Alaska Embodies the Spirit of the Greater West
April 16, 2018
On April 20, the Anchorage Museum opened Unsettled, an art exhibition that makes connections among the diverse cultures of the super-region known as the Greater West. Though ranging across thousands of miles, this region shares many similarities: vast expanses of open land, rich natural resources, diverse indigenous peoples, colonialism, and the ongoing conflicts that inevitably arise when these factors coexist. Notions of the "Greater West" also include new frontiers such as outer space, high technology, and art forms made possible by new explorations.
With global attention urgently focused on the changing environment, the emphasis museums place on artists and their environments is critical in developing meaningful conversations about culture and the landscape, including those prompted by Unsettled.
Below is an essay written by Anchorage Museum Director and CEO Julie Decker that appears in the Unsettled catalog. We share it here to continue the conversation.
By Julie Decker, Director and CEO, Anchorage Museum
In Mountains of the Mind, British nature writer Robert Macfarlane reminds us that most of us exist for most of the time in worlds that are humanly arranged, themed, and controlled. We forget there are environments that do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, that have their own rhythms and orders of existence.
Alaska is still a place of rhythms. They are not the rhythms of a place untouched, of the mythic empty and wild place depicted by landscape painters, or the fairy tale of Bigfoot. Alaska is part of an international Arctic occupied by four million people. Alaska Natives understood its landscape long before explorers came from all directions to “discover” it.
|Prototype for New Understanding #23; Brian Jungen; Nike Air Jordans, 2005.|
From an outside view Alaska is considered wild. It has often been left out of the narrative of the “Wild West,” although with its many stereotypes, Alaska embodies the spirit of the Greater West. Consider the lure and lore of the Alaska bush pilots of the 1920s—aviator Joe Crosson, the first to land on Denali’s glaciers, was celebrated across the country on radio, in advertisements, and in comic books. Bush pilots were an apt symbol of the bravado and machismo synonymous with the unfettered West. Alaska’s motto, The Last Frontier, sounds like the title of a Hollywood western. Yet today, roads to Alaska wilderness are often paved, marked with signage, and equipped with scenic viewfinders. The slightly wild is a grand attraction.
Still, Alaska is a testing ground for mettle and mind. Running Wild reality TV host Bear Grylls tested President Barack Obama at the foot of an Alaska glacier with a “survival meal” of tea and wild salmon. Miami rapper Pitbull made a visit to the Walmart in remote Kodiak after a marketing campaign resulted in his temporary “exile” there. Rocker Ted Nugent signed a federal plea agreement after he illegally shot and transported a black bear. Go wild, go West.
|(Left) Exhibition entry; Anchorage Museum, 2018. (Right) Paradoxical Western Scene; Rodney Graham; Painted aluminum lightbox with transmounted chromogenic transparency, 2006.|
Tales of Alaska as the last Wild West are ubiquitous on television. Every cable network capitalizes on North as “the new black.” There are some forty reality TV shows perpetuating the outsider notion of Alaska as viewers cling to the concept of there still being land, animals, and people untamed. The westernmost and northernmost state in the U.S. is the setting of Bering Sea Gold, Ice Road Truckers, Deadliest Catch, Flying Wild Alaska, Life Below Zero, Out of the Wild, Tougher in Alaska, Ultimate Survival Alaska, Wild West Alaska, Yukon Men, Slednecks, Big Hair Alaska, and Men in Trees. These and other TV programs and movies in the genre display foul-mouthed fishermen, homesteaders, pilots, hipster gold rushers, truck drivers, a former governor, and not always the West at its best.
Of course, direction is relative. Alaska is easily defined as north but is a little more confused when it comes to east and west. The Aleutians, a chain of fourteen large volcanic islands and fifty-five smaller ones, belong to both the U.S. and Russia. They mark the northern part of the Pacific Ring of Fire and divide the Bering Sea to the north from the Pacific Ocean to the south. Attu, the westernmost U.S. island, is just east of the International Date Line. At the extreme western end of the chain are the Commander (Komandorski) Islands, which belong to Russia.
Former Alaska governor (and vice presidential candidate) Sarah Palin was ridiculed in 2008 for boasting of the proximity of Alaska to Russia, but in truth the Alaska island of Little Diomede is only 2.5 miles from the Russian island of Big Diomede (also called, respectively, Yesterday Isle and Tomorrow Island, because the International Date Line runs between the two outcrops). Indigenous people traveled the distance often before politics created borders. People have flown, sailed, swum, walked, paddled, and driven a Land Rover on pontoons across the divide, often with fanfare over diplomatic tensions, risking arrest on the other side.
|All the Submarines of the United States of America; Chris Burden; Cardboard, vinyl thread, typeface, 1987.|
Today, Alaska is the strategic West of the U.S. because of oil and the Arctic. Alaska makes the U.S. an Arctic nation. Today the world eyes the future Arctic as an iceless passage that could uncover riches of shipping, oil, and power. Russia planted a flag at the bottom of the ocean under the North Pole to claim the Arctic. The countries of cold climate are warming, but relations between countries of the Cold War remain icy. When Russia did more than ogle Crimea, eyes turned to Alaska, and President Vladimir Putin was asked if he would Make Alaska Russian Again.
Alaska is sometimes included in definitions of the Pacific Northwest of the U.S., allowing the southeast part of the state to reach into the region with its fingertips. The concept of the Greater West stretches not by land, but by ocean, circling Alaska into lands connected by water, culture, nature, and indigenous knowledge. The climate of the Greater West is diverse, but the heavy presence of the environment in each place is shared, from water to forest to desert. Layers of the landscape are evident in the languages, as they extend from South America up the west coast of North America to Alaska, and back down the edges of the Pacific to Australia and islands in between. This Greater West creates a new language for place and landscape, to define these sites with frontage onto the natural world. It sketches a new map, not instantly locatable but readily conceivable. It offers new conditions. Precision isn’t needed here; these are not lands opposed. This map is a new picture for the mind, a new chart for connections of thought and terrain.
|(Left) No Pigs in Paradise; Nicholas Galanin & Nep Sidhu; Mixed media, 2016. (Right) Popocatepetl e Iztaccihuatl vistos desde Atlixco, after Jose Maria Velasco; Justin Favela; Paper and glue, 2016.
Water connects the Greater West, and while the ocean is vast, places where land meets water and the animal need for fresh water do not allow for complacency. Much of the West battles drought, and in Alaska water morphs into the forms of disappearing sea ice, eroding coastlines, melting permafrost, receding glaciers, and increasing threats to marine species, including the polar bear, long the icon of change. The Arctic and its ocean represent a bellwether of climate change for the world.
All of the Greater West is subject to acute and ever-present climate change, forcing modesty and urgency. Attention deficit is an unaffordable luxury for such places on the edge, places where people walk into and with the landscape, rather than across and through it. In the Greater West we are reminded that the world has not been made by humans for humans, although we can intricately affect the outcome—that is, our adaptability to an extreme environment. Human imprint is an echo into the western landscape. In places known for their expanses of land rather than of glass and steel, there is a more acute sense of modification, adaptation, and compromise.
As Macfarlane notes, the outdoor and the natural are being displaced by the indoor and the virtual—a small but significant symptom of the simulated life we increasingly live.
|Chocolate Room; Ed Ruscha; Chocolate on paper, 1970-2018.|
The landscape of the West may provoke nostalgia, but the West is still a place where the landscape is visible and accessed. Landscape itself is natural and neutral; environment, however, which informs and impacts it, can be politicized. The landscape of Alaska is romanticized, and its environmental politics are sometimes polarized, but like much of the Greater West it is a meta-landscape, a place that enriches life and stimulates the imagination.
Like Alaska, the Greater West is a place of rhythms. Humans look for patterns, connections to the next point, and here we connect Alaska to its ocean neighbors. We find rhythm in sounds and silences. The Greater West is a broadband of place, people, and environment, and Alaska is at the northern point of its arc, where rhythm is less controlled and arranged. There has always been an imaginative need of and for the West. It is the amalgam of place that has long symbolized the wild that remains. The Greater West expands the boundaries and encloses a space of patterns, framing and replenishing a very real and distinct landscape of both past and future.
Organized by the Nevada Museum of Art's Curatorial Director and Curator of Contemporary Art JoAnne Northrup with collaborating curator, iconic Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha, the exhibition opened at the Nevada Museum of Art Fall 2017 and will be on view at the Anchorage Museum from April 20 to September 9, 2018. The exhibition travels to the Palm Springs Art Museum after its run at the Anchorage Museum.