Director's Forword
Artists Take On Detroit - Projects for The Tricentennial

Artists Take on Detroit: Projects for the Tricentennial
October 19 – December 31, 2001

During a year in which hundreds of events have celebrated Detroit’s three-hundredth birthday, "Artists Take on Detroit: Projects for the Tricentennial" is both one of the last and most ambitious. Ten installations by fifteen artists show a side to life in the city that runs counter to many widespread attitudes toward Detroit. The choice of installation art to express these ideas is deliberate. The aesthetic power of this idiom comes from the direct participation of the viewer, who is encouraged not simply to observe the work of art but rather to enter into a real experience. These works are participatory even if the interaction is simply navigation through the space. Each implies a relationship between the physical location and aesthetic content, and its immediacy makes a direct connection to actual visual, historical, or social conditions. The projects challenge the viewer’s expectations about artistic materials and conventions and bridge traditional art boundaries.

Installation art at the Detroit Institute of Arts has had a long, if sporadic, history. In the mid-1970s, the "Works in Progress" series gave artists — primarily local ones such as Nancy Gordon and Jim Pallas — public spaces within the museum to transform. Installation work was deemphasized during the 1980s in favor of more traditional approaches to exhibition planning, but the concept picked up again in the mid-1990s with "Interventions" (1995), "Changing Spaces: Artists’ Projects from the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia" (1997), "Slim’s Bike" (1999), and "Bill Viola: Video Installations" (2000). Over the years, the museum-going audience in Detroit has thus had the opportunity to experience the transformative aesthetic that fuels installation art.

Conceived on a more ambitious scale, "Artists Take on Detroit" expands on the emphases of those earlier shows. Original plans for the show envisioned works located outside the museum building, even embedded in Detroit neighborhoods. As the exhibition evolved, the projects drew ever closer to the museum, many taking their cues from the relationship of the museum to the community, the visitor to the museum, or the artists to the museum. The DIA building as a site was integral to most of the projects, some even coopting gallery spaces and challenging traditional notions of gallery display. The exhibition flows from quiet to noisy spaces, interactive to contemplative galleries, social to intimate areas.

Viewers’ experience of the individual installations, however, leads inexorably to considerations of the way the installations work together as a whole and to thoughts about the complexity of life and ideas in Detroit. None of the projects deal directly with themes that might be considered stereotypically Detroit — jazz, cars, civil rights — but these issues are touched on obliquely in a number of places. Tyree Guyton’s Open House is clearly rooted in his ongoing Heidelberg Project, in which he transforms houses in a Detroit neighborhood. Here, he departs from it in some significant ways. For the first time, Guyton has built his own house, in square footage the size of a typical single family house but with a ground plan that is evocative of a church. The black skeleton of its walls and roof are covered with posters from past political campaigns, as well as dolls, shoes, pieces of cars, and memorabilia. A model of the White House, as a symbol of national unity, holds pride of place inside. Further enlivened by a sound track that combines history, patriotic rhetoric, music, and the sounds of an empty house, the experience is decidedly different from a visit to Heidelberg Street. Elegant and rickety at the same time, Open House is Guyton’s most overtly political statement to date, calling for compassion and brotherhood while highlighting divisions. Its very public location in Prentis Court insures that nearly every visitor to the museum will come face to face with this installation.

Strange Früt: Rock Apocrypha, by the Destroy All Monsters Collective (Cary Loren, Mike Kelley, and Jim Shaw), is in its own way political and physically inescapable. It is the only work not specifically created for this exhibition. Four huge banner-like paintings hang against the walls of the museum’s Great Hall; these feature local sites and landmarks, overlaid with portraits of early Detroit rock-and-roll musicians and local television personalities. An accompanying video runs continuously in the Prentis Court screening room some distance away. Its tongue-in-cheek critique of white suburbia in the 1960s and the Detroit rock scene — during the period when the Collective’s "noise" band was formed — is softened by its nostalgic appeal to the "baby boomer" generation of Detroiters.

Two projects aim to make local history both personal and universal. Petah Coyne’s Altar Mary, installed in the museum’s sixteenth-century French chapel, is a gentle but strong feminist statement. Inspired by the wave of Irish immigrants who came to Detroit at the end of the nineteenth century, this work conveys the power and majesty of the Catholic Church and its chilling influence on the lives of women. An abstract figure, described by the artist as a nun, seems to melt into the wax-dripped wall of the sculpture, surrounded by extinguished candles and frozen flowers. The silk draping over the pedestal suggests a wedding gown, a signifier of an event long considered the most important of a woman’s life. For working class Irish girls of the 1800s, entry into marriage or the convent (marriage as the "bride of Christ") is the defining, triumphal moment of their lives. Quiet, sweet sadness underlies the exquisite beauty of this installation.

Similarly, Joseph Wesner’s Voyageurs looks back to an earlier time and suggests that it is not so far removed from contemporary life. In a darkened room, two large screens fill the back wall and floor with video projections of rowing a boat. The rhythmic movement and regular plash of the oars is hypnotic; one feels one’s own body moving and breathing in unison with the sound. Neither the boat nor the body of the rower is made explicit; the sound and image of the water and the oar have an abstract elegance. Considering the river as a means of passage, as the defining and enduring feature of the city’s topography, and as a border of the United States, this work is rich with associations. The experience of the voyageurs, early explorers who navigated the Detroit River by canoe, still has relevance for those who use their physical power to row on the river.

The river is one unifying thread of this exhibition, tying together Wesner’s elegant space with at least two others. Blackout, by Mike Kelley, takes its name from the frieze of photographs that lines two walls of the installation space. These images were originally conceived as a panoramic view of the banks of the Detroit River, but due to a camera malfunction, they are almost completely black. The edges of each print only hint at the original view. The photographs are a partial backdrop to a giant sculpture of astronaut John Glenn, surrounded by low tables, which like the sculpture, are covered in mosaic. The mosaic pieces are cast-off bits of objects such broken bottles and cracked dishes that Kelley salvaged from one of the islands in the river; the sculpture is a recreation of the commemorative statue of John Glenn in Kelley’s school, John Glenn High School in Westland, Michigan. The sophistication of the photographic images is in sharp contrast to the folk-art quality of the mosaic work. This recurring counterpoint between "high" and "low" art is underscored by photographed stories from the archives of the Wayne/Westland Eagle, a neighborhood newspaper, which show the absurdity, and often, the elegance of everyday life.

Relics, by Scott Hocking and Clinton Snider, updates the tradition of assemblage so characteristic of art in Detroit. The installation’s primary feature is a grid of hundreds of two-foot square boxes, each containing a piece of cast-off machinery, a portion of a decayed wall, or some other formally interesting but no longer useful object. The boxes are placed seemingly at random but the installation as a whole has a strong internal visual logic. It overwhelms the viewer with sheer numbers and variations. This twenty-first century version of a Wunderkammer puts on display, instead of the natural wonders and objects of earlier centuries, the ennobled remains of twentieth-century industry.

Michael Hall’s installation objectifies the history of Michigan artists.
In A Persistence of Memory, he explores the notion of forgetting and remembering. Paintings chosen from the DIA collection hang facing the wall, so that the viewer sees only their backs. Thus, not only is each painting’s power as an image denied, but the painting itself becomes a three-dimensional object with its own story to tell. Signatures, labels, stickers, and other evidence suggest that these works are more than the image on their fronts. A dumpster in the center of the floor, called a "gatherer" by the artist, collects photos of the images as well as museum data about them. This receptacle is linked to the paintings on the wall, Hall’s artistic antecedents, by the "shadow" of one of his own sculptures, outlined in black tape on the floor and wall. For the last few years, Hall has devoted his intellectual life to recontextualizing the art of the Great Lakes region and the Midwest, and this installation records much of his extensive research.

The museum itself has a history, only imperfectly known and tied to the history of the city. Lorella Di Cintio and Jonsara Ruth in Traces of Then and Now endeavor to reveal hidden aspects of that history. Through the magic of technology, one part of their project returns a gallery to something like its original appearance. The artists’ subtle modification of light and dark reverses the usual balance of the room. The projection of a Tintoretto painting on the ceiling, where it had hung years ago, makes the space seem lighter and more expansive. The paintings below, lit softly as if by candles, are no longer the primary focus of the room. Upon entering, the viewer immediately looks up into the brightness; only after the eyes adjust can the paintings be satisfactorily viewed. The other part of Di Cintio and Ruth’s project reveals the structure and materials behind the museum’s grand architecture. Live video, showing any movement or shift of light, reveals the barrel vault above the Great Hall. Elegantly simple in contrast with the ornate hall, this structure represents one of many essentially private area of a very public building. Construction materials from the museum building and from a typical Detroit single-family dwelling are displayed in traditional museum cases; these materials are a reference to the differences and similarities between public and private architecture.

Two of the installations were done with significant participation by the community and were planned to express the relationship among artists, community, and history. Fast Forward, Play Back, by architect Ronit Eisenbach and dancer/choreographer Peter Sparling, examines the past and present of Dossin Elementary School in northwest Detroit. The perspective on the past is provided by Sparling, who attended the school as a youngster. The imprinting of elementary school is expressed in the video vignettes of Dossin students as well as Sparling’s dance company. Set in a gallery of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French art, Eisenbach’s structure of blackboards is etched with Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac’s writing about the founding of Detroit in 1701, overlaid with thoughts about Detroit and life written in chalk by the students.

By contrast, Riches of Detroit: Faces of Detroit, by Deborah Grotfeldt and Tricia Ward, looks to the future and holds out the hope that art can effect change in children’s lives. This documentary project chronicles the development of the artists’ intervention into the community. The artists established themselves as residents in a neighborhood not far from the DIA and forged an alliance with a local high school for teen mothers. Together, the students and the artists constructed an art park, renovated residences, and built furniture, involving members of the community. The artists’ hope is that through this project, the lives of the students will be enhanced and that the neighborhood will continue to function as a self-sustaining unit.

Through a shared spirit of hope, creativity, and imagination, the ten projects in this exhibition reveal new facets of the definition of Detroit. The works themselves are transient and will cease to exist in their current form when the exhibition ends, but their visual impact and intellectual challenges will endure, making this exhibition a fitting end to a celebratory year.

MaryAnn Wilkinson
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
The Detroit Institute of Arts

Exterior Photo of the DIA