Simone Krug talks to Colorado-born artist Jeffrey Gibson ahead of his new performance–taking place on August 3–for this summer's Aspen Art Week
Humor is an important part of THE SPIRITS ARE LAUGHING, your summer performance here at the Aspen Art Museum. In this piece, color guard performers will speak to the land as a living entity. To me, there’s something inherently absurd about this.
The piece has evolved out of the conversations over the past few years around land acknowledgments and institutions. I think these conversations are very symptomatic of the times that we are living in–of trying to acknowledge the way people are identifying–but they aren’t really encompassing the way land ownership has been thought about historically. I’m not sure that they’re proposing any really solid solutions for the future. Coupled with environmental concerns, this pushed me to ask: what would be an actual next step? This led me to consider Indigenous kinship philosophies, which differ within each culture, but one thing that unites them is seeing ourselves and the land, animals, wind, sun, moon and time as an incarnation of family, of kin, and as extensions of ourselves. Many of the public land acknowledgments that I’m aware of don’t always do that; they’re not really speaking to the land–they’re actually just about us and ownership.
The Western perspective of the relationship with the land is one of ownership, of claiming land. But, from another perspective, you might say: what if this land is an extension of my body? What if I am an extension of this land?
When I look at the land, what’s interesting to me is geologic time, which describes billions of years. In that timeline, we are the tiniest, most insignificant speck at the end, while the land has been there throughout. The traumas and the colonial narratives are real and must be addressed. But, in this piece, they’re leveraged by the geological narrative of the land, which is a primary character or even the subject of this performance. And that’s where the absurdity begins: when you put side by side these two polar perspectives on what our relationship is to the land. I find a lot of humor in this apparent absurdity.
The title THE SPIRITS ARE LAUGHING makes me feel so small. Are the spirits meant to be laughing at us or with us?
I think it is meant to make us feel small, in the same way that contemplating the landscape can suddenly make you feel very small. I think it’s very healthy for us to feel humbled.
Last summer, I did a project in the Hudson Valley. Through researching the Indigenous people of the area, I found that their Indigenous kinship philosophy includes acknowledging the spirits of the sky, the land and the animals. So, I started thinking: when it is raining, are the spirits crying? Are they crying with laughter? From happiness? As humans, we have messed up so badly at this point in relation to the planet that I just imagine that the spirits would be laughing.
I think of so many of your works as really intense celebrations and as expressions of joy but, from what you’ve just said, I realize that there’s a darkness to what you’re doing.
Darkness often goes hand in hand with fear, but I think once you experience darkness it transforms and, at the moment, for me, the fear dissipates. If we see the land as an extension of ourselves, if I hurt the land, then I’m also hurting myself, and this knowledge outweighs the sense of darkness.
And it’s no longer absurd, in a way, if you see a stream, or a tree, or a mountain as related to you.
A shift for me was when I started thinking about talking to the land. English is my first language, but I thought, what would it be like if I spoke to the land in Choctaw? Would it understand me any better? But also, why would we assume that the land spoke any of our languages? This act of personification is also our projection–we should be letting the land tell us who it is.
You’ve always been interested in the vocabulary of flags and twisting their traditional iconography. Color guard is steeped in tradition and often associated with a school, a team, or a marching band. What is its appeal for you?
I try to walk a careful line when representing something that might be deemed a specific tribal nation or collective. I’m not seeking to reflect some sort of underground collective within any specific nation. I was looking for something that didn’t come with that level of cultural specificity. Color guard is a sport, but it’s not mainstream. It also has a lot of pageantry attach to it and, as you say, the flag is something that I’ve worked with for a really long time.
In the end, it’s a jumping off point for me to think about a group of people moving together, coming together and moving apart. It offers so many opportunities for theatrical disruption–15 people moving in harmony, then suddenly someone breaks this up by coming forward and shouting for everybody to stop. The helmets people are wearing in the performance will make them more of a collective, and the phrases that are on the flags are there to speak to the land. There’s something about the way I approach materials, color and performance that I know is going to come across as celebratory.
In your studio, I saw fascinating objects that speak to different Indigenous histories, like purses and pins, alongside gems, rocks and stones that are millions of years old. How do you incorporate these materials into the sculptures of head deities that you’re presenting on the roof deck at the AAM?
As much as I despise New Age movements, I do believe that there is something magical about the way the Earth produces crystals. They’re beautiful, and they carry such a sense of time within them.
The vintage items that you saw in the studio are all primarily late 19th and 20th century: a time of tremendous transition for Native people. During this prolonged period of acculturation. I am amazed by the way people have continued to create things, like beadwork, with still hold the community together. These objects contain the narratives of those who made them, used them, and owned them; maybe, like crystals, these objects also carry power.
I’ve always tried to think about cultural appropriation–the flip side being cultures who actively bring things into their own cultural production–but we repurpose it, and we transform it to our own ends. It’s as if one narrative ends and a new one starts, but those two narratives will always be connected, like chapters in a book.
Simone Krug has been curator at the Apen Art Museum since 2018. Prior to joining the AAM, she worked at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in Artforum, Frieze and Art in America, among other publications.
Jeffrey Gibson lives and works in New York. He is a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and is half Cherokee. His performance THE SPIRITS ARE LAUGHING will take place at the Aspen Institute on August 3, 2022. His exhibtion at the Aspen Art Museum, The Spirits Are Laughing runs from November 4, 2022 to November 5, 2023.