Wanderlust, or How to Wander in and out of the Dark History of the Now / Jasmina Tumbas

Feature Image: Kim Beck, There Here, 2017. Skywriting. Courtesy of the artist.

Wanderlust: Actions, Traces, Journeys 1967-2017. UB Art Galleries, University at Buffalo. September 7 to December 31, 2017. 

In 2017, a year of travel bans, mass deportations, refugee crises, wars, egregious violations against human rights, hauntings of nuclear war, and mass protests, what can art tell us about our relationship to wanderlust? How can we face everyday life without complete capitulation, resignation, and indifference? How do we escape the trappings of our lives’ routines? Do we even have a lust to wander? Where can we go? Who can go?

Buffalo’s UB Art Galleries offers an extraordinary opportunity to contemplate these questions and provokes us to think beyond our comfort zones. Curated by Rachel Adams, senior curator of UB Art Galleries, Wanderlust presents art from the last fifty years, including works on paper, performance works, sculptures, video, installation, photography and on-site interventions. The exhibition takes its primary idea from Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking, in which the American writer describes a need to take walks during her creative process of writing: “Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord.”1 For Solnit, and for the curator, wanderlust as a concept propels us to step out, to engage with everyday life in a new way. Although the show is not installed in a chronological way, the point of departure clearly lies in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a choice that fits squarely within an established history of performance and conceptual art. The choices of artworks, too, offer viewers access to some of the most well-known artists in the field, without relying on the question: Who did it first? Apart from providing a survey of contemporary art since 1967, it was imperative for Adams to include the local public, and to generate new forms of engagement and interaction between artists, students, the gallery, nature, and the Buffalo-Niagara region. She noted in our conversation:

I wanted people to create their own wanderlust by looking at Kim Beck’s There Here billboards, photographing the skywriting, or going on one of these walks. I personally like having that interaction between outdoors and indoors. Because I know I am not going to reach everybody inside the gallery. I want people to see things outside the gallery. Whether they are driving by as we are drawing something because that is what Todd Shalom may ask us to do. Or people in Cheektowaga, who are seeing Kim Beck’s skywriting arrows as well as people in Niagara Falls because it spread more than thirty miles. And this is why I go back to the 1970s as a point of inspiration. It was a time when people were breaking out of their studios. They were breaking out the idea of painting on canvas and sculpting in bronze. They were leaving the gallery. In short, the birth of conceptual art.2

But beyond this idea of experimentation outside the gallery walls and the expansion of art into the conceptual, wanderlust as a term has a long colonial history linked to the writings of Henri Rousseau and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s German Romantic tradition, tied thematically to the exploration and colonization of foreign lands, adventures in nature and explorations of its might, and longing for escape from the mundane of the everyday. Or perhaps most troubling and relevant for the U.S. context, wanderlust brings us to the dark history of Manifest Destiny. While Adams did not frame Wanderlust around these political implications, the artworks chosen leave viewers haunted with the historical terror inscribed within our landscapes; the political violence of the border; the devastation and pollution of our environment; the indescribably but palpable pain of those lost to genocide and war; and the everyday actions we can take to resist conformity. In other words, art as a resistance to normative life.

Kim Beck’s skywriting mentioned above took place in Buffalo on August 19, between 6 and 7 p.m., showing arrows in the sky that pointed towards and away from the U.S.–Canada border. As art historian Toby Lawrence writes in the catalogue, Beck’s There Here evoked the “physical and psychological space held by the border and relationships between the United States and Canada.”3 And indeed, Lawrence asserts that Buffalo is a border city in more than one way: as a site of colonial violence against traditional territories of the Haudenosaunee people, as well as “a site of resistance and revolution,” including the War of 1812 and the well-documented site of the Underground Railroad.  Todd Shalom organized his U.S. Customs and Border Protection on September 29, taking a group of Buffalo residents on different streets in the city, asking them to engage with questions of the nation and the border. “Being reminded ever so intimately of our closeness to the border,” curator Claire Schneider wrote after her participation in his action. She added: “Experiencing its sites and sounds anew.”4 The week prior, on September 17, Teri Rueb’s Times Beach action took participants out of the city streets to the outer harbor of Buffalo, where she immersed them in a sound walk at Times Beach Nature Preserve. What is now considered one of the “most valuable bird and pollinator conservation sites in the Great Lakes”5 once belonged to Indigenous peoples before the conquest, and has gone through various transformations, including being used as a public beach and becoming a dumping site for Buffalo’s industry, thoroughly contaminating the wildlife of the area. Rueb’s Times Beach is an ongoing project that allows anyone to take a walk guided by Rueb’s Times Beach app downloadable to a smart phone or similar mobile devices. Rueb propels us to continue to wander and experience an area that carries the weight of human destruction in material form, and which thereby implicates us in its future.

Millie Chen’s audio-video installation Tour (2014), a gut-wrenching journey into the traces of sites of genocide, catapults the viewer into the darkest of all destinations: those places that saw the systematic erasure of other humans based on their ethnic backgrounds and political convictions, such as Murambi, Rwanda (April 16–22, 1994); Choeung Ek, Cambodia (April 17, 1975–January 7, 1979); Treblinka, Poland (July 23, 1942–October 19, 1943); and Wounded Knee, United States (December 29, 1890). But instead of showing the atrocities directly, Chen shows us what is left behind, or “what remains,” as artist Marika Schmiedt has called it in the context of genocide against Roma and Sinti.6 Chen takes us on a visual and auditory journey of gorgeous sites in nature, and abandoned architecture, but she leaves us hypnotized with the sound of lullabies, which comfort and devastate at the same time. Chen notes:

I needed to walk slowly and alone on those lands, across the unmarked earth where the atrocities occurred, with only the minimum equipment I could carry on my body; this is the journey I needed to share with viewers. I asked myself what the worst loss would be to a living person, and the answer was, not one’s life, but the loss of loved ones. The lullabies are meant to convey not only tender comfort for loved ones, but sorrowful lament over unimaginable loss.7

The sorrow is palpable, as is the violence of history. As viewers we do not wander away into the abstract. Chen asks us to feel, to be connected. To serve as witness, despite our inability to see what happened in those places, or who was lost. Jane McFadden beautifully reminds us in the catalogue: “Yet we must try.”8

It takes strength and courage to try, and perhaps that is one of the greatest lessons Wanderlust’s artworks teach us. We learn from Mona Hatoum’s Roadworks (1985), when the artist dragged Doc Martens attached to the back of her feet whilst walking barefoot at Brixton Market, that while it is impossible to walk in someone else’s shoes, we are nevertheless responsible for one another. Pointing to racialized violence and criminalization in the area, “Hatoum’s feet become metaphoric,” Conor Moynihan notes, “bare and unprotected, vulnerable to the hard press of the pavement beneath them.”9 In the absurdist gesture of being held back rather than assisted by one’s shoes, the artist’s journey becomes one of witnessing, repenting, and persevering. Carmen Papalia’s Blind Field Shuttle (2017) troubles the ableist confines of the art world and invites viewers to suspend their dependency on sight alone, and to engage in communal walks which require trust, patience, and loss of control. The entrance of the gallery at the Center for the Arts features Papalia’s Accessing the University at Buffalo Anderson Gallery (2017), a site-specific poem (or event score) printed on a large poster, reproduced in thousands of copies, for viewers to take. One section of the poem reads “shuffleshuffleshuffleshuffleshuffleshuffleshuffleshuffle,” repeated in six lines and followed by “until your shoe finds the stairs, gauge the height and depth/ the pattern, you’ll find one.” Both of these artists teach us that we must step out of inaction and indifference to that which surrounds us, even if it entails going against the most mundane and assumed logic of everyday life.

William Pope.L’s monumental and tragic endurance in The Great White Way, 22 miles, 9 years, 1 Street (Whitney Version #2) (2001) pushes to the extreme the ways in which unrelenting white supremacy requires perverse psychological perseverance embodied in the crawling body of a black man masked in the failed guise of America’s quintessential hero: Superman. Scraping the pavement of the street with his struggling body, Pope.L’s action points to the inescapable truth of what it takes to survive life in the U.S. as a person of color, or what Hershini Bhana Young has described as the “sound within black performance of a utopic, improvised desire for freedom . . . [a] . . . critical discourse that is produced from and beyond the site of terror.”10 Wanderlust, then, is not defined by the lust to wander, but is paved by injustice that commands an exhausted anti-hero. It harkens back to what Kristine Stiles has noted in reference to Sherman Fleming’s Something Akin to Living (1979), namely “how it was the labor of the black male body that part of the edifice that is the Unites States was constructed, a body that was then mythically eroticized as a means to control and suppress it.”11 Is it any wonder then that in an interview with Rizvana Bradley, Pope.L’s response to the question of endurance and its “other aesthetic revelations or social insights” was: “Exhaustion is the finish line”?12

But it does not end there, as survival demands to move beyond exhaustion. The artists’ works deconstruct the concept of wanderlust as they unhinge it from its history of disguised colonial violence. The loss to wanderlust’s assumed neutrality is where we gain new insights. Sound becomes a central protagonist in disrupting this neutrality, for example in David Hammons’s 5ʹ20″ digital video Phat Free (1995–1999), composed entirely around the seemingly mundane action of kicking a metal bucket through a city, and Wangechi Mutu’s 5ʹ44″ single-channel video projection Cutting (2004), discharging sounds of Mutu hitting a jagged log with a machete, creating a “resonant sound of metal striking metal, the high-pitched echo reverberating.”13 While Hammons’s action resounds the absurd threats of racialized violence amplified at night in America’s cities, Mutu points to the horrid history of murder in Rwanda and Sierra Leone. Both of these works summon the very questions Ashon Crawley posited this year: “Loss can produce justice—it can cause us to ask: Who are we, who do we want to be? What can we be if we privilege feeling as the grounds for thinking relation to one another?” And later in the text he adds: “Can the flesh detect the good vibrations that are posited as unable to be heard? Can such severing, such loss, be felt or detected?”14 Hammons’s and Mutu’s works in this exhibition then can be understood as pushing us to re-think what wanderlust is, and to expand our senses to the many forms of resistance it can take, despite, or perhaps even because of, the violence it carries. 

Figure 2: Teresa Murak. Procession, 1974. Color photograph on glossy paper. 11 ¾ x 11 ¾ inches. Courtesy of the artist and Broadway 1602 Harlem.

Not only do these artists’ works destabilize the neutrality of wanderlust, but they call us to resist our normative relationship to action and nature. The inclusion of Cuban diasporic artist Ana Mendieta’s Silueta Works in Mexico (1977/1991), the Slovenian art collective OHO’s Summer Projects (1969), and Polish artist Teresa Murak’s Procession (1974) extends this emphasis to the political contexts of Eastern Europe and Central and Latin America. These regions are often historicized around questions of dictatorships, but in these works resistance lies elsewhere than in the direct critique of any regime. As we see photos of OHO’s gentle traces of geometric shapes within green urban spaces and the countryside of Ljubljana, Mendieta’s indexical body marks in various landscapes, and Murak’s body cloaked in a cress-seed coat as it interrupts Warsaw’s architectural edifice, it becomes clear that these works operate under a sincerity that much of the contemporary gimmicky performances in the capitalist art market lack. Wanderlust here becomes a feminist antidote to the invasive monumentality that characterizes American Minimalist landworks by men. It instead invites us to reexamine our relationship to our dependency on nature within our immediate surroundings. As such, it could be said that these works ask us to wander into anti-capitalist modes of being, where respect for nature and humanity trumps commodity culture.

Figure 3: Mary Mattingly. Pull, 2013. C-print. 30 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

The disastrous relationship to nature concomitant with irresponsible economic acceleration has destroyed much of the planet, a known but habitually ignored fact that Mary Mattingly’s eco-feminist interventions bring to the foreground. Dragging her belongings across the Staten Island and New Jersey Bayonne Bridge in Pull (2013), Mattingly situates the struggle of human movement on a bridge, a structure then fated to be altered in height to make way for taller ships that would bring more toxic commodities to the city. “This journey was a celebration of the bridge as it is, an obstruction for the global shipping industry,” Mattingly noted, adding that the goods in her own baggage represented “the oils necessary to make the plastics [and] rare metals in electronics . . .  the stuff that starts wars, now and in the future.”15 To be sure, what accompanied the physical and emotional difficulty of dragging the weight of her possessions in public was the specter of the state. The artist remembers:

We were escorted by state police because we were on public property yet doing nothing illegal. We proceeded to the Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal, where we were stopped by Homeland Security because the sculptural mass we were photographing was suspicious. They logged our driver licenses and passports.16

Mattingly shows us that the lust to wander may be extended to commodities more than to humans. While the majority of the world lacks the resources or documents to wander the world, commodities are protected and alter our living spaces, pollute our rivers and air, and rule the logic of state power.

This leads me to my last point about Wanderlust. Clearly marked as taking the 1970s as a point of reference, I couldn’t help but wonder what a show on wanderlust would look like if it had considered the role of robotics? Or, even more provocatively, what if it had featured drones? Do such new technologies complicate our relationship to feeling good and experimental when we are looking at art? These questions came to me when facing William Lamson’s Untitled (Infinity Camera) video (2017), which features a camera embedded within a floating mirror cube, recording the environment as it moves with the tides of New York City’s waterways. Although the images are striking and meditative, I nevertheless was compelled to think about how the meaning of the work would change if Lamson had installed this piece on the Niagara River, where border patrols are doing their rounds.

Wanderlust took me on a journey into the darkness of human history and its continuation today. And more than that, it also intensified my sense of the living conditions in the Buffalo-Niagara region. Many of the artworks feature water and vast landscapes. Here, we constantly face the might of the water, the lake effect that brings massive snowstorms, the tourist destination of Niagara Falls, and the well-documented pollution of our waters. Many of us do indeed feel the lust to wander to warm places, to escape the force of nature here, especially in the winters. But few have the means to do so. And many Buffalo residents and community activists stay to fight economic inequalities and racism that plague every aspect of life in the region. After visiting the exhibition, I walked away with one primary gut feeling: none of the works seemed to be about a lust to wander in its traditional sense. Nor did they adhere to the spirit of Solnit’s take on wanderlust. Instead, the artworks are about the struggle to survive; to endure; to think beyond the confines of the now. Perhaps, then, wanderlust in 2017 sounds a state of emergency that reveals and echoes the violence of its colonial origins. It calls out to our sense of imagination and wonderment, asking us to serve as witnesses and provoking us to break out of our complicity.

 ———

Wanderlust closes at UB Art Galleries’ Center for the Arts Gallery on December 16 and Anderson Gallery on December 31. It then travels to Des Moines Art Center in February (February 18 – May 13).

Complete list of Wanderlust artists:

Vito Acconci, Bas Jan Ader, Nevin Aladag, Francis Alÿs, Janine Antoni, John Baldessari, Kim Beck, Roberley Bell, Blue Republic, Sophie Calle, Rosemarie Castoro, Cardiff/Miller, Zoe Crosher, Fallen Fruit, Mona Hatoum, Nancy Holt, Kenneth Josephson, William Lamson, Richard Long, Marie Lorenz, Mary Mattingly, Anthony McCall, Ana Mendieta, Teresa Murak, Wangechi Mutu, Efrat Natan, Gabriel Orozco, Carmen Papalia, John Pfahl, Pope.L, Teri Rueb, Michael x. Ryan, Todd Shalom, Mary Ellen Strom, and Guido van der Werve.

IMAGES:

Feature Image: Kim Beck. There Here, 2017. Skywriting. Courtesy of the artist.

 Figure 2: Teresa Murak. Procession, 1974. Color photograph on glossy paper. 11 ¾ x 11 ¾ inches. Courtesy of the artist and Broadway 1602 Harlem.

Figure 3: Mary Mattingly. Pull, 2013. C-print. 30 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Endnotes

  1. Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking,” in Wanderlust: Actions, Traces, Journeys 1967-2017, ed. Rachel Adams (Berlin: Ruksaldruck GmbH, 2017), 6.
  2. Rachel Adams in conversation with the author, October 26, 2017.
  3. Toby Lawrence, “Kim Beck,” in Wanderlust: Actions, Traces, Journeys 1967-2017, 33.
  4. Claire Schneider, public post on Facebook, Oct 1, 2017.
  5. The Friends of Times Beach Nature Preserve, “Times Beach is a Nature Preserve,” http://www.friendsoftimesbeachnp.org/times-beach-nature-preserve.html.
  6. Marika Schmiedt, What Remains…, 2000-2009 (2011, DVD-Loop, 20-30 min). Also, see Marika Schmiedt’s exhibition catalogue, Was Bleibt / What Remains: Fragmente Einer Fortwährenden Vergangenheit Fragments of a Continuous Past (Vienna: ARTBRUT, 2014).
  7. Millie Chen quoted in Anna Kaplan, “Millie Chen,” in Wanderlust, 211-212.
  8. Jane McFadden, Trips, Traces, Trespassings (and Other Tropes for Wandering), in Wanderlust, 184.
  9. Conor Moynihan, “Mona Hatoum,” in Wanderlust, 220.
  10. Hershini Bhana Young, “Twenty-First-Century Post-humans: The Rise of the See-J,” in Black Performance Theory, eds. Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzales (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 51.
  11. Kristine Stiles, “Uncorrupted Joy: International Art Actions,” in Paul Schimmel, ed., Out of Actions: Between Performance and The Object 1949-1979 (Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, 1998), 265.
  12. Rizvana Bradley, “An Interview with William Pope. L (2014)” in Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 24:2-3 (2014), 221.
  13. Allison Glenn, “Wangechi Mutu,” in Wanderlust, 75.
  14. Ashon Crawley, “Resonance: Neutrinos and Black Life,” in Critical Ethnic Studies 3, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 50, 52.
  15. Greg Lindquist, “Life of Objects: An Interview with Mary Mattingly,” in Art in America Magazine, Interviews, (May 23, 2013): http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/interviews/life-of-objects-an-interview-with-mary-mattingly/.
  16. Ibid.
Jasmina Tumbas
Jasmina Tumbas (PhD, Art History, Duke University) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University at Buffalo and Contributing Editor for ASAP/J. Her teaching and research fields focus on modern and contemporary art history and theory, histories and theories of performance, body and conceptual art, art and activism, feminist art, and critical theory. She is currently finishing her first book, The Erotics of Dictatorship: Art, Sexuality, and Politics under Yugoslav Socialism, and co-editing the anthology Radical Art in Transition: Counter-Culture, Protest, Resistance and Contemporary Art in the Balkans since 1968. Her research has appeared in ArtMargins, Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies, and Art and Documentation/Sztuka i Dokumentacja, and is forthcoming in the anthologies BODIES THAT MATTER AGAIN and Performing Arts in the Second Public Sphere. In Buffalo, Tumbas curated Selma Selman’s first U.S. solo show at Dreamland, an exhibition that traveled to Vienna, Austria. She also serves on the Board of Directors of Squeaky Wheel Film & Media Art Center.