Several years ago I was fortunate to interview the Pulitzer-prize winning author and artist N. Scott Momaday. His novel House Made of Dawn tells the story of Abel, a Native American who moves from reserve to urban life and back again following the Second World War. The Devils Tower, a monolithic intrusion of volcanic rock in the Black Hills of Wyoming, figures prominently in Momaday’s narrative. Tribes including the Arapaho, Crow, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Lakota, and Shoshone had cultural and geographical ties to the monolith before European and early American immigrants reached Wyoming. Their names for the monolith include Aloft on a Rock (Kiowa), Bear’s House (Cheyenne, Crow), Bear’s Lair (Cheyenne, Crow), Bear’s Lodge (Cheyenne, Lakota), Bear’s Lodge Butte (Lakota), Bear’s Tipi (Arapaho, Cheyenne), Tree Rock (Kiowa), and Grizzly Bear Lodge (Lakota).
The monolith is featured in Close Encounters: The Next 500 Hundred Years in a painting by Colleen Cutschall entitled The Androgynous Landscape. The Bear Lodge also featured prominently in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In that film the aliens’ massive mother ship famously hovers over the monument, a juxtaposition of the technological sublime with the natural sublime at the climax of the movie. The monument acted as a kind of indexical key to the point of contact as the film’s characters carved it in mashed potatoes, and other mediums, initially oblivious to the identity or location of this sub-conscious visual obsession.
I asked Momaday what he thought about the use of Devils Tower in the film. (In real life, the monolith, sacred as it is to several Plains tribes, has been contested as a site of recreational use by mountain climbers. As well, in 2005 a proposal to recognize several American Indian ties through the additional designation of Bear Lodge National Historic Landmark met with opposition, the argument being that a name change would harm the tourist trade and bring economic hardship to communities in the area.) Momaday’s response was that the Tower’s depiction in the film made perfect sense. (It seemed to me that he really enjoyed the film.) If we were going to be visited by aliens, he argued, this location was certainly a fitting, perhaps obvious, location. The Tower’s iconic status visually, spiritually, and historically accumulates signification, and it was as much this inter-textual association of references,
as the Hollywood film that spoke to the selection of our exhibition’s title. It remains a site of close encounters to this day.
One could argue that Spielberg’s film (and particularly the special effects work of Douglas Trumbull) operates in the tradition of nineteenth-century monumental American landscape paintings by the likes of Albert Bierstadt and Edwin Church by creating a rhetoric of the sublime, one that is both natural and technological.1
In a studio visit with Linus Woods, he described to us his use of “special effects” in his paintings. This is particularly appropriate considering the scale of his canvases in these newly commissioned works and his use of bold painterly experiments. This harks back again to the “special effects” unleashed by nineteenth-century landscape painters depicting twilight skies and volcanic eruptions that were the result of new technologies in cadmium-based pigment production.2
Kent Monkman explores the visual rhetoric of American landscape painting in his work, as seen in Close Encounters with The Collapsing of Time and Space in an Ever Expanding Universe (2011), an installation which features a Monkman landscape painting depicting a horseback-riding Miss Chief Eagle Testickle experiencing the splendors of the natural sublime. The installation also features a life-like sculptural mannequin of Eagle Testickle, this time ensconced in her Parisian apartment gazing at the painting amid the technological pleasures of twentieth-century life (Vuitton valises, a phonograph, and disco albums).
This back and forth in time, space, technology, nature, the ersatz, and the “real” accumulate throughout Close Encounters: The Next 500 Hundred Years, making the exhibition title particularly apropos, building an ever-expanding universe of inter-textual references, stories, and play.
The project was instigated by Carol Phillips, Executive Director of the Winnipeg Arts Council, who headed the Cultural Capital 2010 project, and first proposed the idea of a citywide Aboriginal visual arts exhibition as the cornerstone of the year’s programs. In turn, she approached me, and Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art, to conceive, develop, and implement the project based on this initial premise.
There are numerous people, partners, institutions, and funders who made this project not only possible, but an immense success. At the risk of omitting some of those deserving recognition, I feel that I must mention a few here by name, while further acknowledging any who may be unintentionally absent from this brief and imperfect list. Everyone’s contributions remain within our hearts and minds as valued and appreciated.
The staff of Winnipeg Arts Council and the ARTS FOR ALL Cultural Capital project facilitated and made everything possible. Thank you to Carol, Dominic Lloyd, and Alix Sobler in particular for your support. The curators of the exhibition—Lee-Ann, Candice, Jenny and Steve—brought such innovation, spirit, and fun to the project that I remain forever in awe of their bright enthusiasm and intelligence. The staff and board of Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art bravely undertook this exhibition, the largest in the Institute’s history, and as far as we know, the largest exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art ever undertaken anywhere, during the same period that we built and moved into a new custom-built arts facility in the heart of downtown Winnipeg. My sincere thanks and congratulations go out to everyone involved. Liz Barron, who managed the project with resilience and vision and the team that installed the exhibition in the late days of December 2010 through January 2011, including Aston Coles and Richard Dyck, were outstanding.
Our primary partners included Urban Shaman: Contemporary Aboriginal Art, and I wish to acknowledge Director Amber-Dawn Bear Robe for her engagement and enthusiasm. At the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Executive Director Stephen Borys and Curator of Contemporary Art Mary Reid were crucial to the project’s success and scope in the community.
All the participating partners made this project truly unprecedented in terms of the number and scope of Aboriginal programs occurring simultaneously in the city, and I believe set a new standard internationally.
The production of this publication was thanks to the work of several key contributors. Sébastien Aubin contributed not only a visionary design but a new original font(!) called Three Sisters to the book, as well as being responsible for the overall design of the project’s graphics and identity. Sherry Farrell Racette did a wonderful job of editing the publication and Lin Gibson put in countless hours with great professionalism. Curatorial Assistants Jaya Beange and Shoshanna Paul made sure that the project kept moving forward by minding countless details, both large and small, and Jaya contributed her meticulous proofreading skills as we readied the book for publication.
Several sponsors made great contributions to the project including the Department of Canadian Heritage, Winnipeg Arts Council, the Winnipeg Foundation, Manitoba Hydro and Creative New Zealand. Additionally, numerous lenders and galleries made the exhibition possible through the loan of artworks and cooperation.
Finally, and most importantly, on behalf of all the partners, curators, staff, and supporters I want to acknowledge and thank the thirty-three artists who presented work in the exhibition. It must be noted that through Close Encounters we were able to commission new works by twelve of the artists and exhibit them for the first time ever. Congratulations and our sincerest thanks to all the artists in the exhibition for your outstanding work!
A note about community: Throughout the year leading up to the project, we enjoyed visits by several of the artists who came to Winnipeg to plan the works for the exhibition, and often, to collaborate with partners and organizations. For example, Postcommodity spent several weeks as faculty for Plug In’s Summer Institute, working with numerous artists in the city on various projects. It is difficult to measure the impact of these kinds of interactions, but I know that they can be, and have been, life-changing in scope and impact, and are a crucial part of the research and creation of art, beyond what appears on gallery walls. Art is an essential and critical contributor to well-being and quality of life in our communities.
It is our hope that the importance and quality of the work undertaken in this project will live on through this handsome publication and that it inspires future artists, researchers, and art lovers over the next 500 years and beyond!