Mohawk Artist Alan Michelson Wins Prestigious GSA Award
The National Museum of the American Indian would like to congratulate Mohawk artist Alan Michelson for winning the Citation in Art award from the Government Services Administration. Michelson's glass installation, Third Bank of the River, at the U.S. Port of Entry in Massena, N.Y., is one of just eleven works being honored this year at the GSA Design Awards. NMAI staffers Paul Chaat Smith, Rebecca Trautmann, John Haworth, and Kathleen Ash-Milby attended the ceremony this afternoon in Washington to see Michelson accept the honor. (Click here to watch video of the ceremony.)
In 2009, NMAI featured Michelson and Third Bank of the River in a five-page spread in American Indian Magazine. The article, written by Kate Morris of Santa Clara University, is reprinted below. You can also read about the Design Awards and the 2010 honorees at the GSA website.
Michelson's video installation Mespat (2001) is on view at the museum's Washington, D.C., location now through August 7, 2011, as part of the exhibition Vantage Point: The Contemporary Native Art Collection.
Art on the river: Alan Michelson highlights border-crossing issues
By Kate Morris
Last Spring, Mohawk artist Alan Michelson stood inside the new U.S. Port of Entry at Massena, N.Y., and watched as a crew of Mohawk ironworkers permanently installed his federally commissioned glass artwork Third Bank of the River above the passport checkpoint bays. Third Bank, nearly six feet tall and more than 40 feet long, is a striking medley of four panoramic views of the St. Lawrence River as it forms the border between the United States and Canada.
The title’s reference to three banks of the river reflects the unique geography of the international border-crossing at Massena. In the middle of the St. Lawrence, between the United States and the Canadian mainland, lies Cornwall Island. It is within the international boundaries of Canada, yet it is also the sovereign territory of the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation. All travelers crossing the border there must traverse Cornwall Island and are for a short time the “guests” of the Akwesasne.
Michelson, 57, is well attuned to the issues of the borders that divide the Haudenosaunee. He is an enrolled member of the Six Nations of the Grand River, in Canada, and has many relatives on the Six Nations Reserve. He was born in Buffalo, New York, raised in Massachusetts and educated in New York City at Columbia College and in Boston at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts.
Third Bank is comprised of hundreds of photographs that Michelson shot from a boat and digitally joined into glowing, elegant bands depicting the Ontario and New York banks of the St. Lawrence. Michelson also included the shores of Cornwall Island – the “third bank” of his title – underscoring the presence and participation of the Mohawk Nation at the “Three Nations International Crossing.”
The work can be likened to a stained glass window, but was fabricated by Franz Mayer of Munich using a modern process in which the glass was imprinted with images sandblasted through a dot-matrix screen.
Probing both geographic and political boundaries, Third Bank is but one in a series of extraordinary works by Michelson that has featured rivers and charted their cultural landscapes. His first video installation Mespat (2001), acquired by the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in 2006, incorporated video of three miles of the industrial shoreline of Newtown Creek, the severely polluted stream that divides Brooklyn from Queens. The video, shot from a boat and then projected onto a screen of white turkey feathers, is a haunting, elegiac meditation on both the present and the past, underscored by the title Mespat, which means “bad water place” in the Lenape language.
Today, urban Newtown Creek is part of Michelson’s own “backyard”; he has lived in Manhattan since 1989. His evocation of the Lenape language in Mespat pays homage to New York City’s original inhabitants and is indicative of the artist’s approach to North American history, in which Native peoples are not only represented but are central to the narrative. Shot eight years later and 400 miles north, Third Bank continues this tradition.
The U.S. Port of Entry at Massena is one of 37 land ports that the Department of Homeland Security has built or significantly renovated since September 2001. Four times the size of their predecessors, and decidedly high-tech, their purposes are paradoxical. They must restrict access, exerting control over people, vehicles and goods; yet, according to the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), which is responsible for their design and construction, they must also strive to present “a positive federal presence at the border.”
Plans for a modernized border crossing station at Massena progressed through a series of design competitions sponsored by the GSA’s Art and Architecture Program, which in the end awarded the commissions to Manhattan-based Michelson and the architectural firm Smith-Miller + Hawkinson. Third Bank is situated high on the west wall of the main passenger lobby, facing travelers as they wait in line below to clear their documents.
The arresting composition – two horizontal rows of gemlike purple, interspersed with three horizontal rows of luminous white – can be discerned even from a distance. When viewed up close, details emerge, and the purple bands resolve into a pair of rivers, bordered top and bottom by trees and the occasional bridge, building or factory. Prominent among these monuments are local landmarks such as the Alcoa plant at Massena, a brick-making factory and all four anchorages of the Seaway International Bridge. In Michelson’s unique design, adapted from 19th-century panoramic maps, river banks mirror one another across two channels, so that the four shorelines are alternately right-side up or upside-down. The white stripes are expanses of sky – dazzling cloudscapes that digitally merge to conjoin separate, gravity-defying horizons.
Mespat, by Alan Michelson. 20-minute video; turkey feathers, monofilament, steel; stereo soundtrack by
Michael J. Schumacher, 2001. On view as part of NMAI's Vantage Point exhibition through August 7, 2011.
Third Bank recalls Michelson’s earlier, four-channel video installation TwoRow II, first exhibited in the New Tribe: New York exhibition at NMAI in 2005 and acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in 2006. For TwoRow II, Michelson filmed the opposing banks of a different river – Ontario’s Grand River – as it flows through the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario. The river holds a dual significance for Michelson, as it defines both his personal ancestral territory – his grandparents were born and raised on the reserve and many of his relatives reside there – as well as the collective territory of the Six Nations, promised to them by a 1784 proclamation.
By the terms of Great Britain’s Haldimand Deed, the Six Nations were awarded a sixmile tract of land on either side of the Grand River from mouth to source; today the river forms a boundary between the reserve and non-Native townships. In addition to the video, Michelson made an audio recording of the non-Native boat captain as he described the history of the river and its people to his passengers. Michelson produced a second soundtrack, recording stories of the river told by Six Nations residents. In the gallery, the two run simultaneously, competing and conflicting as narratives, but never quite canceling one another out. As if to further underscore the degree to which the two cultures – the two sides of the river – are at odds, Michelson set the two video tracks moving in opposite directions; the Native and the non-Native worlds literally run at cross purposes.
TwoRow II describes a contemporary reality, yet the evocation of the river as a metaphor for contact and coexistence is generations old. The symbolism is said to date back to 1613, when, according to Iroquois oral tradition, the Haudenosaunee entered into a reciprocal pact of noninterference with the Dutch. In the metaphoric language of the “Guswhenta” Treaty, the two cultures – Native and European – were described as two vessels traveling down a river on a parallel course. These vessels, a birchbark canoe and a European ship, represented the laws and customs of each people; the agreement stated that neither would impede the other’s progress. The historic Two Row Wampum, a woven beaded belt which formally ratified the agreement and also embodied it in graphic form, represented the two vessels
as parallel purple stripes against a background river of white. Michelson’s TwoRow II reminds viewers that the treaties and agreements made between Native and European Nations have not been honored. Part of the soundtrack details the loss of nearly 90 percent of the Reserve’s land base promised by the Haldimand Deed.
While TwoRow II is a meditation on the relationship between two nations, Third Bank literally pictures three sovereign entities: the United States, Canada and the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation. The region where these three nations come together has been described as one of the most complex international jurisdictions in the Americas. In order to convey the complexity of this territory, Michelson chose to navigate the river by boat, photographing the shores from that shifting perspective.
In foregrounding the river in Third Bank, and in printing his images on the reflective, highly interactive medium of glass, Michelson deftly captures much of the sense of movement and shifting perspective evident in TwoRow II. The artist’s dedication to this point is underscored in a statement he made in an interview in 2005. “[This is] why I make panoramic works,” Michelson said, “because you can’t just take them all in and think you know what you’re seeing. It forces you to look at things from more than one direction and one angle, and to look at life as flux rather than something that you can fix and control.” This then is one of the most crucial aspects of Third Bank: in keeping the river flowing and shifting, in refusing to resolve the complexities of either the image or the territories it pictures, Michelson’s work keeps the border visible, open and navigable.
In the months since Third Bank was installed at Massena, Michelson has completed a new river-based project, Shattemuc, a thirty-one minute HD video commissioned for the Tang Museum and Art Gallery’s “Lives of the Hudson” exhibition (on view through March 14, 2010 at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.). Once again, Michelson shot video from the perspective of a boat, this time from a former New York City police launch sailing up the Hudson at night, illuminating the banks of the river in the beam of a marine searchlight.
In this mesmerizing work, set to an original musical score by Apache composer Laura Ortman, pristine wooded landscape gives way to an increasingly industrial wasteland of quarries, factories and power plants that pass ghostlike through the light of the grainy beam. While it is tempting to read Shattemuc as an elegy for the river, or for the Native peoples who once called the Hudson by that name, it may also point to the uncertain future of any society, past or present, subject to global forces beyond its control.
Kate Morris is assistant professor of art history at Santa Clara University. She writes on topics in contemporary Native art, and is particularly interested in the depiction of landscape in both painting and installation art.
Reprinted with permission from the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian Magazine, Winter 2009. To learn more about NMAI's American Indian magazine, click here.