Choos­ing land and wa­ter over oil

In two Den­ver ex­hibits, artist Can­nupa Han­ska Luger con­nects us to the ground be­neath our feet

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Ray Mark Ri­naldi

Can­nupa Han­ska Luger plays down the mo­ment when he be­came a fa­mous artist. Af­ter all, the 39-year-old rea­sons, he has been mak­ing art for years now and he’s done well enough, ac­cu­mu­lat­ing gallery rep­re­sen­ta­tion, se­ri­ous col­lec­tors and an im­pres­sive list of mu­seum and univer­sity ex­hi­bi­tions for his re­sume.

And the mo­ment, he says, wasn’t even about an ac­tual piece of art. It came out of a video he con­cocted in just a few hours.

But it ar­rived last Novem­ber when the world was watch­ing, at the height of the now-fa­mous protests over the pro­posed Dakota Ac­cess Pipe­line at the Stand­ing Rock In­dian

Reser­va­tion. Luger’s 4-minute, 43-sec­ond film, edited by his friend Razelle Be­nally, showed how to con­struct a “mir­ror shield,” a make-shift piece of ar­mor de­signed to pro­tect the pro­test­ers. The ob­ject was sim­ple, just some Ma­sonite cut out with a jig­saw, with a few strips of cord at­tached for han­dles.

The shields, how­ever, also had ad­he­sive mir­ror foil glued to their fronts, forc­ing po­ten­tial ag­gres­sors — law en­force­ment of­fi­cers and pri­vate se­cu­rity guards en­gaged by the en­ergy com­pa­nies — to see them­selves as they ap­proached the peo­ple they were about to toss out of their en­camp­ments, to gaze in re­verse and see their own hu­man­ity as they threat­ened the hu­man­ity of the In­di­ans and their sup­port­ers who chose to stand in the way of con­struc­tion as a means of pro­tect­ing their wa­ter sup­ply.

Thousands of peo­ple made the shields and shipped them to the camp at Stand­ing Rock — and both the main­stream and visual arts me­dia took no­tice. The shields were, of course, sym­bolic, but cre­at­ing them al­lowed peo­ple to show their em­pa­thy for an en­v­i­ron men­tal move­ment, to do some­thing.

“The state­ment kept com­ing up: ‘I’m one per­son. What can I do?’,” Luger said in an in­ter­view last week. “Well, that video was about how one per­son could make six shields. And those six shields could stand in front of 20 peo­ple in prayer on the front lines. And those 20 peo­ple stood in front of the whole camp, which was sev­eral thou­sand peo­ple. And those peo­ple were in front of eight mil­lion peo­ple down­stream.”

The shields, Luger points out, are just part of a larger body of work that aims to con­nect peo­ple to the land around them and to con­sider the con­se­quences of how we treat it. Two ex­am­ples of his ef­forts are on dis­play in Den­ver gal­leries cur­rently.

At the Cen­ter for Visual Arts, Luger and fel­low mem­bers of his art col­lec­tive, the Win­ter Count, are part of the group show “Wa­ter­Line: A Cre­ative Ex­change,” which fea­tures an in­ter­na­tional lineup of artists fo­cus­ing on threats to the world’s wa­ter sup­ply. Luger’s showiest piece is called “This Is Not a Snake” and is con­structed from oil and chem­i­cal bar­rels, old tires and other refuse, which come to­gether in the form a snake, about 30 feet long, with a ce­ramic head at ei­ther end. It is omi­nous and very bit the “mon­ster” Luger de­scribes it as.

At Red­Line, he is pro­duc­ing two re­lated works. A per­for­ma­tive piece, which fea­tures a small troupe of lo­cal dancers, and an im­mer­sive in­stal­la­tion that has his now-fa­mil­iar shields set be­fore land­scape videos cap­tured via drones in the air.

The gallery works are dif­fer­ent but “both are dis­em­bod­ied parts of the same body,” he says, and they both fo­cus at­ten­tion on the ground be­neath our feet.

“By open­ing up con­ver­sa­tion around land­scape and giv­ing land­scape a voice,” he said. “You are then talk­ing about every­thing that’s con­nected to it — the peo­ple, the plant life, the wa­ter it­self.”

That con­ver­sa­tion about earth and wa­ter, Luger says, is cru­cial to Win­ter Count’s mis­sion of em­ploy­ing art as ac­tivism. He calls it a way of “weaponiz­ing my priv­i­lege.”

“Work­ing in the art in­dus­try gives us all these tools. You have ac­cess to me­dia, ac­cess to in­sti­tu­tions and, through those, ac­cess to com­mu­ni­ties,” he said. “We started ask­ing our­selves what’s the point of hav­ing this level of priv­i­lege if you’re not do­ing some­thing to help us all.”

Luger’s back­ground is a com­bi­na­tion of Amer­i­can In­dian and Euro­pean: “Man­dan, Hi­datsa, Arikara, Lakota, Aus­trian, and Nor­we­gian,” as his of­fi­cial bio puts it to­gether. He was born and raised on the Stand­ing Rock Reser­va­tion, and much of his fo­cus is on is­sues that are im­por­tant to na­tive peo­ple.

Dur­ing the protests, he drove his own ve­hi­cles back and forth be­tween Glo­ri­eta, New Mex­ico, where he lives and Stand­ing Rock eight times, de­liv­er­ing sup­plies — wa­ter, blan­kets, wood stoves, jack­ets, “what­ever any­body could of­fer at the time” — to the protest camps.

His art, he said, is an­other way of sup­port­ing in­dige­nous causes. Though it comes at things in a less di­rect form.

“There are all these con­ver­sa­tions around ‘de-col­o­niza­tion.’ But what were re­ally in­ter­ested in is re-in­di­g­e­niz­ing peo­ple’s think­ing,” Get­ting folks to see things from a deeply his­tor­i­cal and na­tive per­spec­tive, en­cour­ages them to un­der­stand and re­spect the old­est of Amer­i­can ideals and tra­di­tions. “De-de­col­o­niz­ing,” he said, “puts the im­por­tant work of change on the vic­tim.”

His ideas are clearly at work at Red­Line, the per­for­mance piece, “CauseLines,” fea­tures dancers im­pro­vis­ing move­ment around aerial views of “river-lines, tree­lines, road-lines, pipe-lines” as the ex­hi­bi­tion state­ment sizes up the vi­su­als. It is ex­trap­o­lated from a lost na­tive cus­tom that had mu­si­cians com­pos­ing works in­spired by ridge lines in nearby hills. As the peaks along the vista rose and fell, the tones of the songs would, as well. “CauseLines” ex­pands that to in­clude move­ment.

Luger sees it as way of draw­ing lines be­tween tra­di­tions of his an­ces­tors and the high-tech ca­pa­bil­i­ties of his own gen­er­a­tion, which are rep­re­sented by the drone-cap­tured footage.

The CVA show has sev­eral parts and works in con­junc­tion with other pieces from his Win­ter Count part­ners Ni­cholas Galanin and Mer­ritt John­son. Luger con­trib­utes a se­ries of hu­man-like forms made out of black ce­ramic pieces, steel and ny­lon cords, all sus­pended from the ceil­ing.

They ap­pear grace­ful, but pre­car­i­ous — half fly­ing, half fall­ing — and evoke both the strength and fragility of hu­man­ity. Each of the bod­ies holds a knife and they are held to­gether with a single, ny­lon cord — cut it any­where and the whole piece falls apart.

Luger also presents his gi­ant, curv­ing snake. By trans­form­ing refuse — the rusty, jagged, rub­bery, un­re­cy­clable junk pro­duced by in­dus­trial ex­ploita­tion of the land and its min­er­als — into an an­thro­po­mor­phic ob­ject, he gives a re­lat­able form to en­vi­ron­men­tal and so­cial mis­deeds that are of­ten con­sid­ered in the abstract.

His mon­ster is man-made, but not just by him. It is de­rived from the bad habits of a hun­dred years of dig­ging deeply into the earth to cap­ture its oil, while ne­glect­ing the things that al­ready flow on its surface. There is a les­son in that, he says.

“If peo­ple chose wa­ter­ways over oil ways, that would set a prece­dent in the Un­tied States,” he said. “And if it sets a prece­dent in the United States, it sets a prece­dent all over the world.”

Scott Olson, Getty Images

Ac­tivists par­tic­i­pate in an art project con­ceived by Can­nupa Han­ska Luger, from the Stand­ing Rock Sioux Tribe, at Oceti Sakowin Camp on the edge of the Stand­ing Rock Sioux Reser­va­tion in North Dakota on Dec. 3, 2016.

Pro­vided by the Cen­ter for Visual Art

Can­nupa Han­ska Luger’s “This Is Not a Snake,” on dis­play at the Cen­ter for Visual Art in Den­ver.

Ray Mark Ri­naldi, Special to The Den­ver Post

Can­nupa Han­ska Luger in Santa Fe, N.M.

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