Rethinking Regionalism: “Heartland” Exhibit Review

Rethinking Regionalism
by Daniel Tucker

Note: This review was written for H-Art Magazine

Project Review of “Heartland”
Curated by Charles Esche, Kerstin Niemann, and Stephanie Smith
at Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven, Netherlands) and Smart Museum of Art (Chicago, Illinois U.S.A.)

Faux Pas in professionalized and academic art discourses are not the result of some logical series of decisions or conclusions that “the field” as a whole has arrived at. The ebbs and flows of fashion, of individuals and institutions with substantial power, and economic factors all inform the “dos and don’ts” list of acceptable subject matter in contemporary art. But in reading the excellent catalog and viewing the exhibition Heartland at Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven, Netherlands) and Smart Museum of Art (Chicago, Illinois USA), one can’t help but feel that regionalism is a faux pas people are conflicted about. In reflecting on this ambitious project, I hope to better understand this anxiety about place and its relationship to art.

Heartland came about through a unique series of road trips across the center of the United States by the curatorial trio of Charles Esche, Kerstin Niemann, and Stephanie Smith. Conceptually the project is broad, but is guided by and playfully structured around a heart shape imposed on a map of the United States that follows the great Mississippi River through the center, with New Orleans on the southern point of the heart and the northern industrial cities of Minneapolis and Detroit rounding out the two upper mounds of the traditional iconic heart symbol. In the middle of the territory are cities such as Memphis, Tennessee; St. Louis, Missouri; Kansas City, Missouri; Omaha, Nebraska; and Chicago, Illinois – with artists from each place represented in the exhibition (as well as several artists living in Europe and other parts of the U.S.). While the works on view mainly hailed from artists in cities, much of the work dealt with the vast rural landscapes and cultures found along the Mississippi River and smaller tributaries that connect to it.

The geographic framing of the exhibit does not correlate to any official or governmental territory, neither does the popular concept of the “Heartland of America”, which is referenced greatly in popular culture and politics as the core or compass of American values and culture. The Heartland is not a real place, yet its influence is huge – this is the dynamic the curators sought to explore through the lens of contemporary art and music being produced throughout what they understood to be a potentially real Heartland of America.

There are several reasons that artists, academics and their institutional supporters might be weary of the regional framework. For starters, most moderately professionalized cultural workers and academics are used to traveling in order to support themselves and present their work. This has created a unique cosmopolitan class of people who have their own specific kind of mobility – thereby for many cultural workers, generally speaking, de-emphasizing the traditional connection between place, knowledge and culture that have accumulated over generations.

In his installation at the Smart Museum, Greely Myatt of Memphis Tennessee explored de-rootedness in place in a quite literal way, through installing the roots of cotton plants directly into the wall. In his statement he explains “I cannot say that I try to represent the mid-south concretely, but it is absolutely in my work. This place is invasive…life hear is sweet and should be cherished. The materials I use are indigenous, with local color.”

The “local color” Myatt celebrates encounters critiques not adequate for our present moment, but strangely prevalent in many academic art discourses. In his book Critical Regionalism, Douglas Reichert Powell explains “Since the high period of modernism in1950s, ‘regional’ has been a pejorative term…the word ‘regionalism’ may denote ‘local color’ but it also connotes ‘provincialism’…in these kinds of critical judgments, assumptions are made or affirmed and perpetuates about which kinds of people from what kinds of places should be allowed to participate in the production of knowledge, the production of beauty, of cultural value; of public discourse, opinion and sentiment.” (1)

Each entry in the catalog for an artist featured in the show presents documentation of their work alongside one text written by the curators about their work and another written by the artist or artist group discussing their relationship to place and the concept of “the heartland.” Numerous artists discuss their reasoning for feeling rooted or committed to a place, while many more respond in a nearly reactionary manner about their decision to stay-put in the place where they were from or where they have adopted as a home-base. Even the curators verge on de-emphasizing the place they have decided to focus on (which has been “too often been overlooked”) in exchange for justifying why they didn’t want to do an exhibit about the cultural capitals on the U.S. coasts.

The second reason for fearing the regional is that the economy in general and the art world specifically is organized around nodes and hubs in global networks of industry and capital. Just as the production of any raw material has its geography of extraction, processing, export and import (as well as all the supporting administrative, legal and financial support roles that help its movement from stage to stage) – so does culture. For a variety of reasons, primarily economic, the commercial side of the art/entertainment industrial complex and many of its associated support entities (dealers, curators, magazines, unpaid interns, etc) have created strong poles in New York City and Los Angeles (speaking only in terms of the U.S.) This creates a significant barrier to having intelligent conversations about the role of art in other places, and significant ignorance about the cultural production taking place outside of major art industry hubs.

But just as certain industries have a geography because of their connection to natural resources from minerals to waterways, so too does culture have a tendency to move on water. For the Van Abbemuseum showing of Heartland, a collaboration with the Muziekcentrum Frits Philips brought musicians connected to the culture of the Mississippi river over to Eindhoven to perform. In the exhibition, artists like Miss Rockaway Armada, Dan Peterman, the New Kinematographic Union,  and Alec Soth all make work that literally moves down the rivers of the region. Part documentaries about places, they are also active projects that engage people living and working along the water. The Miss Rockaway Armada, made up of artists mostly living in San Francisco and New York converged on the Mississippi River over the course of two summers to produce a hand-made biodiesel powered raft and traveling road show that visited towns along the river. In their inaugural statement they said “Why are we doing this?…For the adventure. For the impossibility…We grew up in small towns. We remember the bookmobile and the punk rock band that seeded little pieces of something else. And now, even though we moved to big cities and found people like us, we still live in a country that fights wars so it can consume more. We are taking the urge to flee and heading for the center. We want to meet people who aren’t like us. We want to meet ourselves at age 16. We want to be a living, kicking model of an entirely different world…”(2) For the exhibition, the group created a new installation at the Van Abbemuseum that conveyed some of that spirit they had used and collected in their travels.

A third reason for fear of the regional framework is that it is an unknown to many. Fear of the unknown is not a general concept that needs to be explained here. But as it relates to culture and politics, there are potentially some insights I can offer (especially to the international audience reading this magazine). It is not unknown that electoral voting rates in the U.S. are low, what is less understood is the disparity between National elections versus State and local elections. In 2008’s presidential election 36.4 of the eligible voting population did not vote, compared to an amazing 52.2 percent who did not vote in the 2006 congressional elections (3). As an example of local political participation, I cite the 2003 elections in Chicago. There are 1,436,286 people registered to vote here, with only 483,993 casting ballots in that important election – a whopping 63 percent of people who could vote, deciding not to (4).

These numbers do not tell the whole story, as it is a complex one. But the point being that even on the most basic (some would argue even trivial, many would say corrupted beyond repair) level of engagement in the inner-workings of your city, state, or country – such remarkably low numbers of people even engage. The numbers decrease very dramatically the smaller the scale of politics – yet it is at the small scale in our federalist government, that people might actually have the power to change things that could tangibly impact their lives and the lives of their neighbors. This has an immeasurable impact on cultural work, but needless to elaborate on further – people are disconnected from caring about the places they live and how to make them better. If they do so at all, then they are more likely to care about the largest scale possible – the nation – and not regard the local scale with equal value. This disconnection from politics trickles into other aspects of life and culture at all scales, leaving politics to be an almost autonomous sphere with its own language and culture most people cannot relate to.

The German artist Julika Rudelius takes on the bizarre culture of politics in this country in her video “Rites of Passage”, depicting the barrage of intimidating and patronizing behavior that aspiring young political leaders must undergo in their grooming years. The theater of politics which clearly so many people have lost confidence in (despite increased voting in the 2008 presidential elections which occurred simultaneous to the Van Abbemuseum version of the show, and which coincidently had such a direct connection to Chicago, home of the Smart Museum and Barack Obama) could not be revealed more clearly than in Rudelius’ work.

So in terms of art, there is a challenge, a faux pas to face. While the institutions that support art may privilege the cosmopolitan over the regional, the industry of art may have a particular geography that privileges the coastal areas, and the rate of political participation in the U.S. significantly decreases the more local it becomes – there is something to say about the 48 percent of the U.S. population living away from the coasts and the culture and politics they are most definitely producing in their own geography (4).

Heartland attempts to stake a claim in the regional in a way that most exhibitions do not. It avoids limiting the artists to regionally-defined aesthetics or subject matter at the same time as acknowledging the influence that place can have on all people. Maybe it is an attempt to reclaim something they lost in terms of a connection to a cultural heritage or a politics you can touch, maybe it is some reality check that just because the high-end commercial art market exists elsewhere that plenty of other places produce compelling culture, or maybe its for fear of peak-oil that may limit our mobility in coming years…but the people in the center of the U.S. – lets call it the “heartland” – regionalism is an approach which is being reclaimed.

1) Douglas Reichert Powell “Critical Regionalism” Connecting politics and culture in the American landscape” p.19 (University of North Carolina Press, 2007)
2) Accessed on 10-21-09

3) Accessed on 10-21-09
4) Accessed on 10-21-09
5) The Changing Ocean and Coastal Economy of the United States: A Briefing Paper for Governors by Charles S. Colgan (Chief Economist, National Ocean Economics Project. Prepared for National Governors Association, March 25, 2004)…/06MWR08.pdf

Disclosure: The publication that I work with, AREA Chicago, collaborated with the Smart Museum to produce a bus tour and publication supplement, but I was not involved in either collaboration directly. Also, I only saw the exhibition itself in Chicago, though attended a workshop led by Charles Esche and Kerstin Niemann where they detailed the differences in the Eindhoven and Chicago versions of the exhibit.

Bio: Daniel Tucker is an organizer and documentarian living in Chicago. Since 2005 he has been the editor of AREA Chicago and has recently completed a book with Amy Franceschini and Anne Hamersky featuring interviews and photo essays of activist farmers across the USA (to be released on Chronicle Books in 2010).

Published by Tucker

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