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Curator Amy Mackie returns to Anchorage with an engrossing, challenging installation

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 12, 2015

Video-as-art has had a role in museum and gallery exhibits for a long time. But "It Could Go Either Way" by Mariam Ghani and Erin Ellen Kelly appears to be the first time that a solo show consisting entirely of video images has taken place at the Anchorage Museum, if not in Alaska.

Granted, the "soloist" in this case is a team, a duo, rather than an individual. Described as an "immersive installation," "Either Way" feels less like a display of moving images than a hanging exhibit of two-dimensional paintings or still photos. It demands much of the viewer, notably time and an especially open mind. Each of the six videos could be characterized as either engrossing or tedious. But the exhibit is composed in such a way as to deliver an aesthetic kick that is more than the sum of its parts.

That speaks not just to the creativity of the Brooklyn-based artists, but also to the talent of a third collaborator, curator Amy Mackie, formerly of Anchorage.

From Anchorage to New Orleans

Mackie came to Alaska from Tennessee when she was a small girl. She spent her school years here and graduated from Service High School in 1992. She regularly returns to visit friends and her parents, who have lived in the same house since 1980.

There is art in being an effective curator, but Mackie has never seen herself as a traditional artist. The only time she considered herself a "maker" was when she produced some films while studying theater at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, she said. It was not a permanent commitment.

"After graduating I moved around a lot," she said. "California, Baltimore, Atlanta, the Caribbean. I taught elementary school, tried my hand at acting, worked at a dive shop."

One job had her assisting the dean of graduate studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She helped manage the department's programs, hosting visiting critics and curators, working with graduate students and taking art classes for free. Surrounded and inspired by creative people, she decided to go back to college. She enrolled at Bard College in New York, which had a specific program in curatorial studies, considered somewhat unique.

"The idea of becoming a curator kind of clicked for me," Mackie said. "It combined my interest in art, in education, in writing and being part of a creative community. It was a different program at Bard. Traditionally curators have Ph.D.s in art history, but I didn't follow that direct kind of track."

After grad school, she found employment with the prominent New Museum in New York City. "I had a great job and great visibility," she said. "But I worked day and night to pay my rent. In New York you're constantly in production mode, thinking about what comes next."

So she traded the Big Apple for the Big Easy, going to the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans.

"The creative process also requires time and space to reflect on things," she said. "New Orleans allows for that."

But she was not comfortable with her employer. Her vision differed from that of the board at that time. "The CAC was and is still trying to define itself," she said. "Ultimately I found it was kind of an uphill battle and left."

But not for long. It a matter of months, she returned to co-direct PARSE, an envelope-pushing art space and residency program, with artist Ricardo Barba.

"I came back because I was still living and breathing New Orleans. I'd become very connected to the artists here. We're on the periphery of the art world and our resources are limited. There are no Fortune 500 companies here. But there are a lot of really active, ambitious people, and not just in the arts. The artists in this town help each other. They start their own businesses, their own schools, things that are not really possible in other cities. When you're working on the periphery, anything is possible."

Persistence and luck

Mackie described her position at PARSE as something like an executive director. But she's not the curator of the space. Instead she's an administrator, bringing in guest curators to create shows. "I'm curating the curators," she explained.

She does pursue curatorial assignments outside her home base, however, such as the show in Anchorage.

"A curator is in many ways a translator and liaison," she said. "Our job is to provide access to artists. There are a lot of preconceived notions about us, like the idea that curators have all the power. That's not always the case, especially if the artist is a star.

"A curator has to wear a lot of hats. Fundraiser, politician, writing texts, just being a friend to artists. One second you're in a dingy artist studio, then later that evening you have to be up in front of patrons at a fancy party. You have to be a chameleon, constantly shifting between a lot of different worlds. I think because I've traveled a lot I'm good at being adaptable."

Persistence and luck were also important in getting "Either Way" to Anchorage.

"I've known both Mariam and Erin for a long time, professionally and socially," Mackie said. "This exhibition was one of the projects I was planning to present at the CAC. When I left I had to abandon many projects, which was horrible. But this was the most complex and the most ready to go. I was pretty gung-ho about it. I have a lot of connections and I started to shop it around. I pitched it far and wide."

One of her connections was a college chum, Geir Haraldseth of Norway. She asked if he knew of a possible venue in that country and he replied that he was just about to take the post as director of the Rogaland Kunstsenter in Stavanger, the fourth-largest city in Norway, with a population about the size of Anchorage.

"He was excited about the show and loved their work," she said. "He even arranged to commission a new work for the exhibit." That video, "Like Water From a Stone," is included in the show.

In the process she landed a $10,000 grant from the city, the first non-Norwegian to receive the award. It enabled her to stay there for an extended period during which Ghani and Kelly created the new video.

"We laughed about the idea that I wasn't so much a curator as the craft services person, climbing mountains, combing beaches, scouting locations, packing a lunch for everybody every day." She's listed in the credits as "Logistics."

The difference between art funding in America and Europe became apparent at the opening, she said. In New Orleans, money is hard to come by. In New York, big private donors pay for art projects. "In Stavanger, the city council was at the opening to see how their money was being spent."

"Either Way" was on view in Stavanger for three weeks last year. But Mackie was eager to have it seen in more than one location.

"There were several venues I thought might work, but they had scheduling problems," she said. "It's just ironic that the next place for the installation was my hometown. Strangely, Anchorage and Stavanger make sense in a way. They're both odd places, almost on exactly the same latitude line, and they're both major oil cities."

They also have fireweed, as the "Like Water" video shows.

Beautiful and hypnotic

The locations seen in "Either Way" -- the artists call them "performance places" -- range from a rococo palace to forests to lonely roads to industrial sites. They're not selected arbitrarily, Mackie said. "The artists are attracted to places with pretty sensitive layered histories, where the landscape is altered by man and then, possibly, re-altered by nature. (The artists are) thinking of how environments are constructed and how we navigate them, the struggle between nature and culture."

The videos are "like novels," Mackie said, each with its own narrative thread. In "To Live," two women roam an empty, decaying former officer's quarters accompanied by a recitation from "Bid Me to Live," a fictional work by Hilda Doolittle ("H.D."). Synopsis is unlikely if not impossible, but the sense is that a story is being told. Ghani, who does most of the camera work, has an interest in comparative literature. Kelly is generally responsible for the performance aspects, but both collaborate in all aspects of the work.

But the videos also share several parallels. If you take enough time to see all six, commonalities of ideas, images and motion will appear.

"After we put up the show, we all went to Bernie's and had drinks and thought how amazing it would be to do a Venn diagram showing the connections between the pieces," Mackie said.

In contrast with the wide-open gallery setting of most exhibits, "Either Way" is broken into discrete chambers, almost like side chapels in a big church. Each video is projected onto a flat wall in an individual viewing area with a bench. That's good, because it takes a while to realize what's going on.

A couple of the videos -- one featuring a busy Arab port city and its residents, for instance -- move quickly. But most impressive to me are the three large screens mixing landscapes natural and urban with models or performers moving, for the most part, very slowly.

For instance: a desert landscape with nothing but white dunes, blue sky, clouds and a distant dark dot. At first all appears to be motionless, as if it's a photograph. But as you wait the dot approaches and turns out to be a woman in a white dress that matches the sand. A weedy body sloshes among the rocks on a sea shore. Arms and legs emerge from a stack of downed trees. People seem to grow from rocks, water, leafy shadows and, in one startling sequence, from under dirt.

More than once I wished for the power to rewind the tape and pinpoint where the person becomes visible. I wanted to look behind things shown on the screen where I guessed the next hand or face might pop out. This might produce a "Where's Waldo" effect if it weren't for the skill of the videography and choreography. The scenes are seductively beautiful and the motions of the performers, hypnotic.

I stumbled into the show unexpectedly while at the museum on other business and couldn't pull myself away for an hour. I came back to devote another hour to watching the videos. It takes at least that long to see everything all the way through.

I sat as still as a jug while people passed in and out, some possibly thinking that I was part of the installation. None stayed longer than 90 seconds. That won't do with this show.

One woman muttered, "This is weird." A man suggested that mood-altering drugs might enhance the experience. Both of those are probably valid statements, perhaps more valid than the language in the artists' statement: "politics of movement," "transformative nature of performance," "contemplating the phenomenology of place as experienced through and reproduced by the performing body."

Some may enjoy the videos more without the verbiage.

Nuts and bolts

Unquestionably "Either Way" is one of the most cerebral installations seen in Anchorage for many years. It is also one of the most rewarding, if you have patience. Several of the visual themes firmly establish themselves in one's mind indelibly the instant you encounter them. But viewing them demands that you don't have somewhere else you need to be right away. The obligations of work and society will need to take a back seat.

Which is not the way anyone lives all the time, certainly not Mackie. Her infatuation with art comes with a cold understanding of "nuts and bolts kind of stuff," knowing that money doesn't just drop out of the sky.

"If you want to survive you have to pay your rent," she said. "I've been freelancing for the past three years. It's not always easy. It comes in waves. I curate, teach, write for catalogs, juror art shows. But you have to be a small business. That's the reality of the world."

It's a reality she teaches at Tulane University in a course titled "Practical advice for the practicing artist," aimed at showing artists how to maneuver through the professional world.

She also works with gifted high school and junior high students, which she finds especially rewarding.

"When I'm feeling bitter, it's refreshing to run across a 12-year-old who's obsessed with Shakespeare, who understands why art is valuable to our culture," she said.

"It makes us human. We need it."

IT COULD GO EITHER WAY, a video installation by Mariam Ghani and Erin Ellen Kelly, can be seen at the Anchorage Museum through March 1.

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