SANTA FE, N.M. — In an era when seemingly every city of substance hosts a biennial, SITE Santa Fe has taken a left turn on red to reshape the format.
“SITElines.2014: Unsettled Landscapes” debuts Thursday with a focus on contemporary artists across the Americas. The triad of themes – landscape, territory and trade – explores the interconnections between depictions of the land, movement across it and the resulting impact upon it.
The first of a three-part series, “Unsettled Landscapes” features 45 artists and collaboratives from 16 countries. The exhibition includes 13 new commissions, large-scale works and off-site projects.
“I think it was both time for SITE Santa Fe and for the field in general for a different look,” said Irene Hofmann, SITE Phillips director and chief curator. “A certain kind of art started to appear that was more spectacle-driven.”
When SITE opened 20 years ago, it boasted the only biennial in the country. Today these periodic extravaganzas have sprouted everywhere from Denver to Dakar, with more than 100 across the globe.
By focusing on art solely from the Western Hemisphere, SITE has broadened rather than narrowed the concept, Hofmann said. Linked exhibitions will continue in 2016 and 2018, organized by different curatorial teams.
“This is not a one-off,” she said. “This is a long-term project. We have half the world as our point of exploration and research.”
Instead of focusing on a single star curator, the event boasts four in Hofmann, SITE special projects curator Janet Dees; Candice Hopkins, an assistant curator of indigenous art at the National Gallery of Canada; and Lucía Sanromán, an independent curator from Mexico City.
Five satellite curators weigh in from Spain, Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina and Newfoundland. These multiple voices have introduced new artists to the project, Hofmann said.
Sculptor Miler Lagos of Bogotá, Colombia, stood in the middle of stacks of newspapers neatly piled halfway up a SITE Santa Fe gallery wall. Others rested in specifically constructed wooden frames.
The artist will carve, slice and burn the stacks of newsprint into the form of a ceiba tree, a large tropical species arcing a spreading canopy across parts of Central and South America. For Lagos, the tree is an expression of time, knowledge and the exquisiteness of nature’s design.
“I started doing this because I was thinking of images from history,” Lagos said, ” – like Albrecht Dürer woodcuts have been printed for centuries. The images have jumped from paper to paper.”
According to legend, the ceiba tree is central to the mythology of the ancient Tikuna people of the Brazilian rainforest. A massive specimen once towered over the land centered across the current borders of Peru and Colombia, its dense foliage thick enough to hide the people from sunlight.
To escape its perpetual shadow, two brothers invited all the forest animals to fell the great tree. As it crashed, its massive trunk, branches and leaves formed the Amazon.
Lagos’ “The Great Tree, 2014” will stand more than 14 feet high in a massive paper sculpture carved from more than four tons of recycled newspapers. The sanders and routers he uses char and scar the edges, giving them a distinctly wood-and-bark-like color, texture and smell.
“The newspaper is like the rings of a tree,” he said. “It’s a document of the people of its time.”
Albuquerque’s Patrick Nagatani has created a compelling body of photographic work for more than three decades, much of it centered on atomic issues in “Nuclear Enchantment,” 1988-93. His photographs grapple with issues such as the contamination of land and water and the power gap between mining companies and Native Americans.
The three key photographs culled from the 40-piece “Nuclear Enchantment” include “Uranium Tailings, Anaconda Minerals Corporation, Laguna Pueblo Reservation, New Mexico, 1990”; “Bida Hi/Opposite Views, Northeast, Navajo Tract Homes and Uranium Tailings Southwest, Shiprock, New Mexico, 1990” and “Contaminated Radioactive Sediment Mortandad Canyon, Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico, 1990.”
The works emphasize the impact of uranium mining and radiation on the land.
In the “Shiprock” image, Nagatani spray-painted the radioactive tailings lime green for emphasis behind a cluster of Navajo tract homes.
The photographer continues his excavation today by organizing an exhibition by the Atomic Photographers Guild in the only Japanese bank to survive the Hiroshima bombing. The 2015 show will mark the 70th anniversary of the attack.
Santa Fe’s Jamison Chas Banks (Cherokee/Cayuga-Seneca) is creating a commissioned installation investigating the relationship between the Louisiana Purchase, Napoleon’s exile, the exile of the Cherokee in Oklahoma and his own family history.
Banks has created a fictional baseball game between the “Exiles” and the “Purchasers” in a metaphor for contested territory.
“Return of the Ashes, Vol. 1” is the first chapter in a larger project he hopes will culminate in a film.
In 1803, Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States, including what is now Oklahoma. Napoleon died in exile in 1821. In 1830 the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, instigating the exile of the Cherokee, among other Native tribes.
One of Banks’ ancestors walked the notorious “Trail of Tears” as a child. Government troops forced the Cherokee people to walk more than 1,000 miles from their south Georgia and Florida homeland to Oklahoma in 1838. Many died of exposure, disease and starvation.
The baseball theme is just as personal. Both of Banks’ grandparents were forced to attend Indian boarding schools.
“There was a lot of indoctrination and brain-washing,” he said. “But on a positive note, my grandfather actually learned to play baseball at the boarding school. He made his living at it; he was semi-professional. He actually gained a bit of identity from losing a lot of identity.”
The installation will feature a life-sized reproduction of a green scoreboard from the 1960 TV show “Home Run Derby.”
Banks changed the name to “Run Home Derby” in a nod to children who ran away from boarding schools. There’s even a baseball inscribed with Napoleon’s signature presented as an artifact.
“There was a family story that (my grandfather) played ball with Mickey Mantle,” Banks said. “They were from the same little town. The whole installation is my gift to my grandfather as an impoverished child.”