June 23, 2015
While Captain James Cook’s search for a Northwest Passage yielded many valuable observations, another legacy clings to the figure of the European explorer. The point of departure for Da-ka-xeen Mehner’s contribution to the Museum Interventions series was the narrative of heroic discovery that so often follows expedition leaders like Cook. With a photograph titled I Was Not Discovered, Mehner challenges this one-sided narrative where “the explorer is made to be the hero” and opens up the construction of history for a dynamic conversation between artists, indigenous peoples and institutions.
While written histories tend to begin with “discoverers” like Cook, Mehner reminds us that Alaska Native cultures have thrived for thousands of years and continue to develop after and in spite of their travels. Mehner says, “The piece is a way to acknowledge the history that was here before he landed, but also the history that continues today.” In the multiple exposure photograph documenting Mehner’s performance at Captain Cook’s monument at Resolution Park, the artist stands on either side of the statue which he has surrounded with knives. On the left, Mehner stands in his regalia, and on the right he wears jeans, a t-shirt and a hip cedar bark fedora. Together the two ‘selves’ show the dynamism of cultural expressions as they transform and respond to the present.
Even though the great explorer had been fenced in, during the performance the artist registered an uneasy divide between this dynamic, active understanding of Alaskan Native culture and the limited response of passersby in what the artist attributes to “the contemporary ignoring of culture that’s vibrant in Alaska.” This gave Mehner the idea to incorporate multiple exposures in the photograph documenting the event in a play of visibility and invisibility, stability and movement that illustrates the continued presence and development of Alaskan Native cultures and the degree to which these thriving cultural expressions remain invisible in the public sphere.
However in I Was Not Discovered, the tables are turned: the artist and his disruption of Cook’s monument are solid and striking, while the fleeting movements of those surrounding are made into ghost images. Likewise in the museum, Mehner’s photograph demands attention. It hangs next to both the entrance and exit of the hall, bookmarking the exhibition space and suggesting that the histories within must be approached with respect for the many voices that have been affected by and reinterpreted Cook’s legacy. In turn, Mehner says, his work “wouldn’t have the same power if it was not in that space at this time. It coexists” with the confluence of histories and perspectives at play in Arctic Ambitions and the spirit of participation it promotes.
Today photography has taken over as the authoritative medium of documentation compared to text in Cook’s time. Even though we can “instantly change images,” Mehner notes, “there’s still a grasping that this is the truth” in photographs. The fact that any such “truth” (whether in the form of an outsider’s ethnographic observations, or Instagram) comes first through the lens of another is elided. Photography has become “the way we perceive the world today,” Mehner pointedly remarks, and as such it has more to say about how we mediate and express our realities than to any discrete “truth.”
History has similarly claimed a role as a record of truth, but as Mehner’s intervention explores, many histories have existed beyond the narrative, and they continue to be developed today. “Culture is not something that’s frozen. It’s something that’s moving and living,” says Mehner. When this understanding can be incorporated into the exhibition space as this museum intervention does, collaboration replaces the univocal power to authorize history.