BY OSMAN CAN YEREBAKAN for CULTURED MAGAZINE
During the preview for Open Spaces 2018: A Kansas City Arts Experience on a rainy Thursday, curator Dan Cameron walked a group of journalists and donors through Swope Park. One of the largest urban greeneries in the country and a multifunctional site for recreational and cultural activities, the Midwestern landmark is a historical racial divider, a de facto “color line,” according to Cameron. “Dealing with the political, cultural and economic history of a place like Kansas City, while creating a framework for developing a project like Open Spaces, sometimes resembles investigative journalism, or even detective work,” explained the curator.
Swoope Park hosts the largest portion of the biennial works, including Jacob Burmood’s Draped Form, a cast aluminum sculpture of a draped specter that sits at the park’s entrance and Tree, Broken Tree, a reclaimed dead tree that artist Dylan Mortimer showered with pink paint and glitter to embody revitalization and survival. Also in the park is Dawn DeDeaux’s Free Fall: Prophecy and Free Will in Milton’s Paradise Lost—48 towering columns installed amongst walnut trees, each printed with reflective tape reading a verse from Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” It’s recommended to visit the work after sunset, when the reflective text better appears in dark—consider the evening of October 13 when Janelle Monáe will perform at the nearby historic Starlight Theater as part of the biennial’s concert series. The challenge to read Milton’s centuries-old, yet utterly relevant text about imperfections of human evolution in daylight emphasizes DeDeaux’s statement on our collective numbness and helplessness in the face of social decay. The piece is also an homage to Milton, who was blind when he penned his epic poem.
The site’s scene-stealer is Ebony G. Patterson’s …called up, an orchestration of artificial flowers, plush toys and candles placed inside an abandoned pool that requires viewers to walk in a full circle in order to notice various objects that overall resemble a shrine. Built in the mid-20th century to provide therapeutic treatment for children with health conditions, the pool sits in a secluded section of the otherwise plain 1,800-acre park. A mirage-like find with its festive colors and naive innocence, the installation is far from surprising for followers of Chicago-based Patterson’s dazzling mixed-media creations. The viewers plunge into a bitterly whimsical realm, echoing the site’s solemn history with the artist’s ability to transform joy into contemplation. Neither debunk nor utilitarian, the pool encapsulates zeal and extinction alike.
Open Spaces also presents Kansas City Art Institute alumni Nick Cave’s glorious return to the city where he learned how to sew and dance. Doing justice to the all-encompassing art extravaganzas Cave has come to be known for, Hy-Dyve introduces an immersive video and sound installation, set inside a former church called Hope Center. During our visit, Cave put final touches to his dance club-like sensory undertaking—on par with his former Park Avenue Armory intervention, The Let Go, with its hallucinatory imagery and electric vibe. Meanwhile, Nari Ward’s ode to legendary Kansas City-native jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker is located at the Mutual Musician’s Foundation where Parker once played. A few steps away, the American Jazz Museum hosts Berlin-based Turkish artist Nevin Aladag’s interactive musical sculpture, Resonator, which is activated throughout a series of performances.
The most recent location of 21c Museum Hotel, the Louisville-based contemporary art museum and boutique hotel chain, exhibits Brad Kahlhamer’s sculptures of wire and bells, Super Catcher, Vast Array, at its historic dining room The Savoy, which preserves traces from its past life as a social landmark in the early 20th century. Chief curator of 21c Alice Gray Stites explains that, “The installation highlights the role of the artist as healer or shaman, bringing a sense of balance, compassion and inclusivity to a space originally designed to celebrate European-American expansion and the mythology of manifest destiny.”
Open Spaces 2018: A Kansas City Arts Experience continues at various locations across Kansas City through October 28th, 2018.
The Kansas City metropolitan area is undergoing a period of renewal. A years-long building boom is transforming the downtown skyline. Significant growth in tech jobs, reasonably affordable housing stock, and successful homegrown start-ups are proving the city is a desired market. Not everyone, however, is benefiting from this boom. Open Spaces, a new biennial of public art and performance that runs through October 28, offers opportunities to reflect on this condition through site-specific installations that address decay, gentrification, and civic pride. Open Spaces features new work by more than forty visual artists from the region and across the globe; nearly two hundred more are in the Expanded Field, as the parallel program of exhibitions is called. The event’s hub is the 1,800-acre Swope Park, but works can be seen at locations throughout the city on both sides of the Kansas–Missouri state line.
Jamaica-born, Kentucky-based Ebony G. Patterson has created a memorial to a site from Kansas City’s forgotten history. Titled …called up, her installation in Swope Park honors a long-abandoned hydrotherapy pool built by physician Harry Gilkey in 1956 for youth with physical handicaps. Patterson’s array of colorful silk flowers, teddy bears, and unlit memorial candles completely blankets the pool. Cut metal benches and additional memorial candles circle the pool, allowing visitors to sit quietly and reflect.
A short distance from the pool is local artist Shawn Bitters’s Burn Out, a large-scale installation that follows a hiking trail through the woods. Bitters has embedded twenty-three aluminum panels duplicating the profiles of stones, ranging in size from twenty-four to fifty inches in height, he found along the mile-long trail. The abstract ink paintings on them communicate a coded message that can only be deciphered by completing the trail and consulting Bitters’s page in the Open Spaces smartphone app. There are long stretches where none of the work is visible as you walk, making the next discovery all the more exciting. Seeking out these “stones,” one strikes a balance between engaging the artwork and appreciating the natural environment.
In a former lakeside nature center at Swope Park, Kansas City-based Jillian Youngbird has created For the Birds aka Swope Shelter, a tableau made from found and recycled materials, including cardboard, chicken feathers, and Christmas ornaments, as well as discarded plastic and dead sticks found around the building. Two life-size human figures with bird heads squat in an environment that will deteriorate over the course of Open Spaces due to humidity and other weather conditions. In an interview, Youngbird said that when she began working with the shelter, she found significant amounts of trash, indicating that whoever had been using it before her was not just passing through. The shelter is kept locked per parks department regulations, which means visitors view Youngbird’s work through the windows, enhancing the feelings of voyeurism and hopelessness that attend her work.
Jill Downen, another Kansas City artist, speaks to the rapid gentrification of the city. Her Architectural Folly from a Future Place is a pair of pristine white concrete slabs with lapis lazuli details. They appear as ruins of some grand historical structure on a path toward a magnificent vista of the city. Downen’s beautiful sculpture makes a bold statement. Kansas City does not always build new residential and commercial spaces in the parts of the city that need them the most. Historical structures are actively preserved downtown. One can drive block after block in parts of the city where neighborhoods have existed for generations and see beautiful buildings that stand ignored or abandoned. I saw Folly as a remark on the importance of historical architecture in Kansas City, with an eye to racial discrimination in selecting locations and buildings for revitalization.
Free Fall is a ruin-like installation in Swope Park by New Orleans-based Dawn DeDeaux. Its forty-eight concrete columns bear the text of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, an epic poem retelling the fall of Adam and Eve, in reflective vinyl that glints at night with the illumination of the Starlight Theatre across the street. Among a field of walnut trees, the columns lean in clusters, some tilting toward each other and some bowing toward the ground. From a distance, the columns look like Roman numerals, as if conveying the futility of marking time when one has no control over its passing.
A densely symbolist multi-channel video, Chicago-based Nick Cave’s Hy-Dyve reactivates Hope Center, a decommissioned church now used as a community social space for children and families. As a “soul center” for the neighborhood, the church offers a multitude of programs as part of its mission to develop a healthy community on Kansas City’s East Side. Cave’s choice of this location highlights neighborhood issues addressing neglect by the local arts community. A large number of historic buildings in this part of the city have not received the same investment from private developers and investors as neighborhoods with higher white populations.
Inside, wraparound video of cascading imagery fully envelops the audience. Water ebbs and flows at viewers’ feet in projections on the floor. The walls bear a continuous, shifting pattern that includes the artist himself, peering through the mask of one of his signature “Soundsuits.” This shot is replaced by repeated images of the same figure, now in white tie and tails, then shifts again. A loud, percussive sound accompanies the imagery, making its effect both stimulating and disorienting. There are no pews in this former church, and without anything to hold onto, you experience a feeling of freefall. The cacophony of Hy-Dyve seems like a metaphor for the vigorous activity that goes into the necessary work of community service.
The Crossroads Art District, in contrast to the East Side, is one of Kansas City’s most quickly changing neighborhoods. Two adjacent unused storefronts there have been turned into cultural pop-ups for a pair of projects by New York-based artists. Ted Riederer’s Never Records is a traveling record shop that stocks only vinyl records cut by Riederer himself when musicians and amateurs visit the recording studio in the store. Tabs in the display racks list all the countries and cities where Riederer has set up his shop. Participating musicians can leave with their song on vinyl and in a digital file to use as they please, while Riederer adds a new record to his growing collection, ready to be heard in the next city where he sets up shop.
Shinique Smith’s installation Breathing Room is a space that immediately invites calm. A few dozen pillows are arranged on plain rugs, creating a relaxed atmosphere. They face a temporary wall made of discarded denim in varying shades of indigo. The fabric wall gives an impression of sky, enhancing the calm visitors feel when reclining on the pillows. Soothing scents, including verbena, linger. Strewn around the room are small denim balls to squeeze, hold, or pass around to others. Visitors are encouraged to give into the overwhelming desire to remove their shoes and meditate. Breathing Room offers both individual activities and a shared experience; you can drop in alone during regularly scheduled meditation demonstrations.
Smith and Riederer’s installations emphasize Kansas City’s historical reputation for friendliness. The two works offer very different activities, but both open their doors for strangers to come inside and explore common curiosities. Commercial environments driven by square footage and economics do not inspire the same need to interact as a neighbor’s small business does. One needs only to look a couple of blocks away to find the Power & Light District, a promenade for shopping, eating, and drinking where human interaction begins and ends at the cash register.
Open Spaces is good for Kansas City, and after years of casual discussion among artists and community leaders about the need for a citywide event, I am glad to see it finally take place. This event, perhaps unintentionally, has taken up a mantle of illuminating the social and cultural issues that are affecting Kansas City during its period of transition. I hope the next iteration of Open Spaces continues with this line of inquiry, involving a greater number of local and regional artists to take on these themes more consciously.
PRESS SELECTIONS FREE FALL: PARADISE LOST
DAWN DEDEAUX'S FREE FALL: PROPHECY AND FREE WILL IN MILTON'S PARADISE LOST / PHOTO BY BRIAN RICE
KANSAS CITY ART HIGHLIGHTS: Dawn DeDeaux, Nick Cave and Ebony Patterson / Photos by Brian Rice for CULTURED Magazine www.culturedmag.com/open-spaces-kansas-city/