This episode takes place at SITE Santa Fe, New Mexico. We arrived just before the opening of the 2014 international biennial Unsettled Landscapes to record the voices of these five artists from across the Americas: Glenda León, Jason Middlebrook, Melanie Smith, Jamison Chas Banks, and Gianfranco Foschino.
Related to this episode: Our podcast with SITE’s Chief Curator Fresh Talk: Irene Hofmann
CATHY BYRD: This week, we’re at SITE Santa Fe, a contemporary art space in New Mexico. We’re here for the opening of Unsettled Landscapes, an international art biennial featuring work about landscape, territory, and trade. Today, our spotlight is on five participating artists from across the Americas. We’re recording this episode in The Railyard. The once blighted district was redeveloped over the past decade. Today, an active streetscape radiates from the train depot to shops, galleries, and cafés, a plaza, a park, and SITE Santa Fe. Just outside the entrance, Cuban artist Glenda León secretly attached her art to the trees. My job is to find the leaves that aren’t real. They’re going to be here when all the other leaves fall off these trees. These leaves will remain.
GLENDA LEÓN: It’s hard for me, too. Here, you have to…
CB: All right, I’m starting to see them. What is this project about, Glenda?
GL: For me, that’s a question between what is eternal and what is ephemeral. “What is life?” “What is death?” It’s also probably a sign for art. Art is something we create and we insert in the world already with this natural rhythm. As a creator, you have a compromise. This thing you add to the world, for me, should be positive because the world has already too much negative news, bad news, bad things happening. I think it’s mathematical. If you, as a creator, add something more into that area, you create more negative things. I think this project a good example for that. It’s very subtle. It’s just attached in the tree.
CB: After looking into Glenda’s trees, I follow a path toward the tracks and come upon a bright blue shipping container. The sign out front reads Your General Store. The artist behind the enterprise: Jason Middlebrook.
JASON MIDDLEBROOK: I had this idea about five years ago. There was an abandoned, old gas station at the end of my road up in upstate New York. I always wanted to have a barter general store, like an 1800s general store, or like a trading post. I always thought it’d be a great idea to take the money out of the equation because there’s always something you need that you don’t have, that you can’t find at Target or Home Depot, etcetera. I talked to Irene [Hofmann] about the idea of it being mobile, of it being in a shipping container. I pitched the idea to her. In the context of the show, it made a lot of sense because it dealt with landscape, border, barter, monetary issues, and non-monetary issues. SITE Santa Fe bought the container, and I transformed it up in the Hudson Valley. Then I got the idea that maybe I should include more art, and so I invited about 40 artists to participate. They sent in birdhouses, paintings, and little objects. The idea is that someone has to trade something for equal or similar value. At the end of the project, those artists that gave things will end up getting something back. The motto is, “Browse, Create, Barter.”
CB: Let’s describe some of the objects, besides birdhouses, that you have here.
JM: Well, here’s a pile of walking sticks. There are a lot offarm tools. Up on the little shelf over here are items from a place in Upstate New York called Camp Hill, which is really exciting because they make teas and soaps. This is to maybe trade with a local tea maker. This is one of my favorites. Just a bin of brushes. Everybody needs a brush. Trade a brush for a brush. Lots of wrenches, belt buckles…There’s all kinds of good stuff in here. This is Bill Stone’s birdhouse, which I love. Kelly Thompson, a painter. Then there are a lot of contributions by me. I made this mirror. I made this toilet paper holder.
CB: Which is fantastic, and it says here, “Toilet paper holder stump. Artist Jason Middlebrook. Trade for another funny toilet paper holder.” I’ll post that on the Internet and see what comes in.
JM: Yes! Let’s see what happens!
CB: You may not know this, but automaker Henry Ford once had a utopian vision to build a rubber plantation settlement deep in the Brazilian rainforest. Not far from Jason’s store, I sit down with Melanie Smith to talk about her fascination with Henry Ford’s failed dream.
MELANIE SMITH: I did a project in 2009/2010, about a place called Xilitla in the jungle of the San Luis Potosi. This English man called Edward James set up this kind of surrealist garden there. I kind of was on the track of finding these far off spaces. Then when I showed the Xilitla piece in Brazil, someone mentioned Fordlandia, and so that immediately struck a cord that there would be a parallel between these two men who had been doing these kind of endeavors. Then I started that investigation.
CB: Just hours before the official opening, I meet Jamison Chas Banks inside the main exhibition space. We’re looking into this small vitrine at a baseball and glove with a special signature. Tell me about the provenance of this ball.
JAMISON CHAS BANKS: Well, the ball is actually mine from childhood as a little league player. Then the signature of Napoleon is laser-etched onto the ball in the style of how a baseball player would sign the ball. This signature is the exact signature from the Louisiana Purchase, so that’s the significance of having it here.
CB: Let’s give our listeners that may not be American the history of this project.
JCB: What I’m talking about is the idea of exile because the selling of the Louisiana Purchase by Napoleon to the United States government instigated the opening up of that land for the eventual exile of the Cherokee and the Seneca- Cayuga people. I’m a part of those tribes. It kind of becomes a cause-and-effect story about the Louisiana Purchase as the cause. The exile of my people is the effect. But also, the selling of the Louisiana Purchase financed Napoleon’s final campaigns, which ended in defeat and his eventual exile, as well. I’m talking about these two parallel trails of exile that are instigated by the same event. Now, I further the discussion by talking about my own grandparents and how they were forced into government boarding schools. It was an indoctrination into Christian ideology and also a lesson into becoming European or European American. There were instances of optimism, and that’s what I’m touching on. One of the instances was sports. My grandfather learned how to play baseball at the boarding school. Then, once he was older, as an adult, he actually played baseball for a semi pro ball team. This was back when every small town in America had its own semi pro ball team. He was able to make a financial contribution to his family from baseball.
CB: This project that we’re seeing here represents a much broader body of work that will continue after Unsettled Landscapes.
JCB: It does. This is actually a mock up to a bigger project. These will become props for the film that I hope to make.
CB: A few steps away, I record this conversation with Chilean artist Gianfranco Foschino. I’m watching his video No Man’s Land on a wall-size projection behind a velvet curtain. Are there any people there at all?
GIANFRANCO FOSCHINO: No, no, never.
CB: That’s why No Man’s Land….
GF: Yeah, it’s really hard because of the weather and also because it’s completely isolated. There are no cities around. To get there in this boat was like three days of navigation. I love the idea to make a trip that also was made 200 years ago when appeared the first Europeans in this area with the same sensation, discovering the landscape. I never actually get to the islands. It’s just to move across them at a certain distance. You don’t really know what is inside this landscape. The mechanical sound of the boat makes the landscape contemporary. The image is really clean and shows this incredible landscape, but, at the same time, the sound of the machine reminds you of the drama of being there. I’m always really curious about what is out of frame, so I think here the intrigue is also these questions: “Where I’m going?” “What is coming next?” There is no answer.