This the second part of a report on the collaboration between Navajo artist Bert Benally and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei as part of TIME (Temporary Installations Made for the Environment), a program of New Mexico Arts. You can read part one here. In this case the performance on the night of June 28, 2014 was not the public part of the event. It was witnessed by a small group that included CFile Chief Editor Garth Clark. The public program includes an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (Santa Fe, July 16-October 15, 2014) of the 3D modeling digital landscape created by xRez Studio of Pull of the Moon, which shows a fly-over view of Coyote Canyon featuring Benally and Ai’s art installations. Also, there was a showing of a film produced by xRez (nothing to with reservations) in a 50-foot diameter dome screen at Museum Hill in Santa Fe on July 18th and the 19th. You can read the interview with Ai Weiwei and Garth Clark about the performance here.
Among the first of many transcendent moments during Ai Wewei and Bert Benally’s performance (June 28 2014, Coyote Canyon, Navajo Nation) Pull of the Moon was when the cliff edge on which I was seated seemed to lift and gently float forward. Seeing as I and several others of the 30 or so witnesses to the performance were seated a couple of feet from a sheer 40 to 50 foot drop, the feeling was initially disconcerting and I saw some, alarmed, scoot back from the edge.
Of course nothing actually moved. It was an optical illusion caused by the growing darkness that merged between the cliff top and the canyon floor. However, the sense of suspension, of floating while viewing Ai and Benally’s sand drawings below, never quite left me.
The sand drawings by the two artists were related, but were not an actual collaboration. Ai’s was a mandala of interlocking bicycles. It was drawn with crushed white porcelain from Ai’s studio (from recent work but not ancient shards) atop a circle of black sand found in another part of the canyon and trucked to the site. It was executed with perfect precision by Benally and staff of the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock and until the sunset faded the porcelain glowed as though it was neon. (To read about Ai’s thinking behind this piece read his interview with Garth Clark here.)
Benally’s drawing was simply gouged into the sand itself and then detailed with wood and sticks. He decided to include some points of connection to both Ai’s career and drawing. He viewed the symbolism of the interlocking bicycles (from Ai’s Forever series, named after the leading Chinese bike manufacturer) as the industrial machine that powered China with the energy coming from those who pedaled. And that caused him to wonder what machine represented his own people’s labor. He came up with something more benign, weaving and silversmithing, (the Navajo Nation has no manufacturing industry to speak of) and so patterns and symbols from those crafts were laid out inside the drawing with sticks.
A few minutes before the sun dropped below the Western rim of the Canyon, Benally began his performance. The moon was nearly dark, just a pencil-thin crescent of light showing. Away from any light pollution the setting was powerful; the velvet black bowl of sky shimmered with stars, the most dazzling display I have ever seen (even in my years in Africa). The night was still, virtually no breeze, and silent. As if on cue, insect, bird and animal noises abruptly turned off.
In the middle of Benally’s drawing was an enormous pot made of woven rushes from the canyon and plastered with clay. Symbolically, it stood as the container of all the depressing and erroneous stereotypes about the Navajo that Benally had encountered in his travels. Fire began rising out of this giant pot, slowly at first, just an interior glimmer and then it quickly flared, high to sky like a beacon burning with extraordinary intensity.
The pot soon began to sag and crater inwards and as it did two things happened. A metal sculpture of a corn stalk was revealed, standing for the true Navajo identity with, cleverly and subtly, the ears of corn made from coiled bicycle chains. Second, the fire now began to spread at ground level into the four quadrants of the drawing, heading toward a pyre at each compass point, which burst into flame. As flames traveled across the stick patterns, weaving and silver stamp marks came to life in the low-flickering firelight.
Given the drama of Benally’s performance (music was a part as well but I will speak about that in a moment) I worried about Ai’s drawing. Would it just lie there inert, motionless and passive? The fire took care of that. At the beginning when the flames were high, Ai’s drawing was pulled in by the light and became a witness- a voyeur almost- to what was happening alongside. Stylistically it was an alien counterpoint, so absolutely precise and mechanical adjoining Benally’s more organic expression, two worlds but one light.
As the pot burned down, the angle of light striking Ai’s drawing began to fade and then something remarkable and serendipitous happened. The porcelain sand used to draw the bicycles was in relief, about three inches higher than the ground. It was also shaped into a triangle, flat on each side and sharply peaking in the middle. It looked like a prism and responded to the fire.
At this point the drawing began to lose structure and cohesion as light came from different directions, flared and fell. Soon the drawing appeared to be warping, twisting. It lost its bicycle imagery. Indeed, toward the end what it most closely resembled was the randomly scattered remains of a giant skeleton. (I kept that observation to myself that night; the Navajo have an aversion to death and death symbols.)
The masterful music by Benally wrapped everything in sound. It covered everything like a blanket. The observers, the performance on the canyon floor, the canyon itself, and the sky were all gathered into an intimate embrace. The artist wove a soundscape drawn from different indigenous music sources across the world. It issued forth from the canyon wall opposite us and the acoustics were perfect. Every tremble, murmur and note was clear.
Often heavy on pulsing bass, the music moved through chant into feral sounds and melodic surges. The transitions were slow, carefully metered and blended so that one was never aware of a shift in sound until one was already into the next movement. One’s ear became the mediator between eye and mind and then the music ended, slowly fading in volume. I was left in absolute pregnant silence, floating on my rock in nature’s cathedral, breathless.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile. He is reporting from The Penland School of Crafts, high in the Appalachian Mountains, North Carolina until July 30 as the 2014 recipient of the Andrew Glasgow Writer in Residence Fellowship, an honor he is thrilled to receive.
Featured image: Ai Weiwei’s bicycle mandala lit by the fires of Bert Benally’s installation during the Pull of the Moon performance.
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