Bert Benally and Ai Wei Wei’s Long-Distance Run in Coyote Canyon
By Margaret Wright
— Bert Benally is accustomed to mashing up elements of disparate cultures, art mediums and music forms and making adjustments as something new takes shape. It’s a talent he posits is a cultural commonality among Diné, one that served him well after he got word he’d been chosen for a groundbreaking collaboration with Chinese artist and dissident Ai Wei Wei. The result of their conversation debuted earlier this month in a remote canyon in the Navajo Nation.
The Temporary Installations Made for the Environment project has a global focus, which lends a dose of innovation and much appreciated contrast to many tired, pandering venues bolstered by New Mexico’s tourist money machine. For this inaugural installation in a biennial series, Benally and Ai relied on the initial legwork of government and art organizations, and emissaries across three nations. From there, it was up to the two artists to breach vast cultural, linguistic and physical distances.
First, introductions: Ai is a global art world superstar who is under house arrest in his Beijing compound, the result of his highly public protests of Chinese governmental suppression.
Benally is consciously not a superstar. His work has seen large stages, and selections from his MFA thesis are part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection. But he has made deliberate choices to trade a mobile, globe-trotting lifestyle for close proximity to his family and ancestral landscapes.
Both artists’ creative practices are embedded in their mundane movements through the world. Benally, a full-time art teacher on the rez, says being chosen to work alongside a big-name figure like Ai is an honor he looks forward to sharing with subsequent artists chosen for the TIME series.
Benally’s home life and work life are tightly fused, another trait he shares with Ai. As Benally’s half of the Coyote Canyon piece took shape, his grade school-aged daughter Oona hung out at his side, while older daughter Tatiana snapped progress photos. His son Kino was responsible for the looped, sampled and filtered sounds his dad had curated to soundtrack and beam off of the sharp rock formations. Family members were among the small audience who watched on the night of June 28, when the installation was presented.
Oona later described how the giant urn her father constructed “melted like chocolate” as fire pillared through its center. Firelight carved out the a broad fan of feathers he’d painted from loose sand, jagged shadows. As the urn consumed itself, a sculpted stalk of corn was exposed.
The scale of Ai’s commercial success was both a boon to the collaboration with Benally and an obstacle that impeded its realization. When project organizers handed the project over, he found himself running up against the Warhol-scale art factory that hums around Ai. Benally made multiple attempts to start an email exchange, but Ai was dealing with a quick succession of assistants—which meant that Benally’s attempts to connect went unnoticed by his collaborator.
There and Not There
Still awaiting word from Ai, Benally was awarded a grant. He flew to Beijing, spent days wandering through high art galleries and touring street art spattered across the city’s back allies.
On the off chance Ai would be there, Benally decided on the last day of his China tour to stop in at Ai’s (heavily Chinese government-surveilled) studio. Benally mingled amid a big group of European tourists before he managed to slip through the crowd and introduce himself to Ai. The two sat and chatted until it was time for Benally to head to the airport, and from there, the project gathered momentum.
Ai’s concept, like Benally’s, used geometrics traced on the earth with sand. Ai has anchored previous work to the medium of porcelain ceramics, and for the TIME project, he reworked and re-contextualized an earlier piece. He shipped 250 pounds of porcelain dust from China, and Benally’s team used Ai’s stencils to sift the dust onto the ground into a pattern of interlocked bicycles. The familiar shapes outlined with a familiar medium (one prized by colonizers) offer comment on the standardizing ways of profit-driven economies—and the pulverizing effect of industrial priorities.
Each artist’s complementary tact points to the persistence of tradition, perhaps to the point of deification. They also highlight a tendency for those same traditions to be co-opted by outsiders.
Evan Osnos wrote in the New Yorker that “forcing Chinese intellectuals to examine their role in a nation that’s not yet free but is no longer a classic closed society” is a compulsion at the center of Ai’s work. The interpretation offers both a point of comparison and a point of departure when it comes to viewing Benally’s work and the philosophy that guides his hand.
Ai can’t help but refer to his own father’s experience as a marginalized dissident. From a stint in the U.S., he carried back to China his own interpretation of Western-European political ideals. His work constantly illustrates the consequences attached to the repression of basic freedoms.
A while back during his MFA studies, Benally discovered that he was deeply “bothered” by a tendency of his Western-centric peers to linger upon the problems of society (and teasing the edge of glorification) without offering solutions or resolution. “I come from a culture that is really about harmony,” says Benally, who adds that he feels an artistic obligation to foster a sense of balance.
The collaboration between Benally and Ai, “Pull of the Moon,” will be open to the general public on Wednesday, July 16, at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe. From 5 to 7 p.m., an obsessively high-fidelity projection of the Coyote Canyon installation will be projected using a domed 3-D setup. It will help transport those of us (like Ai) who missed out on the conversation’s brief fruition. Benally and German musician Robert Henke will also perform a live composition using the night sounds of Coyote Canyon.