Into the Woods
Laumeier Sculpture Parks “Mound City” seeks to reconcile our citys past with the present.
IF WE CANNOT REMEMBER our past, are we doomed to repeat it? Art explorers might do well to reflect upon that platitude as they traverse throughout Laumeier Sculpture Park to view the works in the park’s latest exhibit, “Mound City.” The collection of sculptures, constructions and other creations explores the remnants of “succession cultures” that have existed, then disappeared, throughout the region—from the Mississippians at Cahokia Mounds, through the city’s New Orleans French colonial founders, to the arrival of the Germans and Italians in the 18th and 19th centuries, and even the African-American neighborhoods on the city’s north side. All of these communities have left their indelible thumbprint on the culture of the city. The show coincides with stl250, the year-long celebration of the city’s 250th anniversary. The works featured in “Mound City” seek to make connections between that past and our present culture, and between the natural environments and what we build on them.
The Replacements Case in point, after building a thriving community that lasted for some 700 years, the Mississippians virtually vanished overnight. By 1400 A.D., they were gone. The cause of their disappearance is unknown, but theories include the usual suspects: climate change, overpopulation, social unrest and other factors that are directly relatable to modern-day concerns. But other populations would eventually arrive to take their place. Successive waves of immigrants settled into specific neighborhoods, subsequently moved on and left behind clues to their cultures, buried in the ground. Just last April, the remains of a French colonial home dating back to 1764, when the French founded St. Louis, was unearthed under the Poplar Street Bridge. Archaeologists can piece together a history from the artifacts and foundation left behind, but what do these discoveries teach us about ourselves? That’s the fertile ground “Mound City” excavates, sometimes with the force of a bull dozer, and other times as delicately as a soft brush sweeping away dirt.
Our House Two “Mound City” works draw straight from Cahokia Mounds historic site. Beverly Pepper’s “Cromlech Glen” (1985-90) was installed at Laumeier nearly 30 years ago, but strongly references the theme of the current exhibit. The lush, green amphitheater—complete with mounds and stone steps—lets us imagine how a gathering place for the Mississippians might have looked, illustrating as well that the human desire for community is consistent across time and cultures. Similarly, Laumeier Sculpture Park’s archaeologists-in-residence, Joe Harl and Robin Machiran, have constructed an authentic structure with the help of students, titled “Wattle and Daub,” in which a woven lattice of wooden strips, called wattle, is daubed with a mixture of wet soil, sand, clay, animal dung and straw, the same tacky material the Mississippians used.
Tree Nymph Alison Saar, whose work typically explores themes of African cultural diaspora and spirituality, turns her attention to Native culture with “Leelinau,” (1997), a work that refers to a Native American myth about a girl who escapes a prearranged marriage by fleeing into the woods with the tree fairies. The painted wood, copper and steel wire sculpture resides on the branch of an oak tree in the Laumeier woods, and will eventually decompose and disappear, just as civilizations do. Compare Saar’s piece with Marie Watt’s “Earthmover,” featuring a hulking 5,000-pound mining vehicle tire half-buried in the earth along with a stool and a bronze cast of a “burden basket,” used by laborers at Cahokia. The contrast between ancient and modern building techniques is clear, but time is a ruthless equalizer. It will take centuries for the tire to break down, but the earth will swallow it just the same.
Tragic Gateway Of course, St. Louis also served as a brief stop on the journey westward for many years, which is gloriously commemorated by the Arch, but as co-curators Marilu Knode and Dana Turkovic both point out in the exhibit program, westward expansion had a dark side, and other journeys embarking from St. Louis were tangibly sinister, such as the “terrible legacy of slavery,” Turkovic writes, which was often launched from St. Louis westward into the Rocky Mountains. Sam Durant’s, “Free Hanging Chain,” (2014) consists of three massive industrial chains hanging from the treetops and across a wide pathway. The hanging chains invert the arch shape, turning it upside down, and commemorate not an inspiring period in time, but a tragic one. Note too how the words in the title, “Free Hanging Chain,” contradict themselves and conjure up images of bondage and lynchings.
Building Code The exhibition’s most intricate work, Geoffrey Krawczyk’s “Recess,” uses the cutaway recreation of a brick building from the city’s north side. Constructed with the help and guidance of the St. Louis Bricklayer’s Local #1 union, the red clay bricks were laid with the same techniques that were used around the turn of the century. The building is in a state of limbo—both crumbling and being resurrected. Krawczyk suggests that time will march on, and we can either engage with our history and learn from it, or we can remain onlookers and watch our community—or our world— crumble. Do we remember our past and utilize what we learn—or, like “those who can’t remember history,” are we doomed to repeat our mistakes?
For all the inconvenience of walking several miles to see every artwork in “Mound City,” the exhibit serves as a catalyst for important reflection and soul-searching on a topic that has implications far beyond a typical exhibit. The final artwork, “Hunt + Gather,” (2012-2014) by Kim Yasuda, offers the last word. Her garden of plants and vegetable matter remind us that the earth will survive however best it’s able to, with whatever plant life that can survive overtaking our built structures. Whether humans will be part of this new earth is the question.
“Mound City” runs through August 24, 2014.
WHERE TO GO
Laumeier Sculpture Park 12580 Rott Road Sunset Hills, 314.615.5278
Hours: Open daily, 8am- sunset
Free Hanging Chain
Free Hanging Chain. Photo courtesy of Laumeier Sculpture Park.