"The Quiet in the Land: Everyday Life, Contemporary Art, and the Shakers" at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, June 10-Sept. 27, 1998.
In the summer of 1996, seven Shakers at Sabbathday Lake, Me., welcomed ten contemporary artists into their community (with some trepidation). These artists -- Janine Antoni, Domenico de Clario, Adam Fuss, Mona Hatoum, Sam Samore, Jana Sterbak, Kazumi Tanaka, Wolfgang Tilmans, Nari Ward and Chen Zhen -- similar only in their concern with the everyday, each lived with the Shakers for a month.
The Shakers view work as a spiritual offering to God, and the artists helped out by restoring fences, planting vegetables and feeding animals. The artists also joined in song and testimony at plain-speaking services in the Meeting House. They also made art. A selection of these works is now on view at the Boston ICA in an exhibition curated by France Morin and entitled "The Quiet in the Land: Everyday Life, Contemporary Art, and the Shakers." The show reveals how the daily structure and spirit of Shaker life transformed the artists.
The works in the exhibition avoid the more hackneyed representations of the Shakers, as anachronistic and peculiar, for instance, or as glorified furniture designers. Rather, the impression that comes across is that of a group of people struggling to fill the everyday with focused intensity. Kazumi Tanaka recalled how time had passed "more carefully" at Sabbathday Lake. Her Communion (1996) recreates a meditative dining room, distilling her experience of the soothing regularity of Shaker mealtimes. Two massive wooden tables enclose two pools of water, on which the artist has floated pristine white plates. A hand-carved grandfather clock ticks off the undifferentiated minutes.
Nari Ward mined the Shaker grounds to recover some of the community's more ephemeral material history. He dug up old glass bottles and wove them into a jewel-studded hanging column. Although Vertical Hold (1996) evokes the African American tradition of bottle trees, its looping patterns are reminiscent of the metaphorical net that believers cast onto non-believers. Jesus' apostles were fishermen of men, but the Shakers are celibate and not proselytizing; the small community has only its example to attract other members.
The Shakers have a radical history. Their progressive beliefs have always been at odds with mainstream America. Ownership is communal; leadership is shared between men and women; their god is conceived as both male and female.
In her self-recorded video Round the World, Around (1996), Janine Antoni conjures an earlier time in that Shaker history, ca. 1836-47, when intense spiritualism was expressed bodily -- through seizures, speaking in tongues and spontaneous dancing. Antoni straps a camera to her body, documenting the dizzying whirl of the Meeting House around her, as she spins and spins, and then awkwardly, falls. It's a kind of worship that today's Shakers may find outmoded, although many of the Shaker museums showcase "gift drawings" created by 19th-century Shaker women recording direct messages from God.
By using her body as an instrument in this way, Antoni points her lens at two taboo connections -- one linking religious and sexual ecstasy, and the other linking creativity and spirituality. "The Quiet in the Land" seems to suggest that as society grows more secular, contemporary art slowly becomes less so.
It's an odd contrast -- artists are pigeonholed for fetishizing the non-utilitarian in a haze of rarefied speech, while Shakers are identified with craft and worship that is plain and almost jarringly direct. But as if heeding the Shaker distaste for the decorative and superfluous, these works shun the spectacle of contemporary art to make small gestures and subtle interventions with deeply familiar objects. Mona Hatoum's First Step (1996), for example, traces the patterns of a baby crib's menacing metal springs with a soft dusting of powdered sugar. She manipulates commonplace artifacts of Shaker life (a kitchen colander in another work) to record fleeting impressions of a vanishing domesticity.
The collaboration between artist and Shaker will again yield fascinating results when a version of this show, accompanied by historical Shaker objects of the artists' own choosing, will be exhibited at the new Museum of American Folk Art in New York City in 1999.
ELLEN MCBREEN is an art historian, critic and Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University.