Soon after being asked to curate the Atlanta Contemporary’s 2021 Biennial, an expansive art exhibition showcasing the work of contemporary Southern artists, Jordan Amirkhani had a pretty solid idea for its theme.
It was 2019 and she was looking forward. The world was entering a new decade, which, despite the growing tumult of the U.S. presidential race, seemed a cause for optimism. To Amirkhani, an art historian and professor at American University, the Biennial would reflect a certain optimism and make a statement about where contemporary art was headed regionally. As she put together a potential list of artists, it felt “sort of light-hearted and exciting,” Amirkhani said recently.
When she and Atlanta Contemporary Director Veronica Kessenich asked TK Smith to join as the biennial’s co-curator, the potential grew for a diverse line-up of artists charged with saying what was in store for the South, artistically. Smith is a former curatorial fellow at Clark Atlanta University’s fine art museum.
But by February 2020, the world was turning dark. By March, when much of the country, including Georgia, was on lockdown because of the coronavirus, things grew bleak. It was clear to Amirkhani that the Biennial could not ignore those realities.
“It’s my responsibility as a curator to not just gather art and put it on a wall, but to pay attention to what the moment is,” Amirkhani said.
On opening weekend Feb. 20-21, audiences will recognize echoes of 2020 in the Atlanta Biennial exhibitions, “Of Care and Destruction” curated by Amirkhani and “Virtual Remains” curated by Smith. The show runs through Aug. 1. Thirty-six artists, who either live in the South or were reared here, created works over the past year for the show. It was a year marked not only by a pandemic and a volatile election, but also global protests over the killings of Black people by police.
If the works don’t speak directly to those events, the pieces were, nonetheless, created by people living through an unprecedented moment in history. And they did so at a time when support for the arts plummeted, whether through the closure of museums and galleries due to the pandemic, or the tightening of purse strings on the part of institutions and collectors.
Even so, Smith said, the Biennial is more than a marker of how people responded to this moment. In some ways, it reflects the original intent of moving forward.
“There’s going to be somebody who needs that space,” Smith said, “somebody who needs this work, specifically thinking about what’s happening in the world and how art helps us translate it and make sense of it.”
The AJC spoke to three featured artists about their multimedia pieces in the Biennial.
Not quite three weeks before a bystander filmed Minneapolis police officers killing George Floyd as he lay on the street calling for his dead mother, Dreasjon Reed was killed by Indianapolis police after a chase. Like Floyd’s killing, part of Reed’s encounter was streamed on Facebook Live by Reed himself.
Reed was apparently holding his phone when gunfire erupted. At least one bullet hit him and he fell. The livestream continued but the phone tumbled to the ground and only blue sky was visible to viewers.
“The way the sun was hitting the screen created all these various tones of blue,” LeSeur said. “There was something that took over me and transformed this anger into something peaceful.”
So, LeSeur captured a clip of that sky view, magnified it so there are no other discernible images, only vast expanses of blue, then she slowed the video to an almost imperceptible crawl. That video is the basis of her multimedia piece “There are Other Hues of Blue.”
Credit: Le'Andra LeSeur and Microscope Gallery
Credit: Le'Andra LeSeur and Microscope Gallery
Multiple television screens mounted to the ceiling in one of the galleries will play the video of LeSeur’s drifting shades of blue. The room will fill with a recording of LeSeur reading snippets of notes she’s written to herself on her phone during the last three years. She wrote when she was happy. She wrote when she was frustrated or distressed. She wrote when she felt surrounded by love.
“I was noticing a rhythm happening with the words,” LeSeur said. “It felt like I was writing to my future self.”
She hoped to read live during special performances of the piece. The pandemic makes that impossible now. But recording has made her think more deeply about the healing power of the human voice.
“There is so much violence in the world, so I’ve been thinking about the opposite of violence.” LeSeur said. “We have to think about what happens after. Where are the small moments of tenderness and care? And I have been thinking about how beautiful it is to be alive and to carry out that potential for someone else who, tragically, can’t do it anymore.”
When people ask Adam Forrester where he’s from, he knows the reaction he’ll get before he utters a word.
“When I say I’m from Phenix City, they go, ‘Oooohh...’ or they never heard of the place,” Forrester said.
For the former, Forrester’s installation “Wicked City” may confirm the infamous stories about the Alabama town. But in many ways, Forrester’s multimedia piece is helping him work out his complicated relationship with a town once ruled by organized crime and vice.
For generations, Phenix City, was considered a sin city, a hub of gambling, prostitution, illegal adoption rings and vote rigging schemes.
“The whole thing feels second rate, like a bad B-movie where you see this alley and all of a sudden a shadow is cast on the wall,” Forrester said of the town’s history. “It was known nationwide as ‘Sin City.’”
Forrester researched the town’s history for years. He traced its beginnings as an anything-goes town to its pre-statehood era as the first point on what was arguably the leading edge of the Western frontier. In the 20th century it’s proximity to Ft. Benning made it a playground for off-duty soldiers. As long as money flowed in underground gambling halls and brothels, he said, city officials often looked the other way.
“This seedy underground was the only industry of the city,” Forrester said. “They were actually stealing elections, rigging votes, bombing houses, and the police were being paid by crime bosses. You couldn’t trust anyone in power in the town.”
Only after the town sheriff was involved in a murder and hundreds of indictments were issued on an array of crimes did the town begin to turn around. It took a months-long occupation by the National Guard for things to settle down. “Wicked City,” uses news accounts, photographs — both vintage and contemporary — and video to tell the story of what happens when lies, big and small, are embraced in public life, especially in the halls of government.
On designated days, Forrester will perform live, slowly redacting information from copies of old court records and other documents. When he is not there, viewers will step into a space filled with a collage of images that tell the story of the town. His exhibit culminates with a short film about what’s left when lies fade away.
“To me, it’s the classic American story of pageantry,” Forrester said. “We sweep things under the rug, pat ourselves on the back, then say how good we are.”
Credit: Kay's Way Photography
Credit: Kay's Way Photography
The Hambidge Center artist residency program in Rabun Gap is built on the idea that distraction-free isolation is necessary for creative people to do their best work. Eleanor Neal was there in 2019, working in the quiet of night. She’d sit on the floor of her cabin listening to the sounds outside as she worked India ink and oil sticks across a large canvas.
Her loops and squiggles resembled Spanish moss or soft clumps of springy hair. The work was meditative. But as she continued to work on the piece into 2020, the idea of isolation became doleful, something to endure rather than relish. The pandemic saw to that.
“I have friends who had kids in college and now they are home and they wonder will they ever have a sense of normalcy again,” Neal said. “There is a feeling of fear of not knowing among our young people.”
Her piece, “Transcending Ambiguity,” addresses the confusion, chaos and fear brought on by the COVID-19 crisis. It also asks how we might unravel those feelings and find a way forward through a period of tremendous loss. The piece is a fully realized vision of what she began at Hambidge. Curlicues and coils rendered in shades of black graphite, india ink and oil sticks form a loose square at the center of the roughly 3-by-4-foot canvas. As they near the square’s center, they begin to thin out but only barely, like pushing away brush to wade through a thicket.
“What I’m drawn to is the isolation and the fact that nothing is guaranteed anymore,” Neal said. “How all of this has pulled us into ourselves.”
But it is the loss of each other’s company and the way being alone has turned sour for so many, that Neal worries about. The sounds of water and night creatures accompany her piece. They strike a hopeful note that isolation may once again be chosen, restorative and sweet.
2021 Atlanta Biennial. Feb. 20-Aug. 1. Free. Reservations required. Exhibition Opening: Feb. 20, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Feb. 21, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Atlanta Contemporary, 535 Means St. NW, Atlanta; 404-688-1970, atlantacontemporary.org