Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Southern Accent 1 -- unraveling

Last week I went to the Speed Museum in Louisville for the last day of a blockbuster show called "Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art."  I wish I had gone earlier in the run so I could have gone back again; there was much to see and think about and I will have more posts, but let me start with one artwork, described as a "sculpture and performance piece."

Sonya Clark, Unraveling

It's a found Confederate battle flag which the artist is slowly unraveling by hand.  She started in 2015 on the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and has been working on it ever since.  For two hours on the last day of the Speed exhibit, visitors were invited to help Clark unravel.

Each person was greeted with a handshake and introduction, and then set to work unraveling, side by side with the artist.  For a couple of minutes each visitor worked, chatting with Clark about the project, then parted with a hug.

Of course I had to be there for this performance, and I said I wanted to work on the white, "to unravel some white privilege."  I was surprised at how difficult it was to take the tightly woven threads apart with no tools -- at home I would have grabbed a seam ripper or awl to grab the weft threads and pull them away, but with only fingernails it was hard to get a grip.  When I commented on this, Clark responded metaphorically that it's hard it is to deconstruct racist history.  I wondered how many times she had made this comment to her visitor/collaborators in the many hours she has spent shoulder-to-shoulder on the project.

I was thrilled with this idea of taking the flag apart.  The project hits all my hot buttons: U.S. history, lingering racism in the south, flags, and of course, fabric.  During the time I waited in line for my turn at the flag, I couldn't help but think about the art project that I participated in a couple of years ago at a museum across town, where volunteer artists mended people's clothes.  In both cases, the time spent in conversation between artist and visitor was intended to be meditative and connective.

I don't think the flag unraveling was conducive to much meditation.  It turned into quite the mob scene (which is wonderful in itself, because how frequently do you find mobs in museums, but I wondered how much time many of the visitors spent looking at the art).  With a long line of people waiting behind, there was pressure to unravel for a very short bit and then move on. 

As you approached the head of the line, museum staff with clipboards took your name.  As you worked, photographers came in close.

After you departed, reporters asked for your reactions.

By contrast, the mending project offered much more intimate time for conversation -- simply because there were so few people who came by.  But there were more than 100 hours of artist-on-duty time in that project, compared to only two hours for the flag.

We asked one of the guards who herded us into line whether the crowd was bigger than they had expected; he said nobody had any advance idea what was going to happen.  He seemed cheerfully overwhelmed, but I wondered whether he would be equally cheerful at closing time when dozens of people still in line would have to be turned away.

I would have loved more time with my hands in the threads, and more time to talk with the artist, but when the museum presents a "relational" project as merely a two-hour event there isn't much relating that's going to happen.  As we waited in line we also talked about Marina Abromovic's massive relational project at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, where she sat in a chair silently contemplating a visitor sitting across from her -- seven hours a day, six days a week, for 700 hours in total.

I'm sorry Sonya Clark didn't have the chance to spend more time with her art piece and with museum visitors, just as I was unhappy that Lee Mingwei hopped a plane to Tokyo after installing the mending project, delegating the visitor-relating to us volunteer artists.  Strikes me that both of these projects, brilliant in concept, suffered for want of boots on the ground.


  1. what an interesting post. Lots to think about re this project. Irene from Northern Ireland where things are unravelling here

  2. What a fascinating concept! Thanks for sharing. I would love to see this in person.

  3. What an interesting, thought provoking concept . . . I like the fact that the artist was there involved in the unraveling, and I imagine she wished she had more time to converse with each 'unraveler' as well.

  4. What a sobering concept, the unraveling of a symbol of so.much.wrong. Still so much wrong to right!

  5. Lots to think about on this one.

  6. I'm not really surprised that there were so many more at the unravelling than the mending. Going back and re-reading about The Mending, my first thought is that the museum fell flat getting the word out.
    As to why so many more attended this unraveling - it's much easier to tear down than mend, especially when what is being torn down is such a controversial item. Not that I'm suggesting it be done, but now I wonder what would happen if they held a mending of this flag. Would it even be allowed, and would those who hold it so dear show up?

  7. Have you seen the latest issue of Fiber Art Now? Same concept done by Adrienne Sloane. She uses an American Flag which looks as if it was knitted. Using a powerful symbol in a stark and radical way can change hearts and minds.