Alison Saar is a well known and sometimes controversial sculptor who recently
commission at Lewis and Clark College campus
called York: Terra Incognita
. She also has a career spanning exhibition titled,Bound
at the nearby Hoffman Gallery
and runs through December 12th. To discuss
her work, PORT sent Gabe Flores to talk with Saar and learn more about how she
mixes life, art and history.
York: terra incognita
(2010) photo Jeff Jahn
Gabe: How did you end up at Lewis and Clark?
Alison: Well there was this call for artists to do a piece with York and I saw
it. Actually the architect who had worked with me on the Tubman project sent
it to me and I had this idea immediately.
I thought no way are they going to go for it with this black man with his shirt
off and scarification on his back... and I didn't even bother applying. Anyways,
Linda Tesner and the committee were familiar with my work from the Tubman project
and encouraged me to submit my proposal. Still, any time I told people what
I wanted to do with this piece they kind of gasped, so it wasn't an easy piece.
Yet they said, sure that sounds perfect.
And sure enough it made it through the committee and I've not heard of anyone
that was highly offended. There was some talk of you can't have his shirt
off because that makes him kinda common or primal... you can't do that.
York: Terra Icognita
I thought, well you know we can't tell York's story without that. There are
questions with all of these heroes. In fact there are questions of how
heroic was York? Because the journals are written by his racist masters
so you really only see him through these really tainted and muddy waters. He
is portrayed as kind of goofy and doing all this dancing but at the same time
he had all of these little achievements in terms of being responsible, feeding
the troops and keeping the expedition from starving. So he definitely had his
place but I also wanted to talk about the other side of the page. I wanted to
talk about how he was treated and how he was the only man in the expedition
that was not paid. He also thought he was getting his freedom but that wasn't
realized for quite some time after the expedition either. It is meant to be
a rough kind of history and so I came up here and did the piece. Then Linda
(Tesner) asked if I was interested in doing a show and I said... yeah.
G: Do you think there is a reason people haven't responded in a more outraged
manner? Would you expect a different response if it wasn't Portland?
A: Probably it is because the piece is on this campus and it is pretty small.
Also, it was unveiled on graduation day so in the coming years. I'm hoping the
students will have even more chance to respond respond to it in their big multicultural
symposium. If I come back again Id like to have even more rapport. Id like
to talk with other artists, maybe artists that are involved in public art and
writers who deal in history and memory especially for minorities. Thus far it's
been pretty much just the initial press for the papers. (laughs) So bring it
on, I'm ready.... we'll see (laughs).
G: (laughes) Bring it!
Harriet Tubman plaza in Harlem, NYC
A: I guess what was so startling about the controversy
over the Tubman project
was because that was "my community." I
also realized though that the money for that project came from percent for the
arts where old buildings were coming down or being redeveloped in Harlem. So
the community was being backed into a corner and there was push back from all
of this gentrification. I think that was part of the tension as well, where
she (Tubman's sculpture) was representing us being kicked out of Harlem because
she was facing south. Whooooa, I did not see that coming and there were a lot
of issues going around there. So she became the meeting place for all of these
interests, which is good.
I don't know if they are still pushing the mayor to turn her around, though
they did start to see my angle in this where her insistence to help others and
going south were supposed to help encourage the community to follow in her footsteps
to some extent. She doesn't get tagged, so there is some effect.
G: Do you think there is a difference between an audience that was oppressed
and one that was the oppressor as far as historical work that relates to minorities?
A: You know I don't know, everybody has got something to whine about. I guess
the responses could be different but I don't know. What do you think?
G: (Laughs) I'm not exactly sure. I imagine there would be a difference.
A: For public art that is not necessarily historical... there is a great book
about controversy and public art and it goes way way back to ancient times when
someone didn't like a Dionysian sculpture. You put the work out there and everyone
will have a different opinion.
G: Maybe if we do our depictions as honestly as possible?
A: Yes, for example with York there were all of these depictions of him. Some
of them were like the Mandingo super buff dude, which is this whole other fantasy
thing. Then there is another one where he is down at Lewis and Clark's feet,
like a dog. Whoa... and that wasn't that long ago so really, like you guys didn't
see where that depiction is kinda messed up? Another depiction has York handing
the journal up to Clark... you just go oh my God. There are a lot of depictions
Bound for Glory
G: So the Hoffman Gallery is divided into two sections. Describe how you have
the two differentiated?
A: Yeah there's the public work in front and the other in back. The public work
is very different and in a more historical context and it's very specifically
about that time and place and there are maquettes in the front room. They aren't
all public projects here in the front room but they all deal with historical
Bound for Glory
In the back room the work deals more with the psyche and the turmoil in my life.
So that's a more personal experience. Some of them are political. It's funny
because many many years ago (in the 80's) Lucy Lippard came to me and asked
if I wanted to be in a book about art and politics. And I said, but my
work isn't political, it's mostly about me and she said Oh really
so I read her essay on political issues etc. and I hadn't really thought of
my personal issues as political. But they were even though the ideas always
came from a very internalized place.
So I kind of did this show backwards. The pieces in the back gallery are my
community, a population of folks that I am in dialog with and It's actually
kind of weird to see them all together since some of them are turning their
backs on others and others are kind of facing off. I think it's actually the
largest exhibit of my work that I've ever had so that was kind of interesting.
It spans from the early 90's so the show is definitely stepping in a little
deeper into my work.
G: I definitely got the sense that the personal is political in this room. I
got the sense that you were saying this is me, this is my life.
A: And I guess growing up with my
, a feminist... I didn't grow up with that struggle of having to go
out and change things... I was able to simply go out and express my experience
as opposed to going out there to fix things all of the time... although you
still have to do that. You know there is still stuff going on.
These are conflicted times with Obama and the Iraq war. I went to a peace rally
downtown with my son and afterward he got these plastic samurai swords and was
whacking stuff with them. Or with my daughter I find that she wears these little
mini shorts and I ask her, don't you dislike it when guys come up and
say these lewd and horrible things to you and she says no Mom they
don't mean anything by it. So I'm having a hard time dealing with that
but on another level she has confidence in herself as a woman.
G: that is really interesting, it makes me wonder about a culture completely.
For example I'm not a part of 16 year old culture... I just don't get the references
but I wonder how much feeling like "an imposter" defines our world? ...and I
feel like your work moved from just a historical affinity to a more personal
ownership of these people's effect on the world. Was there something that happened
to shift it from history to the personal?
A: I think experiencing these things helped a lot. When I first moved to Harlem
I worked in Harlem and my studio was in Harlem. I had this elated feeling where
this club was here and that club was there... but eventually it became home
and it was just Harlem. It just isn't that different from a lot of places though
it was very different from where I grew up (LA).
So the early work is definitely about the imagining of all of that history abut
after experiencing the place you tone it down and get closer to what the reality
was. You learn about the sad parts of the story and not just the raised fist
and all of that stuff. Also it's because I kind of lived that stuff in the 60's.
I was around 11 years old during the Watts Riots in LA. Later I was living in
New Orleans during the Rodney King beating and some kids were so into it...
all burn baby burn and wearing berets. But I had already seen something
like that and seen the aftermath and who was effected or even injured during
the riot. After you see who really gets targeted you realize there must be a
smarter way to deal with this, but if there is something really outrageous you
have to do something about it. It goes back and forth.
Same goes for being really active in all the Obama stuff and you realize he
has his limitations as well. But it still makes me angry because people blame
him for everything and I say excuse me... it's not his fault.
G: So often we forget history... almost like if I don't remember then it didn't
A: Or people turn it around and say well he's been in office for two years and
I still don't have a job it's not his fault entirely. Sure some of it is but
G: do you ever feel like you are placed in a box that you don't want to be in
A: I kinda feel like that but I've been in so many different boxes. I feel like
the African American artist box has opened up and I think the feminist box has
opened up. Also because I never finished a life drawing or sculpture course
I have also been in a kind of folk art box but as the work changes the descriptions
no longer qualify. Still I consider all of those figures in the gallery Black,
because they are my family but it doesn't necessarily have to be about their
struggle as African Americans.
G: do you feel the limitations others put on you?
A: I don't really allow them to do so. In the commercial realm with galleries
I just bring the art to them, they don't have a say as to what I bring. Sometimes
critics will take a piece like traveling light and say it is about lynching
and they will take the easy road to understanding the work and they will put
me in that box a lot actually. Yet one time someone thought they saw a dashiki
and I thought where do you see a dashiki in all of this? Where did you get that?
But I believe the work is only half done and it is up to the viewer to complete
it. If someone has prejudice issues or feminist issues or racial ones they will
bring those issues out in the work. So in a weird way it reflects more of the
boxes that they are in rather than my own box.
G: Why is that?
A: Sometimes people mistake the criticism as doctrine or as the voice of the
artist, which can be unfortunate but there is enough stuff out there and its
diverse enough that it hopefully becomes clear that it is what we bring to the
piece as well.
G: Do people struggle with the fact that you are only part African American?
A: Yeah, some critic when I had a show at the Hirshhorn said that this artist
isn't black, she's more tan. I was like whaaaaaaat? This person had some real
issues with color, like they wanted little skin samples. Even my Mom asked,
why don't you make some art about your Irish heritage?
Historically the black and Irish communities often got lumped in together and
its probably why my Irish grandmother married a black man. They were basically
put on that same boat and Jews and Catholics have been put on that boat as well.
In New Orleans there were these huge longshoreman riots between the Blacks and
Irish trying to grab onto that rung of the ladder and hang onto it. So even
though these works are not specifically about being Irish they have a common
experience. They can fit a lot of different backgrounds.
G: Especially in this back room
in particular with these braids attached
to the luggage. I think a lot of people can relate, I know I can.
A: Its an interesting thing for me because I see all these works together, its
alike a family reunion and I am starting to think about what the new direction
is going to be. I collect certain things and I don't always know where they
are going. Other times I know exactly what I want and its just a matter of executing
is on permanent display on Lewis and Clark College's
For Glory at the Hoffman Gallery
runs through December 12th 2010
is an artist based in Portland Oregon