A Trip Through Spacetime: The Artist As Historian

JOHN DUROVSIK ON Only When It’s Dark Enough Can You See The Stars.

The museum, of course, is an apt setting for explorations of histories, of cities, and of peoples. They are, as they have been since their birth in Enlightenment Europe, tools for learning, civilizing, and entertainment, temples for introspection and awe. But the active role of the artist, as we have been taught, exists outside the hallowed halls of our museums. The artist—the producer—works within the studio, where only pieces innovative in idea or material or motif or message find their way into the polished archive of the museum. The works and biographies of these artists are the varied facts that, when juxtaposed on and against gallery walls, come together to represent the aesthetic and social theses made clear in wall text and object labels. But what changes when the artist assumes the role of curator—when the studio and the museum fuse, their purposes interwoven with now nebulous boundaries?

Only When It’s Dark Enough Can You See The Stars, a collaboration between The Contemporary and New York-based artist Abigail DeVille, exists within this very inversion, this vague union. The exhibition, a collection of installations and performances, inhabits the site of the former Peale Museum and, later, the location of Baltimore’s first City Hall and, even later, Maryland’s first public school for African American children. DeVille operates within this site of charged and delicate histories, where narratives and voices coexist, overlap, and shout for attention.

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While the Peale Museum was the first building in the United States built specifically to house a museum, DeVille’s artistic and display practices are a sharp departure from traditional modes of presentation. Unlike Peale’s Linnaean ordering of animal specimens or the clean compartmentalizing of school subjects, DeVille’s crafts a work wild in its uncontained overflow. Here, history is presented through the highly coded vocabulary of DeVille, manifested as a defiant index of a building and its contents long neglected. A walk through the funhouse-like galleries engenders an over-saturation of the senses, in which tactile, auditory, and visual limits are made malleable, stretched and compressed.

Only When It’s Dark Enough Can You See The Stars prompts both a return to and a departure from the historical roots of both art and place. Following the decline of Academic art and History painting, the movements and styles emerging out of the twenty-first century—abstraction, Pop, Conceptualism, appropriative—exhibit a marked absence of historical representation. DeVille’s work, undeniably contemporary, recalls these visually ahistorical works yet, through the inclusion of place, inserts a subtle historical narrative. One room, an immersive, kinetic environment of scrap paper and chandeliers, contains a painted image of an early precedent to the American flag. I found two relationships here, both convincing. DeVille appears to reference Jasper Johns, constructing a work that blends painting and the painted—a found object that is both a familiar symbol yet a foreign idea. Yet, DeVille also recalls the tumultuous histories that occurred in and around the former Peale Museum—conflicts, such as the War of 1812 and the Civil War, which challenged notions of American identity and unity.

An investigation into the idiosyncrasies of history, both formal and obscure, DeVille creates a persuasive argument that positions the artist as historian. Time is decidedly non-linear and the works on display are not accessioned but found, given a new life. Walking through the DeVille’s environments, pushed by sounds and bright lights, the feeling was, as the wall text claims, like “a passage through spacetime.” Surreal.

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I stood, silhouetted, against television screens depicting street riots, interviews, policemen, and static. Behind, a dry-cleaning rack paraded objects in various states of decay—maybe a wheel; a bucket. I shouted into complex system of tubing, jumping to hear the yells of my sister, who shouted into the contraption’s other ear in another room. The show was participatory. Surrounded by an audience in oak pews, visitors and scheduled performers alike sang and spoke into an open mic. Above, a cut and backlit tarp read like the sky on a clear night.

DeVille’s environments are hectic and loud. But, more importantly, they are unclear. This, however, is not the fatal flaw of Only When It’s Dark Enough Can You See The Stars. Rather, this ambiguity is key to the show’s success. Artists, DeVille states, process and display history in a manner that is both disjointed and whole, cogent and abstruse. How can artists translate the history of spaces and peoples oft ignored into consumable and intelligible narratives? DeVille appears to argue that they should not attempt. Instead, environments and performers use the remnants and debris of the past of building materials for the present, constructing spaces open for interpretation.

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DeVille does not attempt to patch that inconsistent history of the former Peale Museum and those individuals that engaged with the space. Instead, she presents a catalogue of what remains, scattering the clues of a hazy past behind slate tablets and tattered cloths. Not the familiar form of history found in sanitized textbooks, Only When It’s Dark Enough Can You See The Stars presents a counter-reality, where time and space collapse to reveal what is there and what isn’t, letting the viewer fill the in-between.

Author John Durovsik is a Baltimore-based writer, originally from Philadelphia, PA.

 

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