Jeffrey Gibson: Because Once You Enter My House It Becomes Our House
On ViewSocrates Sculpture Park
through March 2021
Long Island City
Spurred by police brutality against Black Americans, protests in the United States have grown to encompass a national reevaluation of public statues associated with oppression and racism. Case-by-case reckonings have resulted variously in defacement, lawsuits, and permanent removal. Now, with vacant pedestals dotting the country, citizens have the physical and psychological space to reconsider how our diverse and complex histories are memorialized. Which individuals, groups, or historic junctures merit monuments? Which lessons should be relayed to following generations? Are there particular formal devices or motifs new monuments can employ to better captivate and communicate with the public?
At a time of fierce debate and continued uncertainty, Socrates Sculpture Park advances the discussion around representation of American values with Monuments Now, a three-part exhibition featuring newly commissioned monuments. The first part of the show opened on July 10th with the unveiling of Jeffrey Gibson’s beguiling work Because Once You Enter My House It Becomes Our House (2020). In August, two additional monuments will join Gibson’s—a communal grill, Eternal Flame (2020) by Paul Ramírez Jonas, and a trio of sculptures, The structure the labor the foundation the escape the pause (2020) by Xaviera Simmons.
It is not uncommon to encounter monuments in public parks, yet the sensorial experience created by Gibson—a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians—is utterly incomparable to encounters with aged bronze figures. Working in conjunction, the stature, palette, and linguistic schema of Because Once You Enter My House It Becomes Our House elicit active engagement. Measuring 21 feet high, Gibson’s three-tiered plywood ziggurat rises like a pastel mirage from the sculpture park’s lawn. Its exterior walls are covered with wheat-pasted posters, whose vibrant colors and dynamic patterns differ on each of the structure’s four sides. Gibson’s geometric motifs immediately recall the mesmeric visuals of op art: some of the posters feature black-and-white striped semi-ovals whose concentric curves have been arranged to give the ziggurat’s western face a vibratory, multi-directional quality. The northern face is papered entirely with rainbow, almond, and diamond motifs. I visited the sculpture on a sweltering July day, and its yellows, oranges, and lilacs seemed to absorb and reflect the sun’s rays, intensifying the dizzying effects of observation.
Each side of the ziggurat features encircled letters that form words and phrases; thus, we are arrested not only by Gibson’s dazzling abstractions, but also by an urge to comprehend the language projected at us. Some of the messages are uplifting, and reify the monument’s buoyant, inclusive air. Together, the words on the western face read “POWER FULL BECAUSE WE ARE DIFFERENT,” while the northern face reads “THE FUTURE IS PRESENT.” Gibson incorporates repetition into these phrases, with words such as “future” and “present” figuring three times each. Again, the artist refuses an apathetic, “I don’t get it” exchange with his work; thanks to Gibson’s formal conceits, both the urgency and meaning of his texts are readily intelligible.
Two of the ziggurat’s faces speak directly to Indigenous history and experience. The eastern and southern sides contain the phrases “RESPECT INDIGENOUS LAND,” and “IN NUMBERS TOO BIG TO IGNORE,” respectively. In a recent interview published by Artful Magazine, Gibson explains that the latter text “acknowledge[s] missing and murdered indigenous women.” Here, the artist reminds viewers, first, that the American past and present are rife with violent injustice, and second, that society cannot move into the future without acknowledgement, maintained awareness, and ultimately, justice for crimes against Indigenous people.
The form of Gibson’s monument references the Cahokia Mounds, which are located in southern Illinois. Cahokia was once the largest settlement of indigenous Mississippian culture, which flourished from about 700 to 1400 CE. The Mississippians who inhabited this city built sophisticated complexes of earthen mounds, the largest of which comprised four terraces and measured more than 100 feet high. Thus, while Because Once You Enter My House It Becomes Our House is decidedly contemporary and ephemeral, it redirects our attention to other enduring and historically significant—albeit little-known or altogether forgotten—monuments. It’s structural replications also affirm the achievements and ingenuity of North American pre-Columbian civilizations.
Throughout the exhibition, Gibson’s ziggurat will become a stage for three performances, each featuring the work of an Indigenous American artist. Curated by Gibson, these performances will be made available to the public via live stream. On July 24th, Laura Ortman played her violin from the second and third tiers of the ziggurat, against a hazy sky. Dancer and choreographer Emily Johnson’s performance will be live-streamed on September 16th, while a date for composer Raven Chacon’s performance has yet to be announced.