'Mound City' Explores Vanishing Mississippians and Our Contemporary World

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

Laumeier Sculpture Park opened its newest exhibition, Mound City, with a public reception on Friday, April 11, from 6-9pm. There was a live performance by the electronic Canadian band, A Tribe Called Red, at 7:30pm on the Way Field. Saturday morning features an artist talk with artist Geoffrey Krawczyk at 10am, whose sculpture “Recess” is part of the Mound City exhibit, followed by a walking tour with the co-curator and artists Sam Durant and Krawczyk at 11am.

Free Hanging Chain, 2014,  Sam Durant Courtesy of the artist

Free Hanging Chain, 2014,
Sam Durant
Courtesy of the artist

Mound City—curated by Marilu Knode, Executive Director of Laumeier and Dana Turkovic, Curator of Exhibitions—features nine artists exploring the tell-tale traces of native cultures—specifically the Mississippians who constructed the Cahokia Mounds—still lingering in our contemporary world. Artists will look at the mysterious disappearance of the Mississippians, their resurrection, and the myths of our so-called American manifest destiny. Krawczyk’s sculpture, “Recess,” is a formidable brick structure that resembles a cut-away of a building, which required the artist working with local architects, trade unions and craftsmen.

Recess, for Mound City Geoffrey Krawczyk Courtesy of the artist

Recess, for Mound City
Geoffrey Krawczyk
Courtesy of the artist

The artist discusses with us about his meaning, motivation, and bricklaying.

ALIVE: Tell me about your sculpture, “Recess.”

Krawczyk: I’m very interested in opening up areas and questions for the viewer, so I like words that have multiple meanings. The word “recess” can mean a pause in action. I think that’s the meaning that most people identify with, like recess at school with kids playing, which I like because that has an optimistic bent. But a recess can also be a hidden away recess or a corner, which I like too, because this work is hidden away in the park. So I’m trying to get people to pause for a minute and reflect on where St. Louis is at this particular point in time.

ALIVE: You’ve written about the mysterious nature of the Mississippians’ disappearance. How is that reflected in the piece?

Krawczyk: Right, right. We know a lot about the culture. We know about the social hierarchy, we know about their trade habits, we know about their diet from archaeological digs, but the one thing we don’t know anything about is why they disappeared, and relatively suddenly. They were just gone, you know. One of the reasons we don’t know anything about it is because nothing has been written down. We don’t know certainly that they didn’t have a written language, but nothing has been found yet. So we start putting out best guesses.

The thing that really struck me, and was sort of the impetus of the project, was that I visited the Cahokia Mounds Interpretive Center and they have all these hypotheses about why this culture went away. I was going down the list of these hypotheses and it’s stuff that sounded eerily familiar: Over-exploitation of natural resources, an out-of-touch elite that ruled the bureaucracy but weren’t really in touch with the common people of Cahokia, the changing climate; all of this stuff that we’re discussing now. So I thought it was interesting to draw the parallels between the loss of the society there and the sort of loss of economic power that St. Louis has had over the past 50 or so years. And it’s not just St. Louis—it’s cities all over the country.

ALIVE: Your piece is a large brick construction, sort of a corner cutaway of a building. In your mind, is it a ruin?

Krawczyk: I think the interesting thing about this sculpture is it really occupies a space between a ruin and a rehab. The way it’s designed is in a circular spiral configuration. It’s starts on one side low to the ground and it moves up in the step-stair pattern and at its highest point—about 16 feet—it’ll have scaffolding there as if someone’s trying to shore up the stability of the piece to preserve it or even to fix it. That’s what struck me during the time I spent in St. Louis in Old North and Hyde Park, is this juxtaposition between completely ruined, burned-out structures and brand new rehab construction. You’ve got this wave of people moving back into the area, and they’re taking these structures and fixing them up, shoring them up, but they sit right next to these burned-out ruins. I’m trying to mix those two looks together.

ALIVE: I see that you used skilled tradesmen to build the piece.

Krawczyk: I’ve had the generous support of all the trade unions. The brick layers, operating engineers, cement masons, the steel workers, have all been extremely generous with their time and expertise. Their sweat equity kind of strengthens the project. These are the same kinds of tradesmen that built the original structures, so it lends an authenticity to the work.

ALIVE: Did you have detailed architectural plans for them to work from, or were you standing there saying, “Make it a little higher over here, add a brick over there?”

Krawczyk: No, no, well…it’s really been a collaborative process. It was important for me to partner with just local people. I partnered with Space Architecture in St. Louis, and I had some drawings and some initial concepts. Space was nice enough to collaborate with me to come to a design that not only kept my initial concept of the piece, but also was something that could pass muster with all of the various county ordinances, building codes, that sort of thing. That’s something I wouldn’t be able to do on my own.

That said, I have had a lot of input from—specifically—brick layers on old techniques that they would have used around the turn of the century when a lot of these structures were built. They’re going to be employing a couple of techniques for bricklaying that are not as modern, so their input has definitely influenced the look of it. I definitely had to have a set plan for it to go up. It’s pretty complex.

For more information on Mound City, running from April 11 to August 24 at Laumeier Sculpture Park, visit the Laumeier website.

One note, according to the artist: Construction on the piece was delayed by weather, so it may not be completely finished. Nevertheless, it’s spectacular and is not to be missed. After the exhibit, the construction will remain at Laumeier as a permanent installation.

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