Artist Jeffrey Gibson aims to ‘speak to the land’ — and listen to what it’s saying back, too

Kaya Williams , Aspen Public Radio, December 9, 2022


Mixed-media artist Jeffrey Gibson combines Indigenous aesthetics with modernist visuals to explore culture, history and identity in his practice.


Some of his work is now on display at the Aspen Art Museum in a show called “The Spirits Are Laughing.”


The exhibition includes a video of a flag-spinning performance throughout Aspen’s landscapes as well as a display of sculptures and bold, bright flags.


Kaya Williams spoke with the artist over Zoom this week to learn more about the show and what it says about humanity’s relationship with the natural world.


Gibson’s show is on display at the museum through next fall. Two other video works open at the museum on Friday: Sanya Kantarovsky’s “A Solid House” and Mungo Thompson’s “Sculptures,” both on view until early April. Hervé Télémaque’s “A Hopscotch of the Mind” exhibition is on view through late March.


Kaya Williams: Well, I'd love to just start with what this body of work is called, “The Spirits are Laughing,” which refers to both an exhibition and a performance related to it. What do you mean by “The spirits are Laughing”?


Jeffrey Gibson: The title “The Spirits are Laughing” comes from a project which started about two years ago in the Hudson Valley, which is where I live. And I was asked to do a text-based piece over the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, which crosses the Hudson River.


Living in that area, I always want to acknowledge that this is the ancestral homelands of Stockbridge-Munsee people, and so I started researching the ways that they interacted with the land when they were living there.


And one of the things was acknowledging that everything has a spirit. So I started thinking about these spirits, and how they were also observing us — that we are also spirits, the human spirits. And I imagined that the sky was like watching us, the animals were watching us.


I always think, with humans, it's quite funny because we're very well intentioned, we’re very intelligent, and we always think that we're trying to solve our problems. But inevitably, we seem to create more and more problems for ourselves, mainly in relationship to the land and thinking about climate crisis.


So as I was doing that piece, I kind of landed on this language, “the spirits are laughing,” thinking that if somebody was observing us, we must be this kind of comedic dramedy with real circumstances, and real emotions, and real feelings, real relationships, but we really just keep kind of like subverting ourselves. And we really just keep kind of bringing about our own kind of failure.


That's where the title started from. And I knew that at the end of that project, I didn't feel like I had really kind of explored it as deeply as I wanted to.


And so when the Aspen Art Museum contacted me, I thought of those words, and again, I was looking at the landscape and thinking about the spirits of the mountains, the spirits of Aspen, the spirits of the animals there — especially the relationship with the mountain sitting behind the museum, it's like they really are in conversation with each other.


That's where the title came from, thinking about this kind of equating the spirits of the natural world with our kind of projection and our naming of the land and the ways that we try to control the land.


Williams: I'm curious, was development — as in buildings, and especially luxury development — was that on your mind as you were thinking about this relationship to the land?


Gibson: Yeah, it was. In fact, I think it was one of the things that as I started thinking about the project in Aspen, I was like, do I address that? Is it something that's important to me to talk about, for instance, like all of the private planes that come in out of there, and the kind of carbon footprint that that causes? Aspen is very cherished and protected for its natural environment. So something so blatant as that which is disruptive and destructive towards that environment, I was like, how do you do that? You know, how do you talk about that conversation?


I don't think my goal is ever to really point fingers or blame at anybody. My hope is that people who see the performance or who watch the video, kind of take that consideration unto themselves.


Williams: Can you lend a little bit more insight to the role of this idea of Indigenous kinship and that philosophy? How did you start on that philosophy? And how does that factor into this piece?


Gibson: Indigenous kinship philosophy is something that I think many, many cultures share. So it's not just me, and it's something that I've grown up with. It's been practiced in front of me, by my relatives, like I’ve grown up seeing them, talk about these things, and discuss the land in these ways.


I think, you know, during this past year, when everybody, a lot of institutions were scrambling to draft an Indigenous land acknowledgement — I have grown up with land acknowledgments, and I've always been somewhat dissatisfied by them, because they kind of felt like they continue to talk about the ownership of the land.


And I felt like, “When are we actually talking about the land?” We keep talking about our very brief and very short history of claiming the land as our homelands, or under our care, I should say. But I feel like what's missing from this acknowledgement is actually speaking to the land and including land as an entity that has its own sense of autonomy, you know?


It was sort of where I landed, thinking about my dissatisfaction with a lot of the land acknowledgments that I see being used. And in this particular project, it just felt like when I was thinking about the video in particular, I was like, “Who is this cast? You know, who is this cast of characters that I'm pulling together to make the video?” And the land basically became part of that cast of characters. And so I had to think about, like, “how do we represent them?” and even questions of like, “How does the land want to be presented?”


I was trying to step back a little bit from over controlling how I presented things, and just let them kind of be, which isn't so far from how I've worked with video in the past. It's just, I think, this time, I gave language to it.


Williams: There's a lot of collective themes and senses of community and also collective history in this work. Did your own personal identity and personal history play into this piece, and in your work as a whole?


Gibson: I think it always has. It's been an interesting — I'm going to say five years just to kind of give it a number. But you know, I think with things going on with Black Lives Matter, I've been a college professor now for over 20 years, or just around 20 years, and talking to young people about equity, justice issues, and climate issues, I think has influenced me to think about what's important to talk about.


And some of these, of course, aligned with my own background, specifically about being Native American, and identifying as a queer person. And those movements that have happened, those are part of my history, right?


I'm aware of them, in a way that with what I see going on in the world today, I feel like oh, yeah, we do need to speak up for what's right. We do need to denounce hate. We do need to give spaces to people to come together in nonviolent ways and to acknowledge each other and to, to honor each other and find ways to work together.


We share this planet. It's important that we work together to make sure that this planet is habitable for us. So I think all of those concerns, especially like I said, as I'm getting older, I've had kids, thinking about what's important has kind of guided the subject matter in my work.

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