Seeking Specificity in Postcommodity

Postcommodity, "Going to Water," 2021. Courtesy of the artists. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

To be given the opportunity to travel for the sake of art, even if it’s from one small dusty Prairie city to another, is a distinct privilege. In the midst of a global pandemic, my eyes grown weary of consuming visual culture through a screen, I was thrown back up into the ether and moved across time and space to see Postcommodity’s Time Holds All the Answers, at the Remai Modern. Its magnitude was nearly overwhelming. An exhibition of this size and caliber signifies a major accomplishment for Indigenous artists, as the misrepresentation of our distinct and diverse Indigenous communities remains an ongoing obstacle within the visual arts realm. I approached the museum in hopes that the interdisciplinary arts collective veered from narratives that depend on the homogenization of Indigenous cultures; I hoped it would look inwards instead.

Initially, a thundering rumble captivated my attention. As I ascended the stairs from the brightly-lit lobby, a massive and awe-inducing installation floats overhead: four immense hazmat containment booms hang from the ceiling, each in bold tones of blue, yellow, red, and white. The installation’s industrial-debris containers measure over 30 meters in length, with their elongated figures mirroring the shapes of hanging snakes. The title kinaypikowiyâs (2021) translates to “snake meat” in nêhiyawêwin, I later discovered. The representation of the snake is akin to numerous prophecies across varying Indigenous nations, of a black snake slithering across North America, pointing to pipeline constructions and their dire consequences. In this way, they set a towering and ominous precedent for the remainder of the exhibition, leading you into an industrial complex within the gallery space.

And there it was: the source of the deafening boom. Nestled into a windowed nook hung a giant blackened storage container; its load-baring wires shook with every reverberated drop. The site-specific installation, Let Us Pray For the Water Between Us (2020), was initially commissioned for the Minneapolis Institute of Art and then found its way to the Remai Modern. The self-playing instrument calls for the recognition of forced displacement of Indigenous communities around Minneapolis, and their increasing hardship to protect the surrounding sources of water from contamination. However it takes on a new meaning as the booming 2,200-gallon chemical storage container faces the Saskatchewan River, commanding a presence across the water itself while demanding governmental and corporate accountability for the well-being of these entities. It almost felt counterintuitive, as a beautiful sunny day bounced off the river and beamed onto this looming structure invoking grim and foreboding awareness to industrial resource extraction.

Postcommodity, “Time Holds All the Answers,” 2021-22 (installation view). Remai Modern, Saskatoon. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

Due to the menacing nature of the rhythmic thumping, I managed to walk past an enormous block of text mounted on the gallery wall. Circling back, it reveals a Náhautl poem titled Dreams, Blessings and Memories (2021) with an accompanying sound component installed in the restrooms, generating an immersive and dynamic space. The installation process apparently included this work as a ceremonial element, establishing a collaborative approach from conception to creation. Initially laid in stencil, staff members rubbed charcoal into the material to create a matte finish. Postcommodity asked those undertaking the work to pray and sing for current and potential UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including Wanuskewin. Alternating between a clockwise and counter-clockwise application, these motions represented the ways Indigenous Peoples dance in ceremony across Turtle Island (also known as North America). It became apparent that ceremony was prioritized in this exhibition, unveiling the collective’s desire to unite Indigenous nations while honoring placehood. In doing so, they demonstrated respect and accountability for the lands they are being hosted on as guests.

A suffocating ambiance awaits. Stacked high from floor to ceiling in an adjacent room sits South By North Is Also North By South (2021), an installation made of enormous steel hazardous-waste barrels. It mimics a pyramid or mound structures used by many (unnamed) Indigenous communities in the “Western Hemisphere,” according to the wall didactic. The effect of this—their cramped, looming presence—completely alters your perspective of the room. Similar to kinaypikowiyâs (2021), the artwork shares the same aesthetic scheme: striking yellow, red, blue, and white. This color combination carries two symbolic meanings—it represents a hazardous-material labeling system, but also the colors of the Indigenous medicine wheel—demonstrating a cycle of Indigenous healing and harm (for instance, as toxic waste materials are often stored on or near Indigenous nations at alarmingly high rates). But the nod to the medicine wheel and pyramids carries an air of pan-Indigeneity; both symbolisms seem to be cherry-picked from varying communities.

Postcommodity, “South By North Is Also North By South,” 2021. Courtesy of the artists. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

Indigenous art can lack cultural specificity which in turn does a disservice to the representation of Indigenous Peoples. To generalize our distinct and diverse ways of being and knowledge systems erases the dynamic experiences that we hold. Many of us are complicit in the homogenization of traditions, it’s all we can do when our epistemologies have been muddied and demonized by settler colonialism—unearthing teachings from specific communities is a complex issue. Some members from my ceremonial circles (and a quintessential Anishinaabe narrative) imply that the unification of Indigenous nations can be a harmonious objective as it rejects division and in turn, communally resists systems of oppression imposed by the colonial settler state. And while the exhibition acknowledges the reality that colonial violence remains a universal thread, Indigenous art needs distinct representation to combat uninformed and often offensive ideologies that have been placed on us. Specificity not only honors our ancestors, but it also permits us to reclaim grounded narratives that belong to us.

 

Postcommodity, “Truck Hunting Out Near Agua Caliente Reservation,” 2021. Courtesy of the artists. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

Finally, you become faced with a large floating wooden structure titled Truck Hunting Out Near Agua Caliente Reservation (2021), that projects an intricate shadowed pattern on the floor. The installation invokes an overpowering sense of brevity, similar to the disorienting and dreamlike South By North Is Also North By South (2021). The structure mimics the design of a rooftop made popular in Palm Springs, California in the mid-1950s, spurring an influx of midcentury modern homes that represent the development and invasion of Indigenous land. This era was named the “age of atomic optimism” which erases Indigenous experiences of loss of land and ancestral knowledges. Accompanied by the haunting sound score of Going to Water (2021), a video and sound installation in the other room, the entire atmosphere conjures waves of helplessness, and with that, the profound disempowerment of Indigenous Peoples becomes apparent, establishing this convergence as the most impactful space in the exhibition. It paints an unambiguous picture of extractive industries, land theft, and climate change, and their detrimental impact on ancestral homelands—disregarding this would be inconceivable. Meanwhile, Going to Water displays a collection of archival governmental footage that monitors environmental changes in the Owens Valley in California. The valley is known for gathering and trade for the nearby Paiute tribes of Bishop and Lone Pine—“the place of flowing water.” It exposes the decimation of the valley, resulting in an environmental crisis stemming from an aqueduct constructed by the City of Los Angeles to divert the lake’s water from the city due to its rising population. Despite a grandiose production level, the specificity of placehood and peoples comes through, here, underscoring those relational ties that root the work.

Time Holds All the Answers provides grim messaging and rightfully so; resource extraction directly relates to the ongoing colonial violence Indigenous Peoples face. Forced removal and segregation from our ancestral homelands perpetuates more than physical violence—it’s spiritual warfare. But as the towering artworks in Time Holds effectively mimic the scale and daunt of extractive industries, their authors perhaps forgot to look at their own human-scaled participation within them; these artworks generate a significant carbon footprint. And while the premise of Indigenous Peoples taking up physical space within the white-walled gallery certainly conjures feelings of empowerment—and this exhibition achieves that in a magnificent way—it also leans on the homogenization of Indigenous nations to do so.

 

A previous version of this review contained misinformation regarding the sourcing of the work “South By North Is Also North By South,” 2021. We apologize for the error.

 

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