Marie Watt: Collaboration can be more than a strategy

By Graham W. Bell

Marie Watt’s work is about community involvement. It needs it to survive, and in her small but potent retrospective at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem right now, each element speaks to a greater company of bodies than Watt’s own.

Collaborative practice, whether in collectives or as artist-and-audience social works, is gaining steam as a more regular mode of art production. Artists increasingly band together or reach out, hoping to combine minds and create something new and enticing that goes beyond the more traditional model. But what about the artists who work directly with others instead of merely involving them as audience? What are the tactics of a process-oriented artist who thrives on the participatory model? Marie Watt’s work bridges the gap between traditional methods and conceptual art practice while referencing her Native heritage, art history and the ideas of community.

"Marie Watt: Lodge" at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art

As an exhibition, Lodge is fairly inclusive: it leads you through all aspects of Watt’s work with a gentle hand. Watt’s towering blanket stacks like Three Sisters: Cousin Rose, Four Pelts, and Sky Woman (2007), suggest a myriad of stories and past lives connected to the blankets, while standing formally as multi-layered pillars and cubes. By grouping visually similar works the show establishes a lineage with the paper works and evolves into figurative felt pieces, a resin sculpture and more interactive installations.

The variety of prints in the lobby and the galleries are subtle echoes of the sewn shapes that Watt’s other pieces divulge. Beyond these works on paper, which serve as meditations on and sometimes starting points for her sculptures, the blanket pieces themselves are both beautiful to perceive and conceptually rich. They tower above you in the atrium gallery of the museum, searching for the sky that the vaulted ceilings seem to promise. Nearby, the mixed media installation titled Engine (2009) slinks low in the dim gallery lights, looking oddly out of the place on the carpeted floors. The most interactive (physically) of the works in the show, it involves a security guard who orders you dispense with your shoes and then pad inside, two at a time.

The opening is like a snail shell that leads you through the ‘Petroglyph Hall’, displaying handprints of those who helped build the structure. Past this group signature, the ‘Engine Core’ is a dark, dim place full of felted wool stalagmites and stalactites. Your eyes adjust to the almost ember-like lighting and your ears hear the breath of your companions. They also detect the recording of three Native storytellers (Elaine Grinell, Roger Fernandez, and Johnny Moses), who take turns telling tales that Watt grew up hearing, each speaking to ideas of “the role of humans and community in this web of life”.[1]

Their voices pass on an energy while their ghostly projections flicker holographically on the walls. Watt’s installation (and her work in general) facilitates an exchange of ideas, information, and tradition between people who have never met.

Watt frames her collaboration within her sewing circles and volunteer gatherings, and that’s where the work truly begins. In Dwelling, the shack-sized stack of blankets that dominates the interior gallery at the museum, the process of obtaining, binding, sewing, installing, and then distributing the blankets back to the public that needs them is all part of the plan. However, this invisible collaboration is something only known if asked after, or if participated in. Hidden within each stitch is the signature of an individual, but the authorial accolades still go to Watt.

The ‘blanket stories’ that Watt collects with each donation of material are an important element of her work as well. Each donor writes out the origin and past of the blanket, passing along a personal history that is then added to the whole. Noted in the catalog for Lodge, one contribution for an installation of Dwelling at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art was from a survivor of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Peter Kubicek. An excerpt from what he writes about his blanket: “When I came to this country in 1946, I brought this blanket with me, as my only memento of what I call ‘my previous life.’ Now, 60 years later, Marie Watt and The Aldrich Museum have transformed this shabby possession into a work of art: a truly unforeseen but sweet and satisfying ending!”[2]

Watt tries to explain that she does not think of authorship in a traditional sense where the single person is the originator of the idea and thus, the piece. She is afraid to leave people out, to forget to thank someone, simply because the group effort and the community element is so much part of the process.[3]

There is always the question of using a means to an end. The thought of working in a traditional mode is a nice one, but the original idea of collaboration in Native works (Watt’s ancestral roots are with the Turtle Clan of the Seneca people) came from a sense of social duty, many working to help the many. With artists using such tactics, and especially those who champion the single-name-on-the-wall mode, there is always a cause for outcry from the audience. Judy Chicago’s questionable use of volunteer labor without suitable citation is a good example of the intentions being honorable and the outcome being questionable.

But is community involvement and recognition in one artist’s work really possible in the current system? There is still the lust for signature, for name, for acclaim from collectors and museums. Perhaps Watt’s work is a signal of a more social system yet to find its place within the institution.

The modern institution is at odds with the current trend of work derived from relational art/relational aesthetics. Museums and galleries are unsure (as it is with most recently theorized art practices) how to best present experiences choreographed by such artists as Pierre Huyghe (who takes on puppet shows, opera and parades/celebrations among other things) in their entirety or to the best effect.

Nicolas Bourriaud, author of Relational Aesthetics, would surely see Watt’s work as relevant in one aspect, as her interest in sewing circles, gatherings and oral traditions are most certainly dealing with “the whole of human relations and their social context.”[4] However, Watt’s works are an amalgamation of both these ideas as well as the notion of the traditional artwork derived from personal space and personal experience. Her artwork exists in a nebulous space between institutionalized artwork and the idea of social exercise.

Watt’s practice is about collaboration, it does not merely use it to accomplish a product. One could, conceivably, lump her output in with the studio-and-assistants model so common before the advent of Modernism. However, I think there is a process-oriented bent to her pieces that begs a further examination.

How do you give shape to the shapeless? How do you give physicality to the ethereal? What happens to an object over time, that notion of invested labor and love within each seemingly simple shape? Mike Kelley’s More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin (1987) is the exemplar of what I find fascinating in Watt’s blanket structures. Both she and Kelley have taken the time and hands of many others to instill an almost palpable sense of use and effort, an evidence of temporality, a patina of affection.

But while Kelley’s work references the unknown — the anonymous donor of spent secrets and embraces, Watt’s materials are imbued with the stories and histories of very real subjects. Each blanket has a tale to tell and Watt plays the part of scribe.

Marie Watt, "Demokratie ist Lustig," 2008

The catalog made for this show, edited by Prof. Rebecca Dobkins of Willamette University, cites Joseph Beuys as one of Watt’s influences (and her piece Demokratie ist Lustig of 2008 shows direct homage).[5] Specifically, it seeks a connection with the late artist’s idea of social sculpture. Beuys writes: “The most modern art discipline — Social Sculpture/Social Architecture — will only reach fruition when every living person becomes a creator, a sculptor, or architect of the social organism.”[6]

Watt comes from a society where the element of community work and the downplaying of the single author is the natural course of things. The Seneca way, it seems, is exemplified in Beuys’ idea of the web of information and understanding that is created within a gathering:

“Communication occurs in reciprocity: it must never be a one-way flow from the teacher to the taught. The teacher takes equally from the taught. So oscillates — at all times and everywhere, in any conceivable internal and external circumstance, between all degrees of ability, in the work place, institutions, the street, work circles, research groups, schools — the master/pupil, transmitter/receiver, relationship. The ways of achieving this are manifold, corresponding to the varying fits of individuals and groups.”[7]

Marie Watt gives us stories to ponder and objects to explore. She also takes from us new tales and distributes them via age-old customs of oral tradition and community handicraft. She is an intermediary, a medium, a conduit. Her work is the work of one and the work of many: the conceptual model channeling her precolonial heritage. Watt invites us to participate with thoughts or with hands “…and you can bring a friend.”[8]


Full Disclosure: In addition to writing for Oregon ArtsWatch, I also work part time at PDX Contemporary Art, the gallery that represents Watt. I was not  asked to write on Watt’s work by the gallery, and the views expressed herein are not necessarily the views of the gallery. I was interested in Watt’s work and the ideas of collaborative practice  before I started working at PDX.

Show details: 
Marie Watt: Lodge
February 4 – April 1, 2012
Hallie Ford Museum of Art
700 State Street
Salem, OR 97301

Tue-Sat 10 a.m.-5 p.m; Sun 1-5 p.m.

1. Rebecca Dobkins, Marie Watt: Lodge (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2012), 79.
2. Dobkins, 54. & Richard Klein, No Reservations: Native American History and Culture in Contemporary Art (Ridgefield, CT: The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, 2006), 64.
3. Marie Watt and Rebecca Dobkins, Lecture at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, March 8, 2012.
4. Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 113.
5. Dobkins, 11.
6. Joseph Beuys, “I Am Searching for Field Character,” Art into Society, Society into Art, trans. Caroline Tisdall (London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1974), 48.
7. Beuys, 48.
8. Watt explained her tactics during her initial sewing circles that helped to realize a large work for the Smithsonian: she would invite people over to sew, feed them lunch, and tell them to invite others to share in the experience. Watt, Lecture, 2012.

Complete photo captions:

Top Photo: Near: Marie Watt, Dwelling, 2006, reclaimed and new wool blankets, manila tags, 66” x 84” x 96”, Aldrich Museum; Far: Marie Watt, Three Sisters: Cousin Rose, Four Pelts, and Sky Woman, 2007, reclaimed wool blankets, cedar base, 150” x 40” x 40”, Seattle Art Museum; installation view at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art.

Bottom photo: Marie Watt, Demokratie ist Lustig, 2008, reclaimed wool and thread, 24” x 24”. Collection of Alexander and Rebecca Stewart

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