December 14, 2012
In the midst of the Civil War, between writing the first and final drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln stated, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it.” On January 1, 1863, the final version was issued as an order to the armed forces. One hundred years later on a hot summer day, hundreds of thousands of individuals marched on Washington to demand equal treatment for African Americans under the law.
The year 2013 marks the 150th and 100th anniversaries of these two pivotal moments in American history and in recognition a new exhibition opens December 14, “Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and the March on Washington, 1963,” produced jointly by the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and the National Museum of American History (NMAH). Lonnie Bunch, NMAAHC director says he, along with NMAH curators Harry Rubenstein and Nancy Bercaw, chose to pair the anniversaries not just because the March on Washington was seen as a call to finally fulfill the promise of the Proclamation, but because together they offer insights into how people create change and push their leaders to evolve.
For example, says Bunch, “It isn’t simply Lincoln freeing the slaves. . . there are millions of people, many African Americans, who through the process of self-emancipation or running away, forced the federal government to create policies which lead to the Emancipation Proclamation.”
In the same way the March on Washington put pressure on John F. Kennedy to draft the Civil Rights Act of 1964, so too did the actions of abolitionists and enslaved people force Lincoln’s government to respond.
Artifacts like Nat Turner’s bible, Harriet Tubman’s shawl and a portrait of a black Union soldier and his family together with Lincoln’s proclamation tell stories of self-emancipation before and during the war.
Slaves, who had run away and established the so-called freedmen’s villages, were demanding to be allowed to fight with the Union, even as they were initially considered “contraband of war.” The presence of their huge tent cities—in Memphis an estimated 100,000 rallied— established along the Mississippi River, the East coast and in Washington, D.C., served as a constant reminder, a silent daily witness, to the president. “They were pushing the war toward freedom,” says Bercaw.
Bunch says the curatorial team worked with Civil Rights legends, like Representative John Lewis, to understand how the March was organized from within. Highlighting the role of women in the numerous civil rights organizations that helped orchestrate the event, the exhibit again models the diverse roots of change.
“When I look at this moment,” says Bunch, “it should really inspire us to recognize that change is possible and profound change is possible.”
”Changing America: Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and the March on Washington, 1963″ runs through September 15, 2013 at the American History Museum.
December 12, 2012
He built robots, pioneered the field of video art and coined the term “electronic superhighway” in 1974 to predict our age of communications technology. When he died at the age of 73 in 2006, Korean American artist Nam June Paik was described by the New York Times as ”a shy yet fearless man who combined manic productivity and incessant tinkering with Zen-like equanimity.”
“A lifelong Buddhist,” the obituary went on, “Mr. Paik never smoked or drank and also never drove a car. He always seemed amused by himself and his surroundings, which could be overwhelming: a writer once compared his New York studio to a television repair shop three months behind schedule.”
In 2009, the Smithsonian American Art Museum received the legendary artist’s archives, acquiring all the old televisions, robotics materials and artwork from the artist’s estate. After organizing the highly-acclaimed Paik retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1982, curator John Hanhardt came to the Smithsonian precisely so that he could work among this treasure trove of archived materials and artworks, including the 1995 piece Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii.
Now, Hanhardt’s long labors have resulted in a new tribute to the influential artist, “Nam June Paik: Global Visionary,” which opens December 13.
“He was an extraordinary figure,” says Hanhardt of the artist, whom he first met in the early 1970s. “He was so dynamic, ideas were constantly coming from him.”
“He was also extremely funny, irreverent,” he adds, “and you see that in a lot of his work, very playful. He wanted to bring people in by being playful.”
The shows 67 artworks and 140 items from the archives reveal the true genius of a man who worked in film, music and interactive technologies.
“Nam June Paik: Global Visionary” is at the American Art Museum through August 11, 2013.
December 11, 2012
In Washington, D.C., it’s not uncommon for last names to be followed by a D, R or even an I, depending on party affiliation. In a town governed by blues and reds, that divisions run deep is often a predetermined conclusion. But Chicago-based artist Lincoln Schatz wanted to challenge that fiercely partisan dialog, asking the movers and shakers of the political scene to speak about their common and shared experiences from childhood dreams to where they were on 9/11. The result, The Network, is a video portrait of 89 different individuals, opening at the National Portrait Gallery Tuesday, December 11.
Before Schatz pioneered what he calls his “generative video” portraits, a technique that relies on an algorithm to recombine clips in an ever changing sequence, he was just another new, young face in D.C.
“I worked for Ted Kennedy opening his mail for several months. I was such a good mail opener,” says Schatz. Years later, after working with everyone from George Clooney to M.I.A., Schatz returned to the world of politics for a project inspired by Richard Avedon’s 1976 bicentennial election-cycle portrait of America, The Family. Seeking to capture the legacies, aspirations and challenges of everyone from Karl Rove to Cokie Roberts, Schatz says he parked his politics for the entire process.
“My fear was that I would come away from this project being politically agnostic,” says Schatz, who ended up with 9,000 video segments, each with tags like “family” and “freedom,” depending on what the sitter wanted to talk about. “It’s that traditional fear that you go to the sausage factory and you swear off sausage.”
But after spending time with people like civil rights activist and lawyer Vernon Jordan and president of the National Rifle Associate, David Keene, he says that wasn’t the case. “If anything, the complete inverse happened,” he says, adding, “Meeting so many people, who were deeply interested, who really deeply thought about and were engaged in their policy and politics, gave me complete faith in our democracy as a functioning model.”
Largely letting his sitters lead the interview, he also wanted to let them lead him to the next sitter, asking each to recommend someone new. In that way, he developed a network of people from the inside out, working through D.C.’s existing social infrastructure. Despite the variety of subjects, from former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and founder of PubMed Dr. David Lipman to Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael G. Vickers and Representative Eric Cantor common themes naturally emerged.
“Many sitters were discussing the same topic, but when we started to recombine them sequentially in different combinations, it changed the way we understood that topic,” says Schatz. ”So many things are an abstraction and politics is one of them, we often lose sight of the fact that these are individuals.”
At the video’s installation Tuesday morning, viewers gathered around the monitor to see which interviewee would be selected first by the programming Schatz designed especially for this work. A thoughtful Barney Frank, the retiring member of the House of Representatives from Massachusetts, appeared on the screen, talking about his upbringing in Bayonne, New Jersey where the politics were notoriously corrupt.
The work aims to unite figures across the red-blue spectrum, including people like Frank, known for his outspoken liberal politics and Grover Norquist, the hardline small government advocate and founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform.
And though the work does reveal a human side to politics, there are plenty of reminders that politics is, after all, politics.
Norquist says he enjoyed learning more about where his onetime congressman came from, but the bipartisan warmth didn’t last long. Reflecting on the clip, Norquist says, “I thought to myself how glad I am he’s not in Congress anymore, what a nice man to be somewhere else.”
The accompanying book, The Network: Portrait Conversations will also be released Dec. 11. with text from the 89 interviews and photographs from the video. Lincoln Schatz will be at the National Portrait Gallery for a discussion and book signing, December 11 at 6 P.M.
October 19, 2012
The Monarch butterfly makes one of the longest migrations on Earth, and it does with pinpoint accuracy despite never having flown the route before. Beginning in August every year, the North American Monarch populations head south for the winter–the only butterfly species to do so. By the time of the first frosts in late October, the butterflies that began their journey east of the Rocky Mountains have safely gathered in the mountains of Mexico. Come spring, the next generation of butterflies will make the return trip.
It’s a spectacular journey of more than 2,000 miles made by insects weighing less than a penny each. And now it’s been captured on 3-D film with the October release of Flight of the Butterflies at the Smithsonian’s IMAX theaters.
“The monarch symbolizes the beauty and fragility of nature but also embodies the strength and resilience needed for survival,” wrote the British film director and co-writer Mike Slee. In order to capture the tremendous journey, Slee and his team filmed for a total of two years. They were able to use the work of scientist Fred Urquhart, who spent almost 40 years trying to understand the Monarch butterfly’s migration and locate its secret winter sanctuary. Beginning with his childhood interest in the migration, the film follows the start of his research in 1937 to his discovery in Mexico.
Catalina Aguado was part of the initial team that discovered the mountainous winter retreat location with Urquhart in 1975. Aguado, along with her husband Kenneth Brugger, got involved in the project after answering Urquhart’s newspaper ad seeking volunteers in Mexico. Now Aguado, who is the only living member of that team, was able to help the documentary crew tell the story of the butterflies’ journey and her own part in discovering its mysteries.
The cinematics are nothing short of breathtaking. Even Slee found himself in awe of what he was capturing. “What you see, you can’t imagine nature ever being like this,” Slee told NPR. “Trees that are draped — that are made, almost, of butterflies. It’s got a surreal, supernatural feeling to it. It sends a sort of tingle up your spine when you see it in 3-D.”
“The whole project was pioneering natural history filmmaking,” wrote Slee, who has worked on more than 50 film projects, including David Attenborough’s Life on Earth and Living Planet series. Slee said it was a challenge to take so much motion and activity and adapt it to 3-D film. The team also used medical imaging techniques to get a new look at the insect’s early development. “Seeing the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly using micro CT scans and MRI scans from inside the chrysalis had never been before and it was mind-blowing.”
Even after enduring long days of inclement weather and filming from a 70-foot crane, the team still viewed the final product with a sense of wonder. Aguado told NPR, “I can say wonderful, fantastic and glorious — and whatever other words, but I cannot describe the feeling. It was magical.”
Below, scenes from the feature film:
October 5, 2012
The harsh conditions of the polar north provided precisely the upbringing Native artist Abraham Anghik Ruben needed to craft his fantastical sculptures that meld Nordic and Inuit cultures. A collection of 23 of his culture-crossing works titled, “Arctic Journeys/Ancient Memories: The Sculpture of Abraham Anghik Ruben,” opens Friday October 5th at the American Indian Museum.
Though the link between the Nordic and Inuit peoples is something that has long been suggested in sagas and stories, archeological research has begun, in the past half century, to corroborate connections.
“The Vikings did not stay long in North America but the story of their arrival and contacts with Native Americans is a remarkable tale,” states a web exhibition on the Vikings, curated by the Natural History Museum’s Arctic Studies Center. The most famed of these Viking visitors is Leif Ericson, son of Greenland explorer and criminal-in-exile Erik the Red.
“This was an incredible period of exploration in the 9th century and 10th century,” says Bernadette Driscoll Engelstad, curator of Ruben’s show at the American Indian Museum. Looking for timber and fisheries, the Vikings went west from Greenland. But after christening what is today known as Newfoundland, Engelstad says, the Vikings didn’t stick around. “One reason that the Norse did not stay in North America,” explains Engelstad, “was because of the native peoples here. They were very aggressive and the sagas indicate it may well have been the native peoples of North America protecting their land and their resources that forced the Norse to discontinue any settlement and exploration.”
By the time Ruben was growing up in Paulatuk in Canada’s Northwest Territories, the Vikings were clearly long gone. His father was a hunter and his mother was a seamstress, both respected in their fields. He grew up on the land and attended a residential school in Inuvik, returning home during the summers. After going to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Ruben settled off the coast of British Columbia, setting up his studio on the island of Salt Spring.
“As an artist I have spent the last 30 years developing my craft and having as the focus of my work the arts and cultural traditions of my Inuit background,” writes Ruben on his personal site. “My studies of circumpolar people and their movements have led me to the conclusion that their was extensive contact between my Inuit ancestors who arrived into Baffin island and Greenland at the time of the Viking-Norse settlements and expeditions.”
Ruben draws on the legends from both Inuit and Norse cultures to pick up where historical documentation ends. Drawn to the common threads of arctic cultures, including a tradition of Shamanism, Ruben generously blends iconographies with his sculptures of stone, bronze, whale bone and narwhal tusk.
“Abraham has the freedom of vision,” says Engelstad, “which I think is very interesting.” With that artistic license, says Engelstad, Ruben is able to highlight a shared maritime tradition, common mythologies about shapeshifting entities and a spiritual approach to nature across arctic cultures. To Engelstad, the connection between the two cultures at work in Ruben’s sculpture comes from a “belief in the unity, the holistic quality of nature and that boundaries are not quite as demarcated as we have made them in Western culture.”
The exhibition opens in time for the Arctic Studies Center’s 2012 conference on Inuit studies, happening October 24 through 28.