November 12, 2009

Review of A Song for the Horse Nation

Art Review | 'A Song for the Horse Nation'

Brief, Productive Love Affair With ‘Big Dog’

By Ken JohnsonAs Mr. Viola explains, scholars now believe that horses began to proliferate among Indians in the West after Spaniards in Sante Fe fled a Pueblo uprising in 1680, leaving behind hundreds of horses and other animals. At first the Indians were frightened and mystified by the large and unfamiliar creatures. They called it names like Big Dog and Big Elk. But by the time of the French and Indian War (1754-63), Plains Indians were among the world’s best horsemen. A century or so later, their horse culture was dead, a victim, as Mr. Viola put it, of “too many white people and too few buffalo.”

As the exhibition’s many different sorts of artifacts show, the horse was much more than just a beast of burden. It was a highly efficient form of transportation, and it enabled Plains Indians to hunt buffalo, a primary source of food and material for clothing and shelter. So Navajo, Crow, Comanche, Pawnee and other tribes were able to expand their territories and flourish.
Johnson's reactions to the show:Captivating as the exhibition’s contents are, hardly anything in it is spectacular in the sense that European art and artifacts produced with elaborate refinement and expensive materials can be. There is an exceptionally appealing modesty and subtlety to many of the objects. A late-19th-century Sioux pipe tamper with one end carved into a horse head is among the smallest and most affecting things in the show.

The exhibition’s general ambiance, however, is regrettably aggressive. With loud graphics, interactive videos, mural-scale reproductions of old photographs papering the walls and the sound of clip-clopping piped in throughout, it seems as if the designers didn’t trust that the objects would be interesting enough by themselves. The show looks as if it were conceived with an audience of attention-challenged children in mind. The modern paraphernalia threatens to overwhelm the historical materials, inadvertently recreating the collision of worlds that ended traditional Indian ways more than a century ago.
Comment:  I disagree with the presumption in Johnson's final paragraph. Appealing to attention-challenged children is exactly what a good exhibit should do.

The typical museum exhibit, like the history it chronicles, is a dry catalog of facts and artifacts. These facts and artifacts are divorced from human emotions, motives, needs, and desires. They're not much different from random passages in a dictionary or random objects in a junkyard.

Anything a museum can do to counteract history's abstract nature--to make it relevant to today's viewers--is good. It's possible this exhibit's designers went too far, but it doesn't sound like it. If the graphics and videos and so forth attract more patrons than they repel, they've done their job.

For more on the subject, see Preview of A Song for the Horse Nation.

Below:  "A Piikuni Blackfoot horse mask, made of hide, beads, hair locks, porcupine quills, brass tacks, buttons and more."

No comments: