By Chris Fite-Wassilak, writer and curator, 2015
After we’d made our way down the steep metal stairs into the gorge, the guide started playing guitar. It was floating, pleasant music, a classical fingerpicked tune – in part a way for him to pass the time while the group moved and gathered slowly, and in part to show off the sound as it bounced and echoed around the stone walls. You could also hear the sounds of the guide for the group in front of us, just a few metres ahead, playing the flute: lightly skipping between notes, the sort of sounds you’d hear on meditation tracks in incense-scented shops filled with crystals, maybe a wolf etched in a night sky on the CD cover. We were visiting part of the Navajo Nation, a canyon in Arizona managed by the semi-autonomous territory and letting licensed Navajo tour companies guide the thousands of daily visitors through. The Nation itself has a dense and complex history, shaped by the forced resettlement of the North American landscape, condensing disparate clans into a small area that now survives on mining coal and uranium, the sale of folk and traditional crafts, and tours like this one. We, of course, are simply tourists, and the guides play up to the German, Dutch, Japanese, and white American visitors with displays like the flute appealing to our sense of what we might imagine the Navajo culture to be. Our guide, by contrast, tells us nothing of the history of the canyon or its cultural significance, instead simply instructing on the necessary settings on digital cameras to get the best picture. He slings his guitar back around and begins playing Metallica’s ‘Nothing Else Matters’.
Anthropologist of museums and tourism Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett details in her book Destination Culture (1988) the history of people being put on display as live ethnographic objects: as early as 1501 a group were being shown as ‘Eskimos’ in Bristol. The trend continued through to the twentieth century; rumours still echo around St. Louis of the neighbourhood dogs that disappeared in the vicinity of the installation of Philippine villagers at the 1904 World’s Fair. The effect of these displays, as Kirshenblatt-Gimblett notes, has always been two-way, a reflection back on those looking. She quotes one visitor to the display of a group of San bushmen at London’s Egyptian Hall in 1847: ‘It was strange, too, in looking through one of the windows of the [exhibition] room into the busy street, to reflect that by a single turn of the head might be witnessed the two extremes of humanity.’ (At this point, a previous reader of her book had lined this passage in pen and annotated in the adjacent margin, ‘W.T.F!’) Although these more obviously colonial moments may not ostensibly exist any longer, like my own tourist trip to the Navajo Nation we might consider them dispersed, atomised: any cultural encounter is laden with a complex and intricate set of expectations and counter-expectations, mini theatrical gestures, a combination of self-presentation and introspection. We can say that the self is performed, whether as a ‘Native American’, a ‘heavy metal fan’, or as a ‘European tourist’, but then how that minutely-shifting, ever-changing performance combines with others around you, aggregates into various social interactions and forms, is an intimate politics not so easily untangled.
The work of Laura Eldret engages with this aggregation, mapping and arranging the contradictions of just such personal presentations. Previous works have involved asking participants to dress up and appear in a video as a character of their own invention (Muster, 2012) (bringing forth a Trekkie, a few steampunks and a cyclist wearing a wetsuit), and Eldret’s Fought (2011-12) project staged and documented a boxing match that was itself a re-staging of a (relatively unspectacular) match from only two years earlier. In each of these, the artist established the framework for a series of interactions set slightly askew, presented to the audience as ambiguous contemporary rituals. Her most recent project, of which Gotas is a part, encodes these relationships, negotiations and displays into a set of objects, more specifically a group of quietly unusual rugs. Under the collective title Receipt of Exchange, these are casually surreal domestic props: one, with the subtitle Basketball Fiesta, has rolling green hills set to a starry backdrop, a cross atop one pinnacle. But the real focus of the design is the two large basketballs that dominate the centre of the rug, punctuated by several smaller balls highlighted in white diamonds, an ode to the sport that seems both kitsch and serious at the same time. Another, with the subtitle Picturesque Construction, is a dark grey design of geometric patterns; but along the side runs a ladder with a small man reaching in towards the design, and at the bottom a man digs with a shovel. What look like steel construction girders sprout up at the top part of the rug: the pattern appears to be being self-consciously assembled in front of us.
Each rug is a collaborative portrait, one manifestation from a project developed in a Zapotec town in Southwestern Mexico. Eldret makes use of the fact that fabric and textiles are inherently social materials, a multipart process that passes through many hands. The town, Teotitlán del Valle, has been known for centuries for its weaving – accounts describe how that area paid its tributes to the Aztecs in textiles, and a 1927 National Geographic report described it as an ‘old time communal life’ idyll – to the point that its inhabitants are now well-rehearsed in their roles as ‘traditional craftsmen’, each house selling its unique, family-designed patterns, even if the next family might have almost exactly the same design. Eldret’s rugs – or rather, we should say, the rugs Eldret commissioned and installed here – were developed in discussion with each weaver, attempting to capture aspects of town life that might hide behind the surfaces that they present to visitors, cameras and anthropologists. In that attempt, though, the rugs contain another kind of performance, one that might still include the use of traditional Zapotec shapes and patterns, but embellished instead with televisions, basketballs and water pipes. The rugs become portable versions of that performance, sitting on the threshold of the perceived boundaries of self and other.
Across her work, Eldret has employed what we might call ethnographic methods – interview, dialogue, negotiation, participation – whether to engage with boxing culture, protests, or the Zapotec weavers to create her performances, videos and installations. Ethnography is a dancing between a particular combination of immersion and distance; and while most ethnographic missives might attempt to portray to their respective audiences an attempt on the former, to provide an ‘insight’ into a group or culture, it’s important to note in Eldret’s work an emphasis on the latter. Her works keep us at a deliberate remove from the content, instead focusing on the outline of what shapes our interactions. It’s at this distance that the assemblages and works that Eldret orchestrates and produces can become understood as patterns. A telling detail is in the rugs themselves: ‘gotas’, Spanish for ‘drops’, describe the dotted patterns that fill many of the Zapotec designs, acting as a floating signifier – the stars in the Basketball Fiesta sky, or as rain drops, or a simple pattern in themselves, their abstract shape allowing them to be interpreted differently depending on who is looking at them, and where.
The ‘gotas’ become a symbol for the abstraction that Eldret herself creates in these communally made portraits. These aren’t portraits of a specific cultural group as such, but portraits of the mechanisms that make up the group, portraits of their intimate accumulations. Her works portray a set of systems made readable, abstracted so that we can consider how we might act alone and together. Culture, for Eldret, seems to be built from the ground up, a set of tenuous individual negotiations and performances that coalesce into broader instances: gatherings, groups, communities, however momentary or lasting. One version of the ‘gotas’ has here been developed as a set of lopsided drawn circles, digitally manipulated and printed in large across a billboard situated in the gallery, acknowledging that these private negotiations and murmured conversations quickly build into a shared space and a public life. Once released into that sphere, they have another life of countless readings, before maybe soon being pasted over with the next billboard design.
The anthropologist Alfred Gell once described artworks as ‘traps of agencies’, entities that might hold a multiplicity of desires and trajectories. In Gotas, Eldret accentuates this trap, highlighting its construction and continuation, where weaver, artist, and audience are all equally involved in a net of projection, readings and misreadings. In laying out this web, Eldret asks if we might be able to enact a more incisive, critical version of the nineteenth-century ‘turn of the head’, to reflect not on false or perceived differences of cultures but on the commonalities of how we each build them. The rugs act as carriers of the circumstances of their own making, and vessels that describe problematic self-performances, reminders and backdrops to our own incessant acts.
Commissioned by Annka Kultys Gallery on the occassion of solo exhibition Gotas 10 October – 14 November 2015