Andrea Bowers likes to put her politics in plain sight. Whether it’s AIDS, abortion, immigration or war, when she takes on an issue with her art work, it’s as obvious as night. Unsurprisingly, then, from the far side of 22nd Street, it was clear that her latest exhibition, ‘Mercy Mercy Me’ at Andrew Kreps Gallery, had to do with environmental protest, though what she hoped to achieve, I’m still not sure.
A pair of flat-screen televisions placed on folding chairs in the gallery’s front window showed the two-channel video Community Center (all works 2009) to passers-by and visitors alike. One monitor displayed head-on footage of a weatherworn wooden building draped in a banner reading: ‘Respect Gwich’in [native Alaskan] Culture. Do Not Drill in the Arctic Refuge.’ Men and boys crowd the structure’s porch, while two fallen bicycles and an all-terrain vehicle pattern the mud and straw in the foreground to form a slowly changing tableau that Walker Evans would have loved. On the other screen, Gwich’in families square dance in what I assume is the building’s interior. Paper flags trim the dance floor and smiling pairs take turns swinging their partners and tapping their feet to Country and Western, all of which was audible thanks to an outdoor speaker set on the window’s ledge.
Inside, Bowers displayed a ragged black canvas banner with the phrase ‘Alaskans Still Fighting for the Earth’ painted on it, which was made by the activist Mavis Muller and hung from a fishing vessel in Kachemak Bay, Alaska, in the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. On the opposite wall, the last words of the environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was tried and executed by a military tribunal for his opposition to the multinational petroleum industry in Nigeria in 1995, were beaded into a thin blue and black band: ‘Lord take my soul, but the struggle continues.’
That the subjects of these works and the other videos and drawings in ‘Mercy Mercy Me’ are potent and relevant is certain: climate change is real; environmental racism is a scourge; protest is a noble pursuit; communities struggle with how to accept aid; and outsiders don’t always know what’s best for the communities they wish to help. But there was so much discursive space between the plodding, intimate videos that focused on Gwich’in women and the bold graphite-on-paper drawings of the covers of radical environmentalist handbooks and the funny, colour-pencil sketch of snorkeling activists holding a sign that reads ‘It’s getting hot down here!!’ that the art works that conjured the ideas never found a common language beyond the most basic thematic likenesses, and so the show lacked momentum as either an argument or an exhibition.
One of the difficulties in broadly addressing any big, tangible, political topic is that the issue has usually been debated so thoroughly by so many people from so many camps that anything short of stunning can come off as confused. Of course, Bowers has bested this problem before – ‘The Weight of Relevance’ (2007), her project on the AIDS Memorial Quilt, was a wonder – but what filled Andrew Kreps never amounted to more than a collection of germane shorthand, attesting to the complexity of issues surrounding the environment, obscured just enough to fit in a gallery. I’d sincerely hoped for something else.
‘Mercy Mercy Me’ was named after the 1971 Marvin Gaye song of the same title. ‘Oh mercy mercy me,’ it goes, ‘Oh, things ain’t what they used to be / What about this overcrowded land? / How much more abuse from man can she stand?’ The American environmentalist Bill McKibben has argued that Gaye’s ‘Mercy Mercy Me’ is ‘the most-listened-to piece of environmental protest music of all time,’ an honour that it earned through a startling arrangement, sugar-sweet vocals and a message that mingles sadness, regret, fear and (most importantly) possibility. In the midst of the Vietnam War, with America’s struggle for civil rights raging, and the modern environmental movement taking shape, Gaye was able to build an anthem – a call to action, a hypothesis that integrated and addressed disparate troubles. There is a brilliance in that which Andrea Bowers has known. It’s one that I hope she can find again and share.
First published in Issue 129