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TIME for some art: Navajo artist Bert Benally travels to Beijing hoping to meet Ai Weiwei

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Artist Bert Benally, center, is interviewed by a Gallup PBS station crew in Coyote Canyon in 2013 during an experimental sonic art installation. (Courtesy of Julien McRoberts)

Artist Bert Benally, center, is interviewed by a Gallup PBS station crew in Coyote Canyon in 2013 during an experimental sonic art installation. (Courtesy of Julien McRoberts)

It’s hard enough to collaborate with an artist you don’t know, but imagine doing it with someone on the other side of the world who is under strict restrictions imposed by a foreign government.

Navajo artist Bert Benally has been in Beijing this week trying to do just that with famous Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei.

“You can’t say you’re meeting him” in seeking a visa to China, said project coordinator and curator Eileen Braziel of Santa Fe earlier this week. “They’re still holding him (Ai) under strict confinement in home and in Beijing … I’m not sure which day (Benally) will be able to meet him – it might be something very spontaneous.”

The pairing of the two artists has come about through TIME at Coyote Canyon 2014 Biennale.

TIME – Temporary Installations Made for the Environment – has been a project of the state’s Art in Public Places program since 2004, the last three years in partnership with the Navajo Nation, according to Chuck Zimmer, deputy director for New Mexico Arts in the Department of Cultural Affairs.

“It’s gotten a little bigger each year,” he said. For this year, the project aimed to attract a world-class artist for the collaboration and Braziel, who runs Eileen Braziel Art Advisors and is under contract for this project, suggested inviting Ai.

Manuelito Wheeler, director of the Navajo Nation Museum, walks down Coyote Canyon during the first visit for the TIME at Coyote Canyon project. (Courtesy of Julien McRoberts)

Manuelito Wheeler, director of the Navajo Nation Museum, walks down Coyote Canyon during the first visit for the TIME at Coyote Canyon project. (Courtesy of Julien McRoberts)

After all, she noted, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

“For him to be interested in a project like this is like one in a million,” she said, adding that it’s not too hard to get word to him through his studio staff. “He immediately said he was interested.”

As it turns out, Ai agreed to involve himself with the outdoor installation piece in remote Coyote Canyon because pictures of the landscape reminded him of the Mongolian camp where his family was held for 13 years during the Cultural Revolution, she said.

Since then, contact between the artists has been “cloak and dagger,” said Zimmer. Messages have come to Benally, based in Shiprock, telling him to contact Ai at a certain time through a certain email address – but to never use that address again, he said.

They are able to communicate in English – Ai lived in the United States, mostly New York, from 1981-93, briefly attending the Parsons School of Design, according to Wikipedia.

Their work eventually will come to Santa Fe, in a way, via a high-tech screening in July.

Focus on exile

“What they have in common is kind of tragic: The Navajos and the Long Walk, and Ai Weiwei and his family and the Cultural Revolution and being interned,” Zimmer said. “It’s a strong cultural connection that they’re building the piece off of.”

Perhaps fittingly, the project itself focuses on a sort of exile – and the return home.

Already under construction, “Pull of the Moon” is based on a Navajo story about two brothers helping their family find the way home after the Long Walk. A rendering of the installation has yet to be released.

The Bitsui and Wheeler families, who live in Coyote Canyon, have agreed to work with the project.

The Long Walk, which began in January of 1864 and which the Navajo view as their death march, sent 8,000-9,000 tribal members along 300 miles from their homelands in the Four Corners to Fort Sumner in the Bosque Redondo.

Artist Ai Weiwei is shown in 2010. He is cooperating on an art installation with Navajo artist Bert Benally in Coyote Canyon. (AP Photo/Andy Wong, File)

Artist Ai Weiwei is shown in 2010. He is cooperating on an art installation with Navajo artist Bert Benally in Coyote Canyon. (AP Photo/Andy Wong, File)

Depending on the source you consult, at least 200 Navajo, and maybe more, are believed to have died along the way, and many more undoubtedly perished from starvation and other hardships – some say as many as 25 percent of the people living there. Admitting failure, the U.S. government finally released the remaining Navajo to walk back to their lands in June 1868.

Ai, meanwhile, named in 2011 by ArtReview magazine the most powerful artist in the world, was arrested and jailed for three months in 2011 for purported tax evasion and has had his passport confiscated.

Director Alison Klayman featured the artist in her documentary, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” which was nominated for and received many film festival prizes in 2012-13. The film included some of the artist’s more controversial projects, including a “performance piece” in which he dropped and smashed what was said to be an old and very valuable Chinese vase, as well as a project that painted over a number of reportedly historic Chinese pots.

Some shots included a defiant middle finger raised to buildings of government authority.

One of his more publicized acts of defiance came after a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, in which Ai blamed shoddy construction for the collapse of schools that killed many children. He and a crew filmed the sites, Ai created a blog critical of the circumstances behind the tragedy and collected names of children who died in the earthquake – more than 5,000 by his count – before the blog was shut down by government authorities in 2009.

Traveling dome

So Ai won’t be coming to New Mexico as part of the Coyote Canyon project. But the project will be coming to New Mexicans.

Coyote Canyon, east of Crownpoint and north of Gallup, isn’t easily accessible and probably couldn’t accommodate many visitors anyway, according to Zimmer. The Navajo Nation Museum, whose director Manuelito Wheeler is working closely with the project, probably will organize some guided visits to the site, he said.

But photographers Eric Hanson and Greg Downing from XRez will document the construction, which already has started, of the six, 10-foot wood structures that are part of the installation. They also will film when they are lit with fire by the local families, symbolizing their return home.

That video will then travel around the state, but it will premiere in Santa Fe.

The Art in Public Places Project is buying a large “full-immersion” dome for $10,000 and will set it up in downtown Santa Fe for the July 16 reception for the TIME project, according to Zimmer. From inside the dome, viewers will be surrounded on all sides by the 3D film, which will be screened from 7-8 p.m. that day, following a 5-7 p.m. reception at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts. Bennally and German sonic artist Robert Henke will present an outdoor sound installation as part of the program.

The dome is then expected to travel to various locations around the state afterward to show the film, Zimmer said.

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