August 24, 2012

Constructs and Experience

Cecilia McKinnon
August 24th, 2012


        Wupatki is so beautiful, but so difficult to walk through. The exhibit acknowledged the displacement of the original inhabitants as recently as the 60's to establish the site as a monument, but the motion toward taking accountability felt hollow considering we were still accessing the site as tourists visiting a museum. There are worlds of difference between admitting wrong-doing and making real reparations, but I don't even know what those reparations would look like at this point. The exhibit kept reminding us that the indigenous people didn't mysteriously vanish into the mists of time, but the establishment of the monument reinforces this idea of the native inhabitants as a historical and anthropological study, not a community in the present that continues to suffer the effects of colonization. I grew up thinking of the National Parks system as being a force of good, of conservation, but here we see it functioning as a tool of imperialism, using paternalistic justifications to force native people off their lands so they could be made into a museum and a monument.

Roden Crater

        Roden Crater was a similarly problematic site to visit. I went in feeling a lot of resistance because the site is such a textbook example of western imperialism--James Turrell not only built his work in a place sacred to native people, but literally within view of the closest reservation, maybe five or six miles away, and in doing so closed off access to all except those who he hired to construct his vision. Even if the work is someday completed to the extent of the grand plans they have now, it seems unlikely that it would be truly open to the public, only those who can pay for the privilege.  
The level of ego involved in a project of this scale is slightly astonishing. I imagine the intended experience is a sort of mystical encounter with increasingly greater views of the abstracted sky/celestial events, with the climactic re-entrance into the world as a sort of birth experience into this awe-inspiring landscape. In effect, though, seeing the landscape made me feel a kind of pity for the structures--I don't think any building could ever hope to compete with those views. Further, it just felt like the structure was trying to co-opt the landscape into its own agenda, almost taking a kind of credit for the surrounding beauty, rather than as a project trying to augment and dwell unobtrusively within the beauty already present. The way they talked about preservation of the landscape, about having "restored" the crater to it's original shape, reminded me of nothing so much as people who fix up old houses and sell them at high prices. I'm not an advocate for industrialization, but I do object to outsiders coming into a community and finding ways to dictate access to and use of the surrounding spaces.
As a site it takes itself so seriously, constructing this identity of some ahistorical and timeless monolith, but the points at which I really engaged with the space were the currents of transience--the cockroach in the Portal room, the bat in the eye of the crater, the bird that seemed to have built a nest in one of the light fixtures. I didn't really enjoy the space until I started treating it irreverently, making shadow animals on the white marble, animal noises echo down the dark hallways. It was all very otherworldly, but ultimately, I was relieved to return to the outside and feel the breeze and see the stars.

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