by Gregory Maher
Nostalgia, A Darker Saccharine
Nostalgia—the kind that is intimately sewn into the patches of a family quilt—is the force that drives Ian Weaver’s work, and his current exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art (iMOCA). The gallery, “like a Kunsthalle,” is white-walled and nondescript, the perfect space to spotlight Weaver’s iconic “conduits of memory.” These objects take nostalgia as an impulse, a kind of time traveling that brings the viewer back to an edenic, isolated state or memory. Through that same impulse, Weaver explores the idea of how we navigate between individual and group histories. He works as a kind of anthropologist, creating (and in creating, analyzing) vitrines, cross-sections of homes, and faux photographs and home videos. What makes them so intriguing and powerful for the viewer is their proximity to reality. By taking the guise of historical representation—the form of an artifact—the artist gains the power of the viewer’s nostalgia, their immediate recognition, valuing the objects on view through the context of the space.
Ian Weaver, Hull, 2014, Wood, 40″ x 56″ x 96,” Photo courtesy the Artist and iMOCA
Weaver’s work in the exhibition centers on a fictionalized Black Bottom community, drawn from a very real history of Chicago’s Black Bottom neighborhood and its people’s instinct for survival amidst gentrification and urban renewal. Out of the water comes a myth; it is the myth of a community and its historical narrative. The exhibition focuses on the scaled-down hull of a ship—fragmented, stripped down to its skeleton. The object is a memory disturbance, an artifact washed up on the shore of Lake Michigan. It does not belong, and the audience’s experience of the object reveals its potential of a shallow object, absent of its iconic significance. In this way, Weaver points to the act of remembrance as one of preservation, of safety. The act of memory serves as escape, like the experience of pulling out a grandmother’s quilt, or reminiscing on black-and-white photograph of June days, with strawberry jam and checkered tablecloths. The mind itself performs a fragmentation, the selective remembering which navigates beyond skeletons in the closet to reach towards more pure, and safe memories. Weaver’s Hull is cast off from its black moorings to drift into memory’s oblivion.
What remains? The soft, seductive tinges of nostalgia; the fragments of time, which evoke pleasure, happiness, and warmth. In our desire for self-preservation, for escape, we unthinkingly embrace the power of rosy retrospect. It is a process rather unlike that of viewing Fred Wilson’s Chandelier Mori, a beautifully-crafted object shifted to represent only blackness, to gleam, as it were, shadow.
Ian Weaver, T.O. Map with Black Bottom in the Most Blessed Position, 2010, Acrylic Ink on Paper, 22” x 22”, Photo courtesy the Artist and iMOCA
Weaver seeks beyond mere remembrance and delves into the complexities of memory and constructed narrative. His work asks the viewer if we can truly sense and confront the dark, cruel layers of history preceding so many black communities in America. The ship is a clear tie to the Middle Passage—the cruel history of slave trade—which might be seen as the initial, albeit forced migration of the Black Bottom community. Weaver’s objects function to unveil how memory itself works, where such darker histories are often prone to be veiled in shadow.
“I’m not a memory studies scholar,” Weaver relates, “but I do a lot of studies in memory, and nostalgia is kind of a dirty word…it’s too sweet, saccharine.” In researching family history with his mother, Weaver stumbled across state documents—a birth certificate, social security card—identifiers to the government of who an individual is. And yet he felt something missing, some huge sense of a person and her narrative that could not be contained in a piece of paper.
One cannot help but feel that Weaver’s work is about people, yet there are no representations of people in the work. Each object has a ghost of a person, or even a community, behind it—viewers experience their presence in experiencing the work. “Most of the things I make have no intrinsic value,” says Weaver, “The paper [of maps] is worth nothing, but now has built-in value based on the gallery and all these other forces in the art world. It’s the very definition of something that is ephemeral.” While you cannot list the significance of a map in an auction catalogue, to the right person, or in the right situation, it is invaluable.
Ian Weaver, stills from Migration, 2014, 16mm film, digital transfer, Approximate running time: 1:31, Photo courtesy the Artist and iMOCA
Ian Weaver, Coat of Arms, 2010, Flashe, acrylic ink, handmade stamp, gold pigment, collage on paper, 26″ x 22″, Photo courtesy the Artist and iMOCA
Weaver describes himself as a visual artist, entailing the trial and error of the “studio as laboratory” approach. He started out as a figurative painter before shifting to wood, and sculpture, to his present method: envisaging a coherent idea or narrative through numerous forms of media. Weaver is attracted to the curious the lack of precedence accorded to cultural memory in public art, which necessarily acts as a reflection of the community in which it is installed. Yet there is also a strong disconnect in the creation of a community identity via intimate, personal objects and spaces and the shifted context of public view.
Weaver is particularly drawn to these controversies, examining the creation of the Dusable monument in Chicago and Fred Wilson’s proposed E Pluribus Unum sculpture in Indianapolis. In each instance, the community’s self-perception was seen as disrupted by the representation of each monument. This vetting instinct occurs as communities, seeking to weave an image of support for the future, is not too weighed down by the past. But no community, it seems, can confront the full tapestry of its past, let along embrace a similar future with such open arms. The alternative narrative shows us the potential of accepting historical elements (with their own much deeper subtext) as a distinct part of a community identity, such as in Black Bottom’s cotton-plant-wreathed coat of arms. Weaver reminds us that history always has, and likely always will, result in a construct, threaded with artificialities, narrative gaps, and—most likely—a strong dose of nostalgic tonic.
Ian Weaver, The Black Knight Migration, 2010, Acrylic ink and transfer on paper, 22″ x 28″, Photo courtesy the Artist and iMOCA
The Black Night Archive will feature at The Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art (iMOCA) through October 18, Thursday-Saturday 12-7 p.m. The exhibition will be coming to the Chicago Cultural Center in expanded form in January, 2015.
Gregory Maher works as a researcher at the Brauer Museum of Art and writes for KNSTRCT magazine.