Grand Forks Herald


By Lindsay Naylor
Thursday, May 23, 2013


NEW YORK — A collaboration among the North Dakota Museum of Art and six artists brought the sights and sounds of Spirit Lake culture to the epicenter of the New York art world Thursday evening.

“Songs for Spirit Lake” is the inaugural exhibition of a project funded by a three-year, $150,000 grant awarded to the museum by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. Laurel Reuter, curator of the exhibition and director of the NDMOA, commissioned the work to portray contemporary life at the Spirit Lake Nation reservation. The artists gathered for a preview Thursday evening at the Rauschenberg Project Space in the prestigious Chelsea arts district in Manhattan.

Guests at the preview praised the exhibition for introducing the New York art world to a culture that is largely unknown in that part of the country.

“It’s great that they could bring the tribes out here,” said Carol Hepper, a New York artist who is originally from South Dakota. “Powwow drums on 19th Street is terrific.”

The six artists are Terry Jelsing, a Rugby, N.D., multimedia artist; Bill Harbort, an art professor at Minot State University; John Hitchcock, an art professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Tim Schouten, a Winnipeg painter; Mary Lucier, a New York video artist; and Rena Effendi, a photographer originally from Azerbaijan.

Songs for opening

The Cankdeska Cikana Drum Group opened Thursday evening’s preview with a prayer, asking the attendees to join hands in a circle, and performed three traditional songs. Two dancers, including Cankdeska Cikana Community College President Cynthia Lindquist, joined them.

The drum group, headed up by Leander “Russ” McDonald, Cankdeska Cikana’s vice president of academic affairs, was made up of three students and four employees of the college, as well as an 8-year-old boy, all members of the Spirit Lake community.

“It’s an adventure for some of our students who haven’t been out of the state,” McDonald said. “They get to experience the countryside and see a major city on the East Coast. It exposes them to the outside world off the reservation.”

The drum group will remain a part of the exhibition long after the group returns to North Dakota. Lucier, who has collaborated with Reuter and the NDMOA twice before, suspended a camera over the drum group to record its performance and project it on the wall of the gallery for the duration of the exhibition, along with recorded sound.

On the mezzanine, the video was projected continuously Thursday night between two screens depicting footage Lucier took from the Spirit Lake reservation, which had been edited to resemble traditional Sioux star quilts.

Great potential

While the artists were excited to be showing in New York, many of them were eager to get back to work and see where else the project leads.

“I think that it’s got all kinds of potential,” Hitchcock said. “It’s nice to get this part done and see what we do when we get back to Spirit Lake.”

The museum was invited to apply for the Rauschenberg Foundation’s Artistic Innovation and Collaboration Program and was one of nine arts organizations chosen in 2012 from a list of 65.

Agnes Gund, an avid art collector and president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art in New York who serves on the board of the Rauschenberg Foundation, said she was happy to see “Songs for Spirit Lake” at the 19th Street Project Space.

“I think it’s fascinating. It’s a great space for it and wonderful to see it here. I just think it’s such a great thing to show New York,” she said.

Reuter, who grew up on the reservation in Tokio, N.D., said she has long believed that there hasn’t been enough contemporary artwork done about life on Spirit Lake and that she was grateful to the Rauschenberg Foundation for the “rare opportunity” to be able to show the exhibition in New York.
“Because of the New York opening, (the artists) knew how important it was and were focused and produced serious work that could be shown in one of the world’s most important art venues,” Reuter said.

An opening was scheduled from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. today, and the exhibition will remain in New York through June 29. Reuter said she expects to show the work at several venues in North Dakota afterward.

As for the artists, with two years left on the project, their work will go on.

“We, as artists, have just started to scratch the surface of all of the collaboration,” Jelsing said.