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A Place To Stand

Heather Hart’s Northern Oracle

She’s convinced of her own legitimacy, her right to pronounce: I and my kind are here on sufferance. (Atwood)

Heather Hart began her artist talk, on the evening that Northern Oracle opened at RHAC, with a game of “telephone.” It only involved several people, but even among the limited group, what she said became quickly unrecognizable. This set the architecture (a bad pun, that’ll become clear later) for how her works, both in terms of what’s at Rodman Hall, and what she’s facilitated / created in the past, are about the gaps / truths between (and within) oral and written “narratives.”

In showing several pieces that incorporated personal yet public historical tropes, Hart also indicated how we can’t assume that what’s written down is perfect (she cited an instance of research where a name was mispelled and this became the repeated “official” spelling). Neither should we be as ready to declare – or discount – oral traditions, either. A critical listening and questioning of historical allegories is a strong undertone of Hart’s practice. In looking through my notes from Hart’s talk (touching on other incarnations of “Oracle” that were Eastern, or Southern), certain terms recurred and I want to inject here: slippage, echoes, recollections or memories that depend upon a site and (conversely) a nomadic experiences of place . This latter one is interesting for suggesting we interact with place not so much from experiences as what we’ve been told about a site.

The previous Rodman exhibition, Carry Forward, talked in some ways about the danger of assuming a “written document” or an “historical document” is always factual / valid. Hart expands that conversation, saying that oral traditions are also a space for historical, social or ideological assumptions – or degradation – of facts, where contested narratives are undermined by unfounded suppositions. Perhaps you saw that interesting story from the Prairies about what constitutes Métis territory, and how thats already garnering friction among the Lakota, Cree and Salteux on the plains. How that contested narrative plays out is yet to be determined, as issues about historical “legitimacy” – whatever that means, depending on who’s speaking to / at whom – is more universal than unique.

Northern Oracle‘s “rooftop” dominates the gallery, and frankly, the drawings on some of the other walls to the right in the open, high ceiling gallery, aren’t effective nor impressive. On repeated visits, I climb the roof, or I go inside the “attic” interior, or I sit on the tar paper and talk to others, and yes, I have, by the time you’re reading this, gone and “sounded my barbaric yawp over the rooftops” (Whitman) while shouting some of my favourite words, from Ginsberg to Job to Akhmatova or Eliot’s The Waste Land.

The statement: Northern Oracle is an ambitious rooftop installation that emerges from the floor of the gallery, and is accompanied by a series of mixed media drawings. Through her work, Heather Hart considers Black histories, access to ownership, taking up physical space, and the significance of having a place to call home. Visitors will be able to access both the rooftop and its floor level attic, while further contemplating and enacting upon the corollary of these vantage points. The “Oracle”, located in the attic, is the heart of the work and is a site-specific shrine where visitors may leave behind offerings.

Northern Oracle will provide a performative area, a locale for demonstration of power, influence, and direction where the idiom, “shout it from the rooftop” will be made literal. Throughout the exhibition, the space will be activated by performances, lectures and workshops.

When Hart shared past iterations of Oracle, one was outdoors, in a wooded area: there the roof seemed to emerge from the ground, and I see the one in Rodman similarily, like a rising, or surfacing, architecture or story. In this respect, having this work here resonates outside the gallery, if we think of Hart’s own connections to African American history, and many recent honourings of Harriett Tubman here in Niagara, from the naming of schools to the campaign to preserve and restore the church on Geneva that was integral to her activities, and frankly, to this place. Even the superficial “underground” connection (railroad or ideas, emerging upwards) plays with this allusion.

Hart shared several projects with the crowd the night of the opening, when she spoke: several explore that misused and misinterpreted idiom of relational aesthetics, but in a manner that is very effective (The Black Lunch Table Project, or Build a Brother, or The Porch Project).

Perhaps that’s why, in thinking of her work here, I sometimes consider it more architecture than art, as architecture is built for people and ideas, and is often more of a space for people and ideas than “art” has been.

Unsurprisingly, my responses to artworks are often subjective, and I was once told my writing about art privileges subjectivity (my own implied, perhaps) above all else. There’s many art works I’ve found exquisitely evocative and inspiring, but oftentimes for reasons different than what was intended. My repeated invocations of Jeanne Randolph’s ideas of the amenable object have helped me realize that this is as valid as any other interpretation.

In light of that, despite having visited Oracle a dozen times already (even leaving a reception for something else at RHAC to spend time with Hart’s structure), I have only gone “inside” it once. The title – Northern Oracle – alludes to the drawing in the interior and the manner in which visitors are encourage to interact with it, with provided gold leaf. That interests me not at all but I’ve repeatedly climbed the roof, sat on the window “ledges”, ascended to the apex of the tar paper tiles and touched the ceiling. Its wrong to say I’m uninterested in the interior, though: when I’ve sat on the very edge of the roof’s high point, admiring the play of shadows on the wall behind it, or looking out over the gallery space from a new and unusual spot, I realized that the chimney on the roof offers a view down into the space. What you need to peer through the “drawing” if inside with the “Oracle” you can see by simply looking straight down, past the clear glass / plastic covering the “lid” of the chimney.

Somehow that seems more interesting, more intimate, to look down to the empty chair with seemingly discarded clothes and clothes. It seems more secret, more powerful, and in that respect intersects with the power of being on the roof, with being in an unfamiliar “position” of strength, from which to project your voice, your words and your self out into the space.

From the second visit to the Oracle, I knew that I’d stand on top and recite Ginsberg’s When the Light Appears, Boy (there’s a video in my social media feed, though I may do it again). This offers an idea of what Hart’s piece can inspire. Visit the work, and consider that if you could stand on a rooftop and yell whatever you like, what would you say?

Northern Oracle is on display at Rodman Hall until March 3rd, 2019. All images are courtesy Rodman Hall Art Centre. All images are courtesy Rodman Hall Art Centre.

Written by Bart Gazzola

Bart Gazzola (also known as #artcriticfromhell) is an arts writer/critic who has published with Magenta Magazine, Canadian Art, FUSE, Galleries West, PrairieSeen, Long Exposure and BlackFlash (where he was Editorial Chair for 3 years). He is Assistant Editor at thesound.rocks and a frequent contributor to various cultural spaces in Niagara.

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