Strangers in a Familiar Land

SITE Santa Fe biennial invokes the shared experience across continents and the value of the overlooked

In Paolo Soleri’s now-abandoned amphitheater at the Santa Fe Indian School, we see everything that SITElines.2016 is about. Free-form concrete is cast as art in biometric and geometric forms. Native aesthetics and architecture, as well as elements of an Elizabethan theater, inform the shape of a space originally built for the Institute of American Indian Arts as training ground for a generation of Native American playwrights, actors and dancers. As costs of upkeep have seen the theater fall into disrepair, the theater itself has become, as art so often is, “a stand-in for the geopolitical tensions that presently exist in the region and throughout the Americas,” the SITElines catalog reads.

Those core themes—value of vernacular craft, Indigenous influence and a sense of interconnected experiences that cross the lines we draw on a map—run through the pieces of art assembled for the biennial.

"There is no one theme of the show. There's no one thing all of the artists share," says Irene Hofmann, Phillips director and chief curator of SITE Santa Fe. But those three themes become "the glue between the artists."

The lineup for this year's biennial, titled Much Wider Than a Line and opening on July 16 at SITE Santa Fe, is assembled around artists whose work was seen as urgent and calling for a more visible stage.

"The artists came first," Hofmann says. "But [the title] is such a rich metaphor that it has tied so many of the artists together."

Some pieces celebrate the art in handcrafts and everyday items like capes and stools, which visitors will be able to wear and sit on. Some recall the influence of Indigenous cultures, bringing to the exhibition pieces in which an artist has made his own skin a canvas for a conversation about reclaiming Indigenous names in the face of a colonial whitewash of them, or filling a room with polymer panels in which float pieces of marine animal gut, hide and hair used by Native Alaskans. Some engage in the shared legacy that crosses all our political boundaries, of living on land that has been conquered, traded and sold. Some alight upon several of these themes, finding their natural points of synthesis.

SITE locally pioneered and has since upended the biennial model, 20 years ago launching the first international biennial of contemporary art in the United States, and revisiting that in recent years to focus solely on art from the Americas. Curatorial tasks also shifted from a single to a collaborative model.

"If we were going to in fact pivot to a more in-depth focus on the Americas, we also had to acknowledge the diversity of voices, voices that had not been part of the curatorial deliberations nor part of the list of artists in biennials largely, and so that led us to the vision that we had to really look at a collaborative process," Hofmann says. "We would really cast the net much wider and do our homework in parts of the world that have not gotten the attention from the art world. … So that has led us into much deeper research into regions like Central and South America and in large part also north of us."

Santa Fe, of course, is no stranger to the ideas at play in SITElines, and perhaps for that reason, Much Wider Than a Line fits symbiotically here. New Mexico provides a fitting home even for work from artists from the far northern reaches of the continent, icy and wet as they may be. But it has also inspired artists to create place-specific work that responds to this landscape. The contingency on those projects, Hofmann says, is that their research be thorough.

"There's nothing about our approach to this that resembles that kind of more surface read of a place," she says.

What we'll see this year are the results of the five years Pablo Helguera spent researching New Mexican history for a mixed media installation and performance on the history of conflict in New Mexico and how that legacy runs counter to the glossy tourist images, and Jonathas De Andrade's localization of a UNESCO project on race and class from 1952 that photographed rural Brazilians and then showed other people those photos and asked questions like, "Which person do you think is smarter?" De Andrade revisited that concept by photographing 100 Santa Feans.

The exhibition title lifts a phrase from Leanne Simpson's book on the Canadian Indigenous people, the Nishnaabeg, Dancing On Our Turtle's Back. Simpson's statement, in full, reads, "Communication is required to jointly care-take this region, which is much wider than a line."

We must continue to engage in conversations around these themes and try to see connections rather than differences.

Much Wider Than a Line
SITElines.2016: New Perspectives on Art from the Americas

SITE Santa Fe,
1606 Paseo de Peralta, July 16 to Jan. 8

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