the meeting.” Two years later, Menotti resigned from the Festival.
Jacob was inspired by the 1987 Skulptur Projekte Münster, for which curators Kaspar König and Klaus Bussman asked around 50 artists to respond to the old and new German city. She was particularly taken by the “Contrary Concert,” in which Rebecca Horn used knocking sounds and flickering light to animate an old prison and execution site that had been reactivated by the Gestapo. With 18 projects, Places with a Past was more intimate. Jacob worked closely with all 23 artists. Her exhibition was focused on buried histories. From its orientation center in the Gibbes Museum of Art, the exhibition spilled through the city. The United States Customs House: Narelle Jubelin. The Pump House: Barbara Steinman. The 1796 Middle-Pinckney House: Elizabeth Newman. The Emmanuel A.M.E. Church: Ronald Jones. The slave quarters of the Governor Thomas Bennett House: Lorna Simpson. The corner of America and Reid Streets: David Hammons.
The main genre was installation but most projects were environments. Many were inhabitable, and some were passages. They included photography, music, painting, archival documentation, and a cavalcade of other materials. The presence of the hand was overwhelming. By these artists and by many other people, across time, each project seemed to have been handled. To me the exhibition was above all sculptural. The artists seemed liberated. Working within a city, with access to the material depths of the American story, filled a need.
The past was not restaged but reanimated. Joyce Scott, whose mother was from South Carolina, positioned fallen trees, victims of 1989’s Hurricane Hugo, atop the four surviving columns in Canon Park. From chains below them, she dangled a single tree that evoked a charred body, thereby inserting in this most public place of respite and leisure a glaring image of a lynched figure. Wrapped around this tree were her mother’s shoes. In Mike’s Garage on a street named after Eliza Lucas Pinckney, who introduced indigo to Charleston in 1744, Ann Hamilton accumulated a tumulus of 48,000 worker’s pants and shirts, each one carefully folded and stacked. The garage door was open. Bathed in natural light, the mound of clothing emanated an immense blue glow. Behind the pile of clothes, hour after hour, day after day, regularly spitting on the eraser to keep it wet, a young woman erased history books.
Liz Magor directly addressed the issue of restaging. With her black and white photographs of Civil War re-enacters lining two walls of the Home for Mothers, Widows, and Daughters of Confederate Soldiers, she could seem to be endorsing the re-enactments through sympathetic affinity and by replicating the look of Civil War documentation. But Magor’s effort to empathize with fantasies of men re-enacting Civil War battles, including battlefield deaths, brought the Civil War into the present by revealing this national scourge as a continuing scene of identification and desire in which countless Americans long to play a heroic role.
Maybe what most enraged Menotti was the exhibition’s rejection of the authority of the frame. The projects were interdisciplinary before this became a buzzword. Each project was extensively researched years before “artistic research” became one more academic imperative. All the projects were slow. All were intensely respectful without being obedient. They were not benign. This place. These histories. Now! Memory as transformative act. Perhaps Places with a Past can be reinvented but it cannot be restaged.
MICHAEL BRENSON was an art critic for the New York Times from 1982 to 1991. He worked with Mary Jane Jacob on Culture in Action: A Public Art Program of Sculpture Chicago (1992) and Conversations at the Castle: Changing Audiences and Contemporary Art (1996). He teaches in M.F.A. programs at Bard College, the University of Pennsylvania, and the School of Visual Arts. He is writing a biography of David Smith.