S’Abadeb at the SAM – Good Intentions. Poor Show.

You knew it was coming. My review of the S’Abadeb show at the SAM, which is currently running until January 11.

The short version? I didn’t like it.

Why, you ask? Why?? The reviews from the Seattle Times and the PI are so good! Regina Hackett falls all over herself in the PI, in addition giving us all kinds of cultural information about the Coastal Salish peoples. In the Seattle Times, Sheila Farr lavishes an embarrassing quantity of praise on the show:

Normally, my job as a critic is to introduce, describe, contextualize, interpret and evaluate the success of the artworks and exhibitions I visit. At the exhibition S’abadeb — The Gifts: Pacific Coast Salish Art and Artists, opening today at Seattle Art Museum, my usual job becomes irrelevant. …Rather than evaluate the show, I urge you to visit and spend time with these special objects, to learn about the people who made them.  S’abadeb (pronounced Sah-BAH-deb) is probably the most significant exhibition the Seattle Art Museum has organized and certainly the most relevant. …It’s an exhibition that every person who lives in the Puget Sound region should see.

Well, you’ve just cleared your schedule for tomorrow, right? Notice that there is no real criticism in either article, and no analysis of the show. Farr pardons the lack of ceremonial objects by repeating — and tacitly accepting — the idea that such items are too sacred for display.

Jen Graves of the Stranger is usually good for some sharp observations (which she shares, thankfully – more later), but even she begins her review with, “It’s fair to say that the big new show of Coast Salish art at Seattle Art Museum doesn’t have to do much to be a success: Its existence alone is an improvement.” That’s not even a backhanded compliment; it’s the equivalent of telling a student that if he just shows up for class, he’ll get an A. Oh, come on! You all are art critics! It is your job to evaluate art and exhibits and to tell us, the public, whether they are any good! With a few exceptions, none of that happened in any of the reviews I read.

***

If you spend an inordinate amount of time at the SAM (as I do), you will know that the museum takes great pains in its displays across the building to draw out connections between different objects and periods. Even the unfurling series of exploding cars in the main foyer encourages the viewer to travel the length of the building, look from different perspectives, and interact with the installation from various vantages in the building. Approaching the S’Abadeb show is no different. It’s up on the 4th Floor in the Special Exhibition Galleries; after stepping off the escalator, you must navigate the permanent display of African ceremonial figures and masks which are all arranged on the landing to get to the entrance to the exhibition.

The 4th Floor always kinda freaks me out a little, especially these African tribal figures. Every time I’m up there, the figures have been moved into a new configuration. They are all facing the entrance to the escalator, many are in small conversational groups, though occasionally the layouts are much more complex. (Usually you will also hear tribal music, and see shadowy dancing projected along the escalator wall but for the S’Abadeb show this has been turned off.) Despite the stillness of the figures and masks, they feel eerily animated to me; the sensation of crossing this short stretch is like walking into a party and having the room fall uncomfortably silent. I confess I have never read any of the placards on the masks.

I don’t know if the SAM intended for this kind of visual and emotional preparation before viewing S’Abadeb, but the objects in the last room on the left before the entrance to the show make me think that the curators definitely want to encourage these kinds of connections. This mini-show is collection of “suits” called Quartet of Four. I was going to stop into this room because I wanted to take another look at the Vik Muniz fruit photograph that had been here during the Impressionist show, but all of the contemporary pieces were gone; these strange, unsettling pieces had invaded this little space.

Two different artists are represented here: Walter Oltmann, who creates diminutive but porcupine-like sculptures out of various metals and wires; and Nick Cave, a fiber and textile artist with a background in dance, whose “sound suits” seem to be visual manifestations of bogeymen from some fantastic Japanese fairytale.

Caterpillar Suit 1 (Walter Oltmann, 2007)

Caterpillar Suit 1 (Oltmann, 2007)

Sound Suit (Nick Cave)

Sound Suit (Nick Cave)

Oltmann and Cave couldn’t be more different in their use of materials, but both artists’ suggest arming the body against the terrors of the world. Oltmann’s works are literally unwearable, but this makes them no less frightening. The gold Caterpillar Suit 1, above is under 4 feet in height, and there is no way to enter the suit. His second piece in the gallery is silver, with similar spiky tufts and lace-like razor-wire criss-crossing the surface of the body. It is intriguing to me that for Oltmann’s pieces, the humanness of these figures is retained only in the exposure of the face and hands, giving them a strange vulnerability, despite the resounding visual message of DO NOT TOUCH. Oltmann’s suit may work only in the prophylactic sense, for surely any wearer would find himself rendered impotent by his own defense systems.

Nick Cave’s works trend in the other direction, as his pieces are crafted from various fibers, and beg to be touched. But, the humanness of each figure is barely recognizable in these pieces. Cave warps, binds, and pads each body, obscuring the face, the hands, the feet. In the piece shown above, it towers some 10 feet in height, but the arms have vanished into a crocheted mass of socks and sweaters. I would offer to call this the Laundry Nightmare, except that this piece brings to mind an eerie metaphor used by an ex-boyfriend: he once described his emotional fragility as feeling like a great mass of wool, moving through a forest, where each difficult emotional interaction felt like brushing up against a tree and getting tangled, having great tears of material torn from this central ball of wool. That image still freaks me out. And so do Nick Cave’s figures. They are designed to be wearable, but I suspect that wearing the piece above would only heighten a physical sense of being alienated and physically overwhelmed, even if the suit visually overwhelmed others. Intimidation may be the express intent, but alienation is the result.

And I think this seems to be the theme of this little collection: intimidation and alienation. The suits work well in the context of aboriginal art, especially given their connection to totemic masks and figures in the adjacent room, and provide an intriguing set-up for entering the S’Abadeb show.

***

Well, now that I was thoroughly spooked out, I was ready for further interactions with animated objects and the spirit world. It was time for S’Abadeb — The Gifts: Pacific Coast Salish Art and Artists! I crossed the threshold into the Special Ex Gallery, looking forward to what I had read (so far) was a good show. Downstairs, I had meant to pick up a hand-held audio tour guide (do not scoff at me, you snobby art nerd!); I was a little surprised to see that there was no kiosk up at the entrance to the show with one for me to pick up. It was late on a weekday afternoon, so, ehh, maybe they didn’t bring one up?

The exhibition welcomes visitors with a large video triptych featuring various Northwest Native elders and others speaking about aspects of culture and life, over a music soundtrack. On the walls are a few brief paragraphs about the show, written in smallish font; the donor list is shown at the same size. I get the impression that it is all “fine print”. I have a short attention span, and it was late in the day — I watched the film for thirty seconds, but (honestly) I found it both hard to hear and a little uninteresting, so I moved on.

I wandered through the Special Exhibition main gallery, looking at handwoven baskets, carved looms, cedar garments, and other objects, feeling like something about this exhibit just wasn’t settling. I read each tag, reading about the centrality of goat wool to Salish culture (as valuable as money?), and gazing at the curious minks carved on the houseposts that looked a bit like squat lizards. Here and there, I see a mention of delineation of gender roles, and in one half-sentence explaining bird symbolism on canoes, there is a brief mention of songs and dances.

And then I finally realized what it was: there was a profound lack of information about the objects, and a lack of overall cultural information. I started looking for the little round numbered dots to indicate whether there is an audio-tour stop for a particular object, and suddenly realized there were none. Anywhere. There was no audio tour for S’Abadeb. On the walls, there were few thematic guides to different areas of the exhibit, and it tripped clumsily from one group of objects to the next with little introduction or context. Near the back of the exhibit, you come upon a bizarre collection of stuff all piled up against the wall, as if someone were going to come pile it into the back of a minivan in a few moments, large clear tupperware boxes and fleece blankets and boxes of crackers  and canned goods and things that have nothing to do with art or an installation. This, it seems, is simply an illustration of gift-giving, an important aspect of Salish culture.

Oh.

Around the corner, I stumble upon a Soul Recovery Ceremony, or rather, a set of painted totems and poles placed in a sandbox to represent a Soul Recovery Ceremony. Despite the lack of information elsewhere, the placards here have much to say, and the layout of figures give me the same ominous feeling as the African watchers out in the main hall. The painted totems represent shamans who will rescue a soul stolen by ghosts who live in the Land of the Dead; they are surrounded by the accoutrements needed for their spiritual journey – a rock, rope, bows and arrows, a plank bridge to cross a river into the underworld. It is one of the few satisfying – if enigmatic – looks that you get at the deeper religious and ritual components that make up Salish art and culture.

Beyond, I wander into the contemporary art section of the show, and my interest wanes once more. It is a strange collection of traditional prints and carvings (all of which seems like art that you might buy at the Bellevue Art Fair) and contemporary art, which is heavy on the political overtones. There is at least one empty pedestal with a light shining on it – tribal music plays inside this box, and a small quote on the side suggests that it is a story about a contest between people and animals. The empty pedestal seems to leave a large question-mark in the air, though: was there an object here? A mask decorated with a large rainbow suggests something more concrete: the image for this mask came to the artist in a vision, but the placard mentions the sxwayxwey mask, which is “too sacred to be shown in an exhibition.” Hmm. Lawrence Paul’s two paintings are some of the most visually arresting pieces in the whole exhibit, but (oh, strike me down for what I am about to say) the garish Impending Nisq’a’ Deal. Last Stand. Chump Change. reads too much like an out of date political cartoon for me to actually like it. His piece The Urban Rez (1998) is better — I like the dissociated red oblongs on the black background, as they seem to speak to the aimlessness of the Native Americans and Canadian First Nations.

I chatted with one of the guards, and we discussed this weird silence across the show, and the strange layout. Her suspicion is that since this show actively involved many area tribes, there has been a deliberate attempt not to treat Northwest Native peoples as if they are historic indiginous people under an anthropologist’s sharp and prying gaze. As a result, fears about political correctness has forced the tone to shift substantially from discussing the historic aspects of Northwest Native culture — especially because it involves still current practices — to simply displaying objects dispassionately.

Ahem. I think it’s a crappy way to put on a show.

I’m a well-educated white girl, but much of my knowledge about the Pacific Coast Salish I learned in my 6th grade Washington State history class, when we learned about Chief Sealth and Doc Maynard and the Great Fire of Seattle. What else I know of Native American culture I have absorbed from the cultural landscape around me, and tchotchke shops around the region. I don’t feel like I have a sophisticated or nuanced understanding of how the Salish or other Northwest Tribes are substantially different from any of the other Native American tribes across the the country — and this exhibit presented a fantastic opportunity for some of that education. An opportunity that, despite the historic nature of this show, has been missed. (I would like to point out that there is more cultural information available online through the SAM exhibit website than is actually available in the exhibit itself. Doing your homework will reward you with a much richer viewing of the show.)

Since our country has just elected a black president, maybe we can talk a little more freely about race issues? How much of the reluctance to openly share information and objects with the SAM has to do with issues around fear and racial politics? Sheila Farr remarks in her article that large ceremonial pieces are missing from the displays, and there are a few placards that point this out specifically. Museums, like libraries, are our secular churches: they are places where people come to encounter people and objects and places that are beyond the quotidien. Religious objects are frequently shown in museums, and it is possible to do this respectfully in order to educate others and to banish prejudice. Ceremonial objects are “too sacred for display”, but are they too sacred to be talked about, either? The Soul Recovery Ceremony is fantastic, but why can’t there be more of that? Fascination is not disrespect; rather, it opens the door for sharing information and breaking down cultural stereotypes. The audio guides would also have presented a fantastic medium for giving viewers an intimate auditory introduction to some of the storytelling that is clearly so central to Salish and Native American culture. If that weren’t possible, even having a dozen copies of the exhibition catalogue available in the exhibit would have been helpful. But, between the lack of centrally important cultural objects and only oblique descriptions which exclude much further information, my own impressions were that the Salish and other tribes who participated did so with their arms crossed. It is one thing to be called a marginalized people; it is quite another – when given an open forum – to marginalize yourself.

Jen Graves of The Stranger is far more patient with this show than I am. She argues that the way to view it is to wander in a criss-cross fashion, and to study the works that are graphically strong, unabashedly hewing to tribal tradition. Graves also has done substantial extra reading for her article, and suggests that the reticence so obvious in this show is part of a natural shyness in the Salish tribal personality. Furthermore, the urbanization of their lands has led to a fragmentation of their culture, as well as a generational disruption that threatens their history and longevity. The physical gaps and open spaces in the show, she writes, are a manifestation of this cultural attrition.

The exhibition represents loss by making room for absence. Empty, spotlit pedestals are paired with labels that bear angry or despairing comments from native speakers. The pedestals lightly emit recorded sounds made by objects too sacred or secret to be represented. The palpable but silent anger becomes sacred, too.

Silence and sadness are certainly the emotions that I took away from the show, but was this where Barbara Brotherton had intended her grand exhibition of seven years’ labor to lead the viewer? Both she and the SAM lost their way with this one. Even given the lack of information, and the lack of objects, the presentation could have been much, much better. Taking Rome or Japan Envisions the West as an example, once inside the exhibition, they could have made more of an effort to give viewers important cultural background while viewing objects. References to other pieces in the SAM in other areas of the museum could have been interesting as well. For example, the Bierstadt Puget Sound painting includes canoes that Patricia Junker identified as being of our region, and very similar to the one on display in this exhibit. The layout of the show is also unweildy, as they closed the shop, which is how you normally exit each show; when I was there, I squeezed past a DO NOT TOUCH sign to get out.

For an exhibition that is so historically important to the Native Pacific Coast Salish people to our region, both they and the SAM owe it to each other — and us, the viewing public — to have put on a better show.

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~ by ecp on November 9, 2008.

2 Responses to “S’Abadeb at the SAM – Good Intentions. Poor Show.”

  1. I love how thoughtful and broad your take is, especially in its ambition to deepen the conversation about race, to reconsider not just how we talk about things but what we talk about in the first place (ie “secret” stuff).

    I do wish you hadn’t lumped me in with the other two critics in town just so you’d have a unified wall to rail against in your rhetoric. I have plenty of complaints about the way the show is put together (I call it “basic,” “condescending,” “elementary,” and describe that the presentation actually “threatens to calcify the material”). You mischaracterize me for your own convenience.

    That said, I really appreciated reading your thoughts. I, too, hope that the tongue-tied way we talk (and fail to talk) across cultural divides will change thanks to Obama’s presidency. Thanks for getting me thinking about that re: S’abadeb.

    Best,
    Jen Graves

  2. […] is currently on at the Henry; I’ve already discussed Nick Cave’s Sound Suits in a previous post. And I am curious whether the craft-art impulse (like baking cookies) will be seen to have come out […]

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