What Was Always Yours And Never Lost, Whitney Biennial, New York

Whitney Museum of American Art
  • Caroline Monnet, Creature Dada, video still, 2016. Photo: courtesy of the artist
  • Caroline Monnet, Creature Dada, video still, 2016. Photo: courtesy of the artist
  • Caroline Monnet, Creature Dada, video still, 2016. Photo: courtesy of the artist
  • James Luna, The History of the Luiseño People, video still, 1993. Photo: Video Data Bank (www.vdb.org), School of the Art Institute of Chicago
  • James Luna, The History of the Luiseño People, video still, 1993. Photo: Video Data Bank (www.vdb.org), School of the Art Institute of Chicago

What Was Always Yours And Never Lost
Curated by Sky Hopinka
Thirza Cuthand, Colectivo Los Ingrávidos, Adam Khalil, Zack Khalil, Caroline Monnet, Jackson Polys, James Luna
Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
September 20–21, 2019

What Was Always Yours And Never Lost opened with a land acknowledgement by curator Sky Hopinka, a speech act that has largely become formalized in Canadian cultural institutions but that remains irregularly practised below the 49th parallel. Framing the film screening, Hopinka underscored that the works shared an underlying familiarity with the existential violence of settler colonialism in the Americas even as they differed in their formal qualities—content, context, and tone.

The first of nine short films, Caroline Monnet’s Creature Dada (2016) opened the programming with bacchanalian celebration: An intergenerational cast of Native women artists and activists gather to feast in an extravagant setting as the world ends. Rapidly moving sound and image sequences work in tandem to create a dense environment that is disorienting yet firmly rooted in a powerful iconography. The noisy slurps, gurgles, and sips of champagne, oysters, and lobster unsettle the visual landscape of a still life animated with the laughs, toasts, and degustation of the performers. Shifting away from the affect of Monnet’s stylized scene, Thirza Cuthand’s humorous narratives provided potent commentary with playful DIY aesthetics. 2 Spirit Introductory Special $19.99 (2015) and Just Dandy (2013) treat Queerness, sexuality, love, and the complexity of interpersonal relationships as prevalent issues shaping contemporary subjectivity. Embodying a mock infomercial host and a scorned lover on open mic night, Cuthand’s personas were both appealingly relatable and easy to laugh with, while maintaining a critically incisive dark edge.

The exploitation of land by settlers was a recurring theme of the evening that crystalized in The Violence of a Civilization Without Secrets (2017), a piece co-created by Adam Khalil, Zack Khalil, and Jackson Polys. Revisiting the controversy of the Kennewick Man, the film documents how the fields of archaeology and forensic anthropology continue to enforce colonial ideologies by excavating and interpreting traditional burial grounds without regard for Indigenous sovereignty and knowledge. The violation of Indigenous rights was also at the forefront in Colectivo Los Ingrávidos’ 16mm film Impresiones para una máquina de luz y sonido (2014). The voice of a woman decrying the drug war in Mexico resounded through the theatre, over a gradually deteriorating film clip from Emilio Fernández’s Mexican-American film La perla (1947). Breathtaking, the collective’s condemnation of the gruesome violence inflicted on innocent children and adolescents was raw in its portrayal of the devastation of capital and corruption.

The evening closed with the late James Luna’s The History of the Luiseño People (1993), a film that felt incredibly relevant despite its age. Performing a type of outdated macho masculinity typical of the 1990s, Luna’s recording of phone calls to friends, family, and ex-lovers on Christmas eve felt prescient in its depiction of the increased isolation of a post-industrial, pre-digital age. Considering the various and intricate ways in which Indigenous identity is articulated in contemporary moving image practices, What Was Always Yours And Never Lost continued to push the cultural industry to recognize and address its own colonial gaze, exploitation of communities, and power structures. Sitting within the confines of the Whitney Museum’s Susan and John Hess Family Theater (the Hess Corporation being an energy company engaged in crude oil and natural gas extraction), the significance of the screening could not be overstated.

Published online on October 21, 2019.

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