Heartland, a walk into the art scene of the U.S ‘Third Coast’

As i mentioned a couple of days ago, the Heartland exhibition on view until January 25 at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven (NL) is one of the best shows i’ve visited this year.


Heartland roughly follows the Mississippi River, taking in an area from New Orleans up to Minneapolis in the north and including Omaha, Kansas City, Detroit and Chicago. The curatorial team, a collaboration between the Van Abbemuseum and the Smart Museum of Art in Chicago, commissioned new pieces and selected existing works by contemporary artists who live in the region or have undertaken residencies there in order to produce new work. The programme includes musical events at the Muziekcentrum Frits Philips, debates, lectures, a photo exhibition, a magazine and publications.

Heartland is a precious exhibition. The U.S. are all over our (European) newspapers because of the upcoming presidential elections. Yet, most of us know very little of the art and culture of the area that lies between the East Coast and the West Coast. And what we think we might know can often be reduced to a bunch of cliches. One of the main objectives of the exhibition is to offer a more penetrating picture of the ‘Heartland’. Indeed, each of the works on show engages dynamically with the city and area it comes from, rising issues peculiar to that place and the people who live there . Another aim of Heartland is, as the curators added in their press release, to questions traditional definitions of cultural centers and peripheries.

oaacharlesen.jpgAlec Soth, Charles, Vasa, Minnesota, 2002. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery

Alec Soth ‘s photo series Sleeping by the Mississippi brings you right into the heart of the subject. The result of several years of road trips along the legendary river, the photographic prints capture America’s “third coast”. While the area appears to be the essence and backbone of the whole country, its landscapes, people and interiors evoke a sense of neglect, loneliness and melancholy.

0aamarjeticc.jpgMarjetica Potrč , New Orleans: Shotgun House with Rainwater-Harvesting Tank, 2008

Marjetica Potrč has spent several months studying the changing landscape of post-Katrina New Orleans. With the help of FutureProof (a sustainable design consultancy), she focused her researches on issues of sustainability, water, and the emergence of new geographic and political territories based on changing ecology.

The ‘Shotgun House with Rainwater-Harvesting Tank’ builds upon two recent trends in New Orleans: the revival of the local architectural style known as the Shotgun House, and the move toward self-sustainability. Inhabitants have customized this local style by adding elements that allow them to harvest rainwater and solar power. These post-Katrina developments reflect the search for a new social contract for democracy. The two caryatids represent the citizens of New Orleans whom she sees as the ‘supporting columns’ of the reconstruction of the city.

0ainpiecccsh.jpgMarjetica Potrč , Surviving in Pieces, 2007. Courtesy the artist and Max Protetch Gallery

The drawings and prints that accompanied the installation echo the ways in which infrastructure is created from the bottom up by individuals either in response to political or ecological change or simply to improve their lives. The societies she examines, including New Orleans, have undergone political or climatic changes that have made Modernism’s social contracts untenable.

0adunkindonnnu.jpgDetroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop, Museum Benches, 2008

The exhibition presented also independent cultural organizations and artists’ platforms whose activities are deeply rooted in their local environment. One of them is the Tree of Heaven Woodshop is a Detroit-based network of specialists, craftspeople, researchers, artists and enthusiasts who work exclusively with wood processed from what the Chinese call the Tree of Heaven. In the Detroit, the tree received also the nickname “ghetto palm” because of the way it populates abandoned lots and deserted factory sites all over the city. The tree survives, even in a polluted area, where there is poor or very little soil as it is often found climbing out of abandoned factories and houses, lamp posts and even sidewalks and concrete structures, make this tree the plant of post-industrial landscapes.

0aaburnthouses.jpgDetroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop, Detroit Woodshop Burnt House Tree

The quantity and height of Tree of Heaven specimen indicate how long a place might have been abandoned. Interested in the ongoing effects of de-industrialisation on communities and environments, the Tree of Heaven Woodshop decided to take advantage of the tree ubiquity. By using existing infrastructure and supporting small local businesses, the Woodshop turn the tree into an agent of communication. Processing trees into raw material for sculptures or furniture might not be regarded as a very sophisticated concept. But in the light of this specific city and the qualities of this specific tree it becomes a demonstration of the possibilities of this place in time.

0aakeryjannnes.jpgKerry James Marshall, Dailies (Rhythm Mastr), 2007

A whole wall was covered with the comics (more images) of Kerry James Marshall. Marshall used to read a lot of superhero comics as a kid and one day, because all of a sudden the character of the Black Panther appeared in the Fantastic Four, he and many other with him realized that there were no black heroes in comics. Hence this ongoing project, Rythm Monstr, which explores black American culture through its own super heroes. They are the comic, swearing, talking (in both Chinese and english) and jumping version of archaic African sculptures. Each of them subtly summons issues of racial tensions, the civil rights movement, Afro-American traditions and communal solidarity in the 21st century.

The Wexner Center has a nice video interview of the artist.

If you can’t make it to Eindhoven, internet comes to your rescue: the curators traveled the whole ‘Heartland” to research the exhibition and posted their impressions and photos on the Heartland Research blog.

Heartland is on view until January 25 at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven (NL) and will travel in a modified version to the Smart Museum of Art in Chicago next year.

Previously: Michael Rakowitz’ Dull Roar at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven (NL).