In the Studio: Alan Michelson

Portrait by Bryson Rand.


In 1990 Alan Michelson set forty cast-concrete markers to trace the contours of Collect Pond, a sixty-foot-deep pool formerly located in Lower Manhattan. By the early nineteenth century, the pond became so polluted by settlers that it was drained, and the site now lies buried beneath paving stones. Each of Michelson’s markers bore a relief of animal or plant life, referring to the natural history of the waterhole before it was filled with toxic detritus. The history told by the markers was social as well; some of the reliefs, such as those picturing maize, evoked the Indigenous people who once lived on the pond’s shores.

Michelson approaches geographical sites as if they were archives to be surveyed. In effect, he uncovers strata of North American histories and landscapes through multimedia installations and site-specific projects that take on national myths and troubling colonial legacies. Michelson belongs to the Mohawk, one of the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. In his work he negotiates conflicting claims to place and identity that have shifted over time, often by pointing to the embedded traces of Indigenous presence that survive in spite of colonial incursions.

In Wolf Nation (2018), a video installation produced for the Storm King Art Center in Upstate New York, footage of endangered red wolves, taken from a conservation center’s live feed, is projected as a purple-tinted band. The horizontal format and the tint of the video refer to the Haudenosaunee wampum belt tradition, which used mnemonically encoded woven sashes of polished purple and white shell beads to record treaties and diplomatic agreements. The work’s title is a reference to the Munsee Lenape, a people known as the Wolf Tribe, who neighbored the Mohawk to the south. Storm King sits on the territory that was once home to both nation and species. The slow-moving wolves laze about a wooded landscape in the video, seemingly at ease, yet confronting the viewer with living reminders of displacement.

Michelson’s evocation of the wampum belt is a strategy for inserting representations of Indigenous sovereignty into public space. He executed it most notably in Third Bank of the River (2009), an installation at the American border station at Three Nations Crossing in Massena, New York. Two parallel rows of photomontaged shorelines depict US, Canadian, and Mohawk (Akwesasne Nation) territory. The images are printed on purple-tinted glass to reinforce the allusion to the Two Row Wampum, a belt symbolizing a 1613 treaty between the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch. The reference to the belt at the international border crossing marks Mohawk presence and troubles the ownership of a boundary managed by settler-colonial nations.

In April of this year, Michelson unveiled a public monument in Richmond, Virginia, that likewise intervenes in a robust space of national authority. Mantle was commissioned by the Virginia Indian Commemorative Commission for the park around the capitol. Michelson approached a site thick with commemorative statues by drawing from the Indigenous history of the place. The resulting monument exists in tension with those already occupying one of the most prominent memorial landscapes in the US.

Michelson and I drove to Richmond together to see Mantle in person in September. We spent several rainy hours walking in Capitol Square, a fenced-in plot of well-kept greenery and curving paths that rise up to Thomas Jefferson’s Neo-Classical capitol at the hill’s peak. Mantle sits below it on the southwest edge of the square. The spiral path of local river stone and soil, planted with flora native to the area, bites into the hillside as it circles inward. A low wall on its outer edge is made of quartzite from Mohawk territory in New York. At the center is a gently splashing fountain, with Indigenous names of Virginian waterways inscribed in lines radiating from the water’s source. Michelson intended the monument to be a social site as well as a contemplative one, set apart from the square’s manicured lawns. After visiting Mantle we stepped into the capitol to view its statues of American and Confederate leaders, then withdrew to a former pharmacy-turned-café to fortify ourselves with coffee and grits and discuss Michelson’s recent work.

CHRISTOPHER GREEN  What is an Indigenous monument? Is there such a thing?

ALAN MICHELSON  During the American Revolution, François Barbé-Marbois, the secretary of the French delegation in Philadelphia, asked Thomas Jefferson whether the Indians had any monuments. Jefferson said he didn’t know of anything that fit that description, except perhaps for the mounds. Jefferson explored thirteen mounds near his estate, including a burial mound that he later opened up. The extensive history of Mississippian mound culture was one of my sources for Mantle. But you could also say that the petroglyphs and pictographs of the region could be counted as Indigenous monuments of sorts. It takes a lot of work to etch an image in stone.

GREEN  You describe Mantle as an earthwork monument, and its spiral of stonework is inscribed in the hillside of Capitol Square. Western monuments are conceived as being everlasting and are accordingly made of bronze and stone. Did that notion of permanence figure in the choices of materials you made for Mantle?

MICHELSON  I think so, though I don’t know how long Mantle will last.

GREEN  Do you want it to last forever?

MICHELSON  Forever is a long time. It is built to last. The Commemorative Commission is calling it the Virginia Indian Tribute, so I wanted the monument honoring Virginia’s Native nations to have real presence and permanence. I was engaged with the site and wanted the work to be in dialogue with the topography and the natural slope.

GREEN  Can you comment on the specificity of Capitol Square and the topography that Mantle cuts into? It seems like an intervention compared to other monuments that sit on pedestals above the ground.

MICHELSON  I was aware of how the hill functions as a pedestal for Jefferson’s white temple, copied from the Maison Carrée. I was much more interested in the hill as a hill, as a land form, than in all the vertical monuments that exist there. I was interested in something that could be integrated with the topography, but that also was distinct from it.

GREEN  It’s a marker on the place. But would you say it is of the place?

MICHELSON  Yes, and it’s not just a physical topography but a temporal one, encompassing mounds as well as colonial history.

GREEN  How did you relate to that colonial history? Capitol Square exudes American history. Its monumental landscape actively serves the myth of the nation. For many years you have been taking up those kinds of national constructs in a variety of ways. How are you pushing against history and mythmaking at such a potent site?

MICHELSON  The shape of the monument refers to a particular artifact of Indigenous history, known as Powhatan’s Mantle, which is now in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford. This large deer hide is embroidered with tiny white snail shell beads—a ceremonial artifact, I think, rather than an actual garment. A human figure is flanked by two animal figures, and there are about thirty spirals that were thought to be a map of the Powhatan confederacy. In that sense the mantle is an Indigenous landscape. I wanted to connect with that history and that material expression of the culture. They think it was a gift from Powhatan to King James, given along with a pair of his old moccasins. I wonder if the moccasins were a sort of prank. Powhatan and the Virginia Indians were hosting these strangers from across the ocean. I wanted to activate a history of Indigenous people as hosts of strangers who then decided to stay and do all sorts of things here. So Mantle is a sort of symbolic reinscription of part of Capitol Square as Native territory.

GREEN  At the same time, Virginia has incorporated its relationship with Native American history, and with Powhatan in particular, into its own myths. This is nowhere better expressed than in the Pocahontas exception built into the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, whereby Virginians could maintain their legal white identity while claiming descent from Pocahontas, Powhatan’s daughter. How do you negotiate that relationship while embedding Powhatan’s presence and worldview back into the Virginia capitol?

MICHELSON  The colonial history of Virginia is quite fraught—not only with the history of Native American relations, but with slavery as well. There are monuments on the hill that express some of that history. For Mantle, I was looking for something else. I was interested in the notion of Indigenous people as hosts, not as victims. Not as acted upon, but rather in terms of what Gerald Vizenor calls “survivance”—an active, continuous presence. I wanted to stress, through the work’s form and scale and the use of native materials and plants, this sense of being a host rather than the guests or the wards.

GREEN  Do you think that Mantle resists the incorporation of Indigenous identity into Virginian selfhood? Scholars like Glen Coulthard and Audra Simpson have described the politics of recognition, where colonial governments use gestures of inclusivity to absolve themselves of past wrongdoings without enacting real justice. To what extent does your project avoid enclosing the Virginia tribes into Virginian statehood in this way?

MICHELSON  The monument was suggested by a Virginian chief, and I really think that one way to avoid merely checking off a box is by telling a more accurate history. The myths are distortions. Virginia is grappling with its colonial history, one that extends well into the twenty-first century, as it was only very recently that six Virginia Indian nations were given federal recognition. We’re in a transition period in America right now. The old myths are being questioned, and more accurate descriptions of history are being insisted upon. I saw Mantle as an opportunity to extend that conversation.

GREEN  Your practice often reveals otherwise ephemeral histories of place. But unlike, say, the monument to lynching victims in America at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, Mantle does not explicitly represent histories of genocide or otherwise make them visible. So what else is being unearthed?

MICHELSON  In 1608, when the mantle was given to King James, that history hadn’t yet unfolded. I wanted Mantle to be more abstract and stand apart from narratives of victimization and injustice. So rather than make something like the George Washington equestrian statue at the top of the hill, where you are stuck looking up at these heroic bronze male figures set on pedestals, I wanted to invite visitors into an Indigenous space.

GREEN  Mantle sits somewhat below the Washington statue. It is also within eyeshot of the front steps of the capitol building, and the capitol’s rotunda holds Houdon’s famous Washington statue. How do you position yourself and the monument and the Indigenous experience you’re trying to evoke in relation to the founding fathers? You’ve taken on Washington quite directly in some of your recent work, particularly one currently on display at the Woodland Cultural Centre in Ontario.

MICHELSON  With all the recent controversy around monuments, I think I stored up a need to engage with these iconic figures. My new piece is titled Hanödaga:yas (Town Destroyer); that is Washington’s name in one of our Haudenosaunee languages. And he did destroy our towns, some fifty of them. Next year will be the 240th anniversary of the Sullivan Expedition, which Washington planned and executed. It resulted in the utter destruction of Haudenosaunee towns, farms, and orchards, wiping out thousands and thousands of acres of corn and vegetable fields. That history is not well known. The piece is trying to engage with it. The Haudenosaunee lands were foundational to the nations’ identities, to their spiritual cosmologies. Those were places where the peoples had sprung from, and where their ancestors are buried.

GREEN  In Hanödaga:yas you visualize that impact by Washington on Indigenous communities. It’s a video projected on a bust of Washington, showing images that include maps, portraits, and the historical markers indicating the sites of the villages that were burned during the Sullivan Expedition. It is currently on display in Six Nations territory, one of several Haudenosaunee diaspora communities on the Canadian side of the border.

MICHELSON  That’s right. There was a constant forcing of Native people into being migrants or refugees on their own continent, in their own country. That happened to the Haudenosaunee, and my ancestors and those of the rest of the people at Six Nations fled from Sullivan and Clinton and Brodhead’s armies. They weren’t there to kill us; they were there to destroy our material life and food supply. It was a very effective way of taking over territory. For a while in the Mohawk Valley there was a bicultural society. There were European settlers living in the same area as Mohawks and other Haudenosaunee people. It didn’t need to blow up the way it did. There were models of decent relations. I don’t think it is easy to picture the displacement that took place, so I try to create an image of it in this work. It becomes a bit of a history lesson. The projection, by showing the markers in the order of the expedition’s path, and in the order in which the atrocities they commemorate occurred, is also a spatial journey. The sculpture, a replica of Houdon’s bust of Washington, is drafted into a story that’s very different from the one it was designed to tell. There is always a memorial aspect to monuments, and I’m memorializing our towns that are now long gone, leaving only state markers.

GREEN  Hanödaga:yas includes maps and documents. How does such archival material enter into your work?

MICHELSON  My work is often site-specific, and my notion of site includes a temporal aspect. I am interested in Robert Smithson’s idea of site and nonsite. But applied to an Indigenous framework, you could say that the Indigenous site is almost always a nonsite, an abstraction or documentary representation of a site that may no longer exist, like the pond in Earth’s Eye or our villages in what is now Upstate New York. So the dialectic between the absence and the presence of whatever is there now has a critical edge to it. Research has been part of my process for a long time, and I use historical documents. For example, in Hanödaga:yas I use maps contemporaneous to the Sullivan Expedition. My show at Woodland is called “Historicity.” And that speaks to the factual, as opposed to the mythological, aspects of history. The use of these documentary elements is a way of getting at some truth.

GREEN  So through these documents you are memorializing movement as well as the displacement that the march resulted in.

MICHELSON  Yes, that’s implied. The latter part of the projection shows the very quick remapping of Haudenosaunee territory as New York State, as a United States territory. Washington paid his soldiers in land scrip, and every soldier from New York State who fought in the Revolution received a chit for land. Most of them didn’t take the land but sold their chits to people like Washington. Members of the landowning class he belonged to were the big real estate speculators of the day. They got their hands on thousands of acres at a time to later retail to settlers.

GREEN  That memorialization of the migratory movement of Haudenosaunee people from their home territory brings us back to Mantle, a monument that one fully experiences only by walking through it. I recently read the historian Eric Foner describe monuments as combatants in the wars over how history should be remembered. So I wonder if you see movement as part of the memorialization project taken up by Mantle.

MICHELSON  There are all kinds of movement. The movement that Mantle invites along its path is circular. Circles are everywhere in Indigenous culture, and an Indigenous sense of time is embodied in the spiral, where from any point you head both toward the future and backward toward the past. This is distinct from the rectilinear shapes that dominate land relations in Western culture. Hanödaga:yas addresses a lack of accountability regarding the histories of American colonization. Since so much has been projected onto Native people from Euro-American culture from day one, the work is a reversal—that is, a projection demanding accountability from Washington, an iconic figure whom no one wants to think badly of. This is a story that needs to be told. I plan to do a talk at the Metropolitan Museum of Art soon, and I want to involve a projection onto the Hiram Powers bust of Washington that flanks Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. There is also an Andrew Jackson bust on the other side the painting, and while people are familiar with Jackson’s anti-Native policies, like the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears, he was not the first leader to have forced Native people off their treaty-guaranteed territories.1

GREEN  With Washington overlooking Capitol Square, I wonder to what extent Mantle can interrupt this predominantly white-supremacist memorial landscape.

MICHELSON  I think there is a way in which Mantle refuses to engage that history directly. I preferred to put something there that is about Indigenous people being your hosts and this being Indigenous land, whereas with Hanödaga:yas I am directly engaging the history of dispossession and the person who, in the case of my ancestors, was responsible for that dispossession. That story hasn’t been told very well.

GREEN  Is Mantle a model for a future kind of monument?

MICHELSON  It may be. New York City recently formed a monument commission, which then recommended that no monument should be destroyed, though several monuments were removed. Monuments can tell different stories now than they did before. And artists can be part of that process through operations that recontextualize them. Projection is only one way. Projecting onto a white stone statue—well, white stone statues are very good screens. That embodied whiteness is a blank canvas.