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Blinding with Sparkle – Anna Tsouhlarakis Questions Our Future

Anna Tsouhlarakis’ installation Edges of the Ephemeral is currently on exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in downtown Santa Fe. Her work is part of TIME 2012—Temporary Installations Made for the Environment—an exhibition in which eight Anglo and Diné artists were commissioned by the Art in Public Places Program of New Mexico Arts to create environmentally oriented works under the theme of Hózhó Náhásdlíí – or, Harmony in the Making. Each artist’s work is placed in a difference location throughout the Diné territory, which encompasses the Four Corners of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado. This year’s theme, according to art critic Lucy Lippard’s statement on the TIME website, “is a significant step towards integrating native and non-native concepts of time and place.”  This is the eighth year of the TIME exhibitions.

Tsouhlarakis, a Kansas-born artist of Creek, Greek and Diné descent, says that this is the first time she has worked directly with her own tribe on a communal project. Her piece, described as minimalist and site-specific, is a large fort-like structure that sits squat in the Allan Houser Art Park at MoCNA. Made of rough and weathered wood, the crudely designed construction, reminiscent of something from early American pioneer days, is a spiraling hallway with no roof. Nailed onto the walls are manufactured street-signs, like the kind that tell you when a deer is crossing or when to slow down for a school zone. Their content is of a more existential nature. One, red and shaped like a stop-sign, says, “THIS IS THE LAST WORLD.” The labyrinth coils inward and ends abruptly with a locked-off central space that houses a teepee-like gathering of tall branches that extend past the height of the main building. A rusted lock and some chicken wire barricade the viewer from the strange nucleus of the piece.

According to the museum placard and exhibition catalog, the work is based on the artist’s response to the Fourth World of the Navajo Creation story, which is said to be glittering and blindingly white. However, the TIME website describes Tsouhlarakis’ work as relating to the Fifth World. The ambiguity is fitting, as the piece itself seems to inquire about the nature of our future, if there even is one. As you walk further into the spiral, you feel as if you are headed down an apocalyptic corridor that spells trouble for the human race. However, the signs begin to change from declarations like “Many of us Will Not Make it” to more hopeful ones like “Free of Greed and Capitalism” and “Maybe We Come Full Circle”. Regardless of the viewer’s knowledge of Navajo creation myth, the message imparted by the signs is clearly one of an ending world who’s present is decayed and outlook dubious.

Fitting with Lippard’s statement about concepts of time and place, time itself seems to be moving in opposite directions in the installation. It travels forward through the contemporary signposts towards impending doom and new potential, and simultaneously backwards, to a time signified in the wooden structure itself, a time before “greed and capitalism.” Tsouhlarakis seems to predict that the movement towards making harmony means a movement back to the natural world. A yellow security notice sign near the end of the spiral says “The Same but Without Technology.”

But is going “full circle” really as great as it sounds, or does it attest to a notion that technology or the technologized world is a ouroborus swallowing its own tail? Are we actually coming full circle, or are we just devouring ourselves? Despite the conceptual layers of the piece, there is an element of the unfinished, or unanswered. It’s hard to tell what exactly Tsouhlarakis thinks the future will hold. This uncertainty points to a feeling underscored in the work itself and perhaps our daily existence: that something is ending and who knows what’s next?

The structure, though, is hopeful in that it is not actually a circle but a spiral. Maybe it’s not about “going back” to a time before, but about circling around and transcending into something we cannot imagine, as evidenced by the inaccessible and awkward central end point of the installation. This idea fits well with the Navajo corkscrew, non-linear notion of reality. Either way, perhaps this piece, which inserts Native story-telling and metaphor onto an industrial surface, re-appropriating what is actually Native geography here in Santa Fe, calls us to consider that we are at a precipice, the edge of an ending and temporary world, glittering and exceedingly blinding though it may be.

The exhibition will be up at MoCNA until September 15, 2012. The additional artists participating in the TIME exhibitions are Matthew Chase-Daniel; Andrea Polli with Venaya Yazzi, and Esther Belin; Raven Chacon; Don Redman; and Will Wilson and Chrissis Orr with Bruce Hamilton, Susanna Carlisle and Robert Johnson; and Shane Hendren.

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