Out of sight and out of mind? Pipelines, power lines and concrete structures that spool endless amounts of steam and pollutants into our air have become dominant factors which define our landscapes. But if these urban products of infrastructure are not in our daily sight, do we really think about them nearly enough and how they directly affect us?
In the current exhibition at the C.N. Gorman Museum in Hart Hall, Larry Xhe Dhé McNeil and his nephew, Da-ka-xeen Mehner, bring the paradox of imposing man-made structures onto our natural landscapes to light.
Larry Xhe Dhé McNeil
The exhibition currently features a series of McNeil photographic works, which encompass a range of mixed media. These include his lithographic print entitled “Bonehead Humans” and a photographic and textual piece collage entitled “Journal Entry; On Creativity.” However, McNeil’s focus and major fascination lies in the Kodachrome film processes which produces extreme fine grain, high saturated and brilliant color prints. This can be seen in his piece “Boise Power Lines” where a hand is enveloped in a magnificent blue sea of vaporized clouds.
Through each of his digital prints, McNeil reveals a strong feeling of disillusionment regarding the global climate change. He questions the seemingly irrational direction in which humanity is heading in relation to how negatively we treat our built and natural environment.
“I would put forth the case that life is bewildering at best and illogically paradoxical at worst,” said McNeil. “Doesn’t it seem that some of the things that happen in the world defy logic? Commander Spock would be totally appalled and order that he beamed back forthwith. It seems that we don’t have that luxury, so we’ve just got to deal with it.”
McNeil often features an illustration of a raven, which is a significant motif of Native American history and oral tradition. In this particular series, McNeil incorporates himself in a gas mask with the symbolic raven.
“I started this work with only a broad idea of how I wanted it to look, but knew I wanted a white raven to start things off,” said McNeil. “He is a signifier for being rebellious against corrupt aristocrats. I think that in order to climb out of this global climate melt-down, we have to rebel against the status quo, especially against wealthy industrialists who pollute our Earth with impunity.”
McNeil’s piece entitled “Ax dayéen áa yax haan, Face me” represents a very direct and political form of photography. Standing directly in mid-frame of the shot, McNeil wears a gas mask in front of a steaming power plant. Below the piece, McNeil asks: “I only have one question for all you billionaire industrialists of the world who own the coal fired power plants. How are you going to enjoy your wealth when the world is too ravaged for you to spend it?”
Mehner uses photographic methods similar to McNeil’s Kodachrome and digital techniques. Mehner currently works and lives in Alaska. His series focuses on how the Alaskan pipeline affects the landscape.
“McNeil pieces are very direct and upfront like his piece entitled ‘Face Me,'” said Veronica Passalacqua, curator of the C.N. Gorman Museum. “McNeil looks for these pieces by traveling and shooting them specifically. But Mehner, on the other hand, is interrogating the Alaskan pipeline in a much more nuanced way that’s about a reality with living with [the pipeline] everyday. It’s very complicated.”
Both McNeil and Mehner belong to the Tlingit and Nisgaá tribe of the Pacific Northwest coast and the oldest traditional longhouses in that area called the Killerwhale Fin House. The Northwestern coast tradition is characterized by dual symmetry through art and storytelling. Mehner repeats many images in his digital photographs; like the piece entitled “My Right of Way, Summer” where two bowls of blueberries are mirrored.
For some who may cling onto the stereotype and misconception that Native American art is exclusive to traditional basket weaving, think again. Both McNeil and Mehner are examples of living Native American artists who continue to express their tradition and love for their land through relatively contemporary mediums.
“What the museum adds up to, at least for me, is the sense that indigenous peoples around the world are still here, despite everything,” said Patricia Anne Killelea, a graduate student and Native American studies instructor. “We are still here continuing, remembering and importantly, imagining our own worlds, our own communities, and beyond.”
UYEN CAO can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.