The theme of this biennial is “Unsettled Landscapes,” though the work I found most exemplary of the show’s concerns offered more of a pastoral vision. Kent Monkman’s Bête Noire (2014) is a natural history museum-style diorama featuring a life-size Native American drag queen—a stand-in for the Toronto-based Monkman’s “Miss Chief” alter ego—sitting astride a beefy motorcycle. Heavily made up and clad in a headdress and high-heel patent leather boots, Miss Chief appears to be gliding across a fertile plain as a herd of grazing buffaloes stretches far into the distance behind her. There is one moment of violence in the scene, but it isn’t directed at the indigenous animals. Instead, Miss Chief’s pink arrows have taken down a foreign interloper: a Cubist beast that appears to have been extracted from Picasso’s Guernica.
In his classic 1950 study of how the American landscape has been represented in literature and popular culture, Henry Nash Smith defined myth as “an intellectual construct that fuses concept and emotion into an image.” The American West, he showed, has been a hotbed of myth-making, often in the service of colonizers. Joining the generations of scholars and historians in Smith’s wake, many of the artists in SITElines take on the persistent myths, deconstructing them or, like Monkman, offering a few of their own. Monkman’s mythical West appears to be a place where queer sexuality, sustainable ecology and badass motorcycles can coexist in harmony; the only element out of place is the emblem of European modernism, with its corrosive primitivism and misogynistic gender politics.
The 45 artists and collectives participating in the 2014 edition of SITElines all intervened in the long and contested cultural history of representing the American landscape, broadly defined. Though the geographical purview is vast-stretching from Canadian Charles Stankievech’s masterful film shot at a Cold War listening post in the Arctic to Argentine Adriana Bustos’s pencil drawings depicting varied scenes from the history of the regional drug trade—the tight thematic focus marks a new direction for the institution, and perhaps a model for countering a bloated biennial culture.
Founded in 1995, SITE Santa Fe hosted a series of well-regarded biennials, inviting outside curators to provide snapshots of global contemporary art every two years. Yet as similarly well-regarded biennials cropped up all over the place, the small Southwestern outpost risked getting lost in the shuffle. At the behest of director Irene Hofmann, SITE took a hiatus in 2012 to recalibrate. What emerged is a plan for a series of three geographically delimited exhibitions, of which “Unsettled Landscapes” is the first. Curated by Hofmann as well as Candice Hopkins, Lucía Sanromán and Janet Dees, this iteration examines, in their words, the “urgencies, political conditions and historical narratives that inform the work of contemporary artists across the Americas.”
The historical narratives offered by New York-based Pablo Helguera in his performance, Nuevo romancero, Nuevo mexicano/New New Mexican Romancero (2014), were nonlinear and highly idiosyncratic. Abstracting the structure of a Three-Card Monte game, Helguera interwove folklore, found stories and traditional songs into an oral history of New Mexico that featured legendary brothel owners and violent native revolt. Several of the New Mexico-based artists in the show also constructed new kinds of personal histories of their home state. Jamison Chas Banks’s installation Stealing Home (2014) takes baseball as a metaphor—there’s a scoreboard tallying the efforts of “away” and “native” parties as well as a ball signed by Napoleon Bonaparte—for examining the effects of the Louisiana Purchase on Native American culture.
Treating the wider Americas as a region, however, requires a delicate balance: suggesting some sort of overarching common ground on the one hand while accounting for the cultural diversity of two great continents on the other. It’s not always clear whether or how artists like Blue Curry, a Bahamian based in London who looped real-time video of Nassau’s behemoth cruise ship ports into the gallery, is really in dialogue with fellow Americans like Nunavut-based artist Ohotaq Mikkigak, who makes sublime abstract pencil drawings steeped in native folklore.
And this historically rich exhibition also lacked much of a sense of contemporary “urgency.” Andrea Bowers’s 2010 video The United States vs. Tim De Christopher is one of the few projects that points to the real ways that the American landscape remains unsettled, contested and under threat today. Bowers interviewed an activist who disrupted a Utah mineral rights auction and also filmed herself on the plots of land that were being sold off by the Bush administration at fire-sale prices to oil and gas companies. Here, the American land is presented within the context of a worldwide climate crisis caused by our addiction to oil and gas, and that sense of global interconnectedness is what might be truly pressing.