In recent days, we at ICTMN have looked back at the bests, worsts, and most importants of 2013. When it comes to art, we’re thinking the most daring and significant statement was made by Cannupa Hanska Luger, a man who created “Stereotypes,” a series of ceramic sculptures with a tacky, pseudo-Native theme, then destroyed them just to prove a point. He could have sold them, but doing so would have encouraged the very thing he was critiquing. Our Santa Fe-based arts expert Alex Jacobs previously brought us some commens from the artist about his project; here’s Jacobs’ report (with video) from the scene of the crime. The sculpture-cide went down at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Friday, December 6:
Cannupa Hanska Luger picked up each Stereotype, looked it over, held it to the audience as he explained its being and existence, a final call for words or thoughts — then he dropped each one, giving it to nature and the elements, mostly gravity. Each Stereotype shattered as it landed upon a large enough rock. People in the audience all gave some kind of sound to announce it’s passing from existence to debris, from icon to trash. A rushing of ohhs and ahhs, shudders of laughter, whoops and hollas and scattered applause. On top of each pedestal we are left with shards of high-fired clay and brightly colored debris, and behind each previous piece was drawn a ghostly outline on the white gallery walls.
One stubborn chief headdress did not go easy, the feathers remaining more or less intact on top of the debris pile — just as Cannupa Hanska said, these stereotypes are hard to kill. Plastic eye shields were handed out to people for protection, a large canvas covered the hardwood floors and that rock was in the middle. MoCNA staff and Luger associates dove in after each shattering to pick up the pieces and pile them back upon the pedestal they once proudly adorned with their mischievousness, arrogance and ignorance. It was a spectacle, it was a performance, and it was a release, a relief, a sudden rush of expectations and mixed emotions. Is it right, is it wrong, why does it feel good, why does it feel at all? Wow! Awesome! Right On! Sick!
The event exists in the ether now, enshrined in the air digitally, on video, on the net, replacing the empty space of each departed stereotype. Cameras and cell phones everywhere documented the event and the electricity in the air. A Native-language ambient soundtrack of mother’s scolding words and baby squeals played, representing Luger’s family, who seemed to watch from across the gallery, residing inside four clay pieces, disturbed by the stereotypes not by the actions. Someone commented how far that rock had come to be part of the performance, an organic being, carrying its own power becoming an instrument in the destruction of the stereotypes. From historical trauma to an act of decolonization to a spark of an idea, something to go forward with. Someone said it was alchemy, and kind of shamanistic that we as a group were led by an individual with a vision to partake in a ritual, actually believing for a moment that an act of destruction led to some kind of transformation. I actually do see it as one entity taking the place of the other. This is confirmed by electric images on video, in perpetuation. As Native Americans we have seen such transformations take place on our continent, usually to our detriment, that which is ours is no longer ours. So this letting go of the stereotype images into “the dustbin of history” felt like an empowering act, shared by all. Witness the cameras that have spread these new images around the world in seconds.
The value of the work came up in discussion, that the hours away from his family were the worst , a month and a half, 15-16 hours a day, his wife Ginger mostly force feeding him. Yet he said the pieces actually took, “Like, my whole life, really.” and “They were more valuable if they are destroyed”. Luger said he felt compelled by all this in the creation of the clay pieces, the energy, the meaning, the probable destruction in front of an audience, witnesses.
After the Destruction of Stereotypes I talked to Ryan Rice, head curator at MoCNA.
LXJ: How did you and MoCNA get involved with this exhibit?
RR: I invited Cannupa to submit a proposal based on the current work he was doing. He is a recent graduate from IAIA and I have been following his work over the past four years.
LXJ: Did you know Cannupa Hanska was going to destroy them at some point?
RR: The idea of the performance came about at the time we were installing his works prior to the opening of the exhibition in August. Since MoCNA hosts programs coinciding with our exhibitions and artists, we discussed the possibilities of public programs (workshops, artist talk etc….) and he stated his intention of destroying the stereotypes. This lead to the conversation to determine the performance.
LXJ: What are your thoughts on the destruction of the work?
RR: The integrity of the artist comes through with his actions. To eradicate the misconceptions Cannupa’s works exhibit, the actions he proposed seemed to be a powerful gesture and incredible statement. I wanted, as well as Cannupa, that the works be witnessed by the public in all of their states (given the exhibition is scheduled for four months) bringing to light questions of power, representation and the artists control/intent.
LXJ: What are your thoughts on the actual performance and the destruction?
RR: The performance was educational in many ways and allowed Cannupa’s voice to be publicly acknowledged. His actions of “letting go” framed the destruction in a rather poetic way, rather than one with rage and force. The symbolic gesture of smashing the system so to speak was compelling given the burden, which we as native people carry in the light of public/social conscious of Native America. It was a freeing event, rather ephemeral and striking.
LXJ: There was energy there, power, emotions, you say there was no anger…what about the audience reaction?
RR: Audiences love the exhibition because it provides a glimpse into an aesthetic (however racial) people understand or make sense of Native Americans. For them to see the craft/work of an artist, as such high caliber, put to task through his intentions to bring light to the subject, they gasped at first, but I think got into the “letting go” and are conscious of the damage misconceptions bring however familiar and acceptable they are.
LXJ: Do you feel this was successful event/performance/exhibit, and maybe what does successful mean in this context.
RR: The artist’s passion was highlighted and was truthful.
Alex Jacobs, Mohawk, is a visual artist and poet living in Santa Fe. He also provided the videos of Luger destroying his work: