The darkened room with the plaintive cries of the wolves is the heart of Alan Michelson: Wolf Nation, at the Whitney Museum of American Art through January 12, but the other three installations created by the internationally renowned Mohawk artist take you back to experience what the Lenapes saw over 400 years ago on the very ground upon which you stand.
It’s subtle and it’s outside the pace of today’s bustling Meatpacking District, so take your time and slow down.
The first experience is right inside the entrance – an augmented reality (AR) piece that transforms the busy lobby into a tobacco field that historians say was planted over 400 hundred years ago by the Lenape people where Ganesvoort Street ends today.
Through an iPad (or by downloading AR co-creator Steven Fragale’s app), visitors can watch and walk through a field of lush tobacco plants that the original inhabitants of Manhattan used for rituals and ceremonies. Different from the commercial tobacco that was grown for export, the virtual plants are based upon the type grown by Michelson’s sister in her upstate garden.
It’s an effective experience that causes visitors to stop and think about nature, history, indigenous cultures, and cycles of life in an ultra-modern, hyperactive environment that is typically untethered to the ancient or natural.
On the fifth floor, the experiences continue in a hallway and theater just off the Rachel Harrison retrospective.
A second AR installation, Town Destroyer, uses a genteel, upscale, Mount Vernon-inspired colonial interior to educate visitors about a particularly gruesome removal of 60 settlements of Native people during the early years of the American Revolution in upstate New York.
The wallpaper image of General Washington becomes a 3D marble bust when seen through the AR app, upon which is projected a map of the lands taken from the Haudnosaunee, upon his orders, by the Sullivan Expedition in 1779. Projections of State historical markers tell the sad tale, reminding viewers of the forgotten history of displacement, violence, and greed endured by New York’s First Nations…even at the hands of our Revolutionary heroes.
Visitors who see the installation rush over to read the label copy to get better informed about this forgotten history and to wonder what else was left out of American history books about the vanquished people.
The large, comfortable dark theater has an enormous wide-screen video of several of New York’s most endangered species – red wolves. You’re seeing them at night in their native habitat upstate, or so it seems. In actuality, you are seeing residents of a captive breeding colony maintained in the hopes of increasing the remaining population of 17.
It looks like a mysterious nighttime scene, shot with a surveillance camera. The pace is slow, with different members of the group arriving, listening, and leaving, fully alert. Sounds of their calls in the distance fill the room.
The effect is hypnotic, allowing viewers to slow down, see the wolves at their eye level, and reflect upon status of our indigenous wildlife and people. The Lenape, who first colonized Manhattan and New Jersey, identified as Wolf Clan. The color and shape of the cinema projection evokes wampum, the purple and white clamshell beads strung by the Lenape as gifts or to seal treaties.
All of Michelson’s work here requires visitors to slow down their pace and see their surroundings through the eyes of people who stood right there 400 years ago.
Shattemuc, a quiet video does just that. Sit for a while, and see what the Hudson River looks like, illuminated only by a circle of light from a boat that is making its way slowly through the waters in the dead of night. No skyscrapers, no water taxis, no giant clocks. Just shoreline, trees, cliffs, an occasional small settlement, small boats, and a small, up-close personal feeling.
Then later, as you take in the magnificent view Hudson from the west windows of the fifth-floor Whitney, Michelson’s work allows you to envision what the Lenape saw.
So, despite the distance in time, did Native Americans truly vanish from the shores of New York? Actually, the city today hosts one of the largest populations among big cities in the United States, including many working artists and cultural scholars.
Michelson is one of the leading voices advocating that museums and galleries reflect the work of the first Americans, and congratulations to The Whitney for making this a priority. See Michelson’s seminar on this here.
Urban Indian: Native New York Now at the Museum of the City of New York, running through March 8, testifies to the continuing vibrancy of the First Americans in the cultural capital.