Gone With The Meditation
Photos: Mike Jensen
New York-based artist Simone Leigh’s solo, Gone South exhibition, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, April 4-May 31, 2014, immediately grabs the viewer’s attention with the large scale of her pieces. She uses hard ridge elements of metal and glass juxtaposed against soft, rounded, mostly earth-toned, textured watermelon-sized, ceramic cowrie shells. Meditative shakuhachi flute music plays in the background.
Gone South continues to solidify Leigh’s success in conveying relations between earthly, re-purposed elements and the cultural history of the African Diaspora. For Cupboard and Tree, she uses metal, glass, light bulbs, found and bought objects to recreate a ceremonial dwelling and its adjacent structure. At first it appears that these two large sculptures have been assembled and re-purposed for some type of West African ritual or ceremony. This is the performance element of her work that is not performed but implied, to draw you in.
After sitting quietly for a long period of time, studying the pieces and listening to the music, you begin to realize that you are being transformed. The spirit in Leigh’s objects starts to speak to you subliminally. The music invites you to take part in this undeclared ceremonial performance.
In the stillness of your observations, you wonder what are the spirits asking of you? The familiar objects take on new meanings. Cowrie shells once used as currency now hang like a chandelier in Cupbard. Glass bottles and mason jars morph from from utilitarian objects to ritual objects. Some visitors undoubtedly associate the suspended bottles with the bottle tree custom of the African American south that goes back to a centuries-old custom in Africa where vessels were combined with tree branches to catch spirits.
Within the context of "going south" in cultural history, the jug is reminiscent of enslaved artisans such as Dave the Potter, who was born in South Carolina around 1800.
The round architecture suggests no ending but a continuous life cycle. The shape inspires you to sit and meditate or walk around the interior chanting or praying, making this the performance piece, and you, the performer.
The exhibition announcement elaborates on how Leigh evokes multiple meanings and functions from single forms:
Function is a fascinating subject for the artist, and this exhibition reveals ways in which she combines hand-made objects with store-bought items to examine labor and daily rituals in both American and African contexts. Works in various scales creates dynamic spatial relationships: a metal structure covered with accumulated bottles sits on the floor, informed by vernacular architecture as well as the cotillion, a social dance originating in France in the 18th century and further developed by African Americans in the United States; and a chandelier of oversized cowrie shells hangs dramatically within a large and site-specific yurt-like structure. These shells, with their beautifully textured surfaces and jagged openings, operate as disembodied and clustered fragments, shifting between art and craft, decoration and devastation. Leigh’s videos claim women from science fiction fare in film and television, including Zira from Planet of the Apes, and Lieutenant Uhura, the communications officer from Star Trek, using them as models of identity and power.
In Leigh’s 2012, digital video Girl, a previously recorded performance piece shows the back of a woman’s torso slowly rising and falling as she breathes. Again the flute plays. The viewer moves from one room into another — from the traditional, ceremonial aspects inherent in the sculptures — to a large scale digital video projected on a white wall. The video was included in Gone South to establish a dialogue with the other sculptural pieces on view and can be viewed here.
The rubble of the gray stones completely covering the woman’s head sharply contrasts with her smooth, curved, brown figure. This piece takes you out of your comfort zone and places you somewhere you don’t want to be. You want it to be a dream and not real. It is a video that suggests more questions than answers. You ask yourself what am I seeing and in what context am I supposed to experience this work? This piece is physically and psychologically stressful and over-whelming. Is Leigh suggesting, regardless of the subject matter, that the female body is used in all sorts of ways, good and bad? Is the viewer or voyeur of this unknown woman a part of what has happened to her? Is she in distress? Does she need our help, because she cannot speak for herself? (The woman is portrayed by visual and performance artist Kenya Robinson.)
The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center is well suited for a contemporary artist like Simone Leigh. The space is large enough for the artist’s vision to come through without distractions and take you to those other spaces.
Cynthia Ham-Oliver is an Atlanta-based, librarian/information technology specialist and art historian.