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Dionne Lee: A Muscle Memory
August 11 @ 10:00 am - September 19 @ 5:00 pm
A Muscle Memory
Through the use of photography, collage, and video Dionne Lee explores power, survival, and personal history in relation to the American landscape. Understanding American soil as a site of trauma, Lee looks to larger historical narratives, such as the unfulfilled post-Civil War promise of 40 acres and a mule to newly freed Black people, as a touchstone for understanding how history acts as a system that determines the autonomy and resilience of people across time. Lee’s work considers the complications and dual legacies that exist within photographic representations of the American landscape that is often presented as a space of peak contentment and peace, despite being steeped in trauma and violence.
The artist considers her body a site of research as well. Hands often appear in her work, creating a tear through a scenic landscape, measuring the sky in search of the North Star, clearing leaves on the ground to form a fire bed, and other metaphoric gestures that speak to land as both refuge and danger. The artist describes these physical actions as creating portals, or a flattening of time, ruminating on the possibility that an ancestor may have held their own body similar in positions. A potent moment in the artist’s research came from attempts to build a fire from scratch using a bow and drill. This physically demanding task reveals what muscles in the body were once essential and awake, yet have become dormant over time.
These works mostly pre-date the pandemic. Initially this work, Lee describes, was in a way to grapple with the repercussions of climate change and natural disasters of the elements: wind, fire, water, earth. All of which felt more immediate after the artist moved to California at the height of a historic drought and experienced the yearly wildfires of Northern California. An important question for Lee is: who is best positioned to survive? This question is always relevant when we consider the disparities within whose lives are most at risk from climate chaos, the pandemic, systems and historical structures meant to protect some and endanger others, and for those who experience survival as an active attempt made every day.
Lee’s most recent work consists of photographs made by the artist and those found in the pages of wilderness survival manuals. Silver gelatin prints of her photographs are collaged or juxtaposed with found images repurposed through the silver gelatin process. Engaging in analog processes mirrors the nature of the survival skills Lee studies–they are physical, primal, and can be as instinctual as the act of collaging or the urge to capture a moment in time with a camera. The process of teaching oneself traditional wilderness survival is one that folds in on itself over and over, building one continuous investigation into how trauma informs the everyday, one’s ability to persist, and the resilience we all work to channel, retain, and hopefully feed back into the land where we rest.