Art is Not Exceptional

Christian Lawrence

Notes in italics by the artist.

Dakota Gallery, Bellingham: three white walls, a glass and black metal facade, a white pillar, black floors. 

The installation is called I Am Sorry Please Forgive Me. The artist is Hannah Zoe. 

Front, in the facade (movement one): two silk nets spinning out with holes, in suspension. Below, their shadows traced by some ash. Another shadow leaks out of the window onto the outdoors wall. 

Center (movement two): a pair of branches from which cascade, at varying lengths, string held by rice glue. At their tips: seed pods, amber with melted sugar. An avenue between branches can be walked through. 

Far (movement three): a black wall to mirror the facade, black platforms of similar dimensions perpendicular, floating above the ground, of glass. On the wall, powdery line drawings; on the glass plateaus, ripples of gradated ash. 

Left wall between (movement four): inky, flat, and spacious wall drawings. Branch shadows from movement two. 

On the pillar, a description of each movement. 

Right wall remains blank (a breath), save for a poem. 

The artist wrote a poem to her installation. Her poem rings despair between a left and then right justification, a ringing back and forth between a self-centered and world-considering malaise. So, why is the artist hopeful? 

The artist is humiliated by the art. This isn’t fear of appearing sentimental. Such is for art criticism. The artist made something tangential. Along a curve is a tangent line that is the curve, or was once, but is now a line. In the artist’s words, the installation is “a jumping off point,” a departure. It’s not really a work for you, or for her. It’s the frayed gesture of a guided hand about to rest on a tool of some kind. It takes humility to act on behalf of such art, or to allow such art to act on your behalf. 

There’s a strong narrative behind the installation about process, without aggrandizing process. The artist shares it like someone who saw an animal along a trail, but becomes a bit sheepish when the asked to explore of intent behind her process. (The impulse to work delicately, to play with transparency and light are, I believe, manifestations of this desire to work reductively on my Self, to peel away what’s unnecessary, to question the constructs that don’t serve my community, peace, or inclusivity. From here, art is as much self-discovery as it is self expression.) 

The strong narrative isn’t the artist’s narrative, it’s the installation’s narrative—which will be forgotten eventually, which is why it seems vivid now in it’s freshness. Eventually, the work will cross beyond the glass facade of the gallery and fall apart outdoors. By then, the narrative of the installation’s becoming will have greyed over a bit, and the artist will be at work somehow else, perhaps, most likely, in service to what are known as environmental causes. 

I think the message the artist most wants conveyed is such causes are not categorical. The hope is that it no longer takes careful and pained consideration of non-human ecologies to care for them deeply. What it means to do this, exactly, is difficult to express in words, because usually the fit is poor. What is felt could be felt wrong, misfelt, felt against another’s feels. All this leads to very careful language use. And language is a human ecology (along with art and genre). But, as I said, the installation is accelerating away from all that, neither sanctimonious nor academic, almost not even believable. 

The firm center of gravity for the installation is a ritual or ritual space that has not taken from other rituals before, near or far; made reductively of found, otherwise unused, materials. The mediums are serendipity, a bit of play, very little thought, and a great deal of considering. The media: gratifying materials like ash and glass and sugar and silk, composed into four movements. Movements one, two, and three are certain components of life, the fourth an expression of frustration at the dis-joint in human consideration of the previous three. ]

What is the ritual for? The artist is upset. Between the apology and the request for forgiveness is the upset. It rings between the four movements. To me she spoke of a sinking feeling in her gut. She uses words like shame, regret, and disgust in her word-poem, but the actual upset rings between those words. The art enunciates the upset. It’s a ritual, the conclusion of which (the end of the ritual, the cessation of its use-need), is an entirely real doing-good-out-there. So, the installation is a reminder to a larger art community that art is its own end, but not an end in itself. (Nothing I can make will come close to reciprocating the existing beauty that inspires my work, but by writing these poems and crafting these pieces, the effort and attention itself becomes the offering, the apology.) And what of the upset? It’s not resolved, but incorporated into the artist: mollified, no longer painful, now a driving impetus, a close ally in the face of disaster. 

To the visitor of the installation, there’s a great deal going on, despite so much breathing space. Luckily, we are mostly witnesses in the ritual. That’s a nice change. Consider a friend inspired by a wedding, a child learning the words to prayer, an athlete adopting other’s methods as avenues to strength. This is against the caste-privilege of viewership that belongs to art criticism. The art is usually for the viewer, or takes the viewer into much consideration, to the point that an artist often becomes-viewer in order to properly work. 

But, this time, the artist is still the artist, and the ritual is an act of reducing herself and the installation. This promises that there will always be presence. The explicit, sometimes oblique, engine of time-based, live, or installation (not installed) art is presence. For viewers, sometimes it’s hard to get a grasp or know how to care. However, the artist reports being approached during the opening by a handful of the nearly-speechless who could tell what was going on, heard the ringing, and it rang with them. I would have very little to report if I hadn’t the opportunity to speak with the artist. That’s where the ringing lies for me anyway. 

The artist said, “Art is not exceptional.” And, by extension, neither is our species. She reported how working with found materials is humbling. Often, other artists ask the artist about her process and she gives an engaged answer about the materials and composition, while softly avoiding leading questions on motif or intent. (When you say a word so many times it loses meaning. When you talk about your work’s truth over and over, it’s meaning can be lost too. I’m afraid it won’t be as pure an offering when it’s tainted with theory, becomes rigid in its conception.) The artist’s process for this installation was, actually, a constant self-reminding gratitude for the plant- and animal-derived materials at-hand. That gratitude and humility was the guide to the hand and the resulting shapes. An easy metaphor is how unseen wind leaves in sand or snow waves, ripples, and swails. And the artist is “coming out” about this. It’s not mystical. It’s identity, or identifying as an entire ecology.