Omar Abdul-Rahim / Sun Staff Photographer

Students say the exhibit implies Native American culture has disappeared.

September 18, 2016

Native American Students: Iroquois Art Exhibit ‘Crossing a Line’

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The American frontier has pushed its way to the forefront of Cornell’s campus on a long stretch of Libe Slope, where a controversial exhibit by Prof. Aleksandr Mergold ’00, architecture, has been on display since Friday.

“American Spolia: Crossing the Line” — part of the Cornell Council for the Arts 2016 Biennial — has provoked a negative response from Native American Students at Cornell.

The structure is a visual symbol of the 1792 Central New York Military Tract, which destroyed indigenous lands to create 28 new townships now known as Central New York, according to the Cornell Council for the Arts website.

Crafted out of 200 years of New York-based debris, the exhibit’s name alludes to the practices of the Romans, who built triumphal arches out of the spolia, or spoils, of their victories, according to the CCA. This debris is drawn out into a physical line, representing the path of American expansionism.

Mergold’s work is meant to celebrate the “American experiment” and in the process unite Cornellians on their daily commutes by showing that singular acts of history affect everyone, according to the CCA.

The exhibit is Mergold’s investigation of the “invisibility” of the Six Nations of Iroquois from the CNY Tract map and the “destruction” of their livelihood, according to the exhibit’s Facebook post.

Cornell students from Native American communities reacted with disbelief to the accusation that their cultures had vanished, with NASAC reps denouncing the aim of the piece in a statement published on Facebook, calling on collaborators to “restructure this piece in order to foster dialogue.”

Mergold and the NASAC met Thursday to discuss the exhibit’s aim and description, resulting in friction as NASAC spokesperson Benjamin Oster ’17 concluded that Mergold did not conduct his research carefully.

Oster said the exhibit “paints Native Peoples as a conquered relic of the past, dismisses the active and vital Indigenous Cornell community and undermines our core value of ‘any person, any study.’”

“Professor Mergold did not conduct careful and thorough research when planning this public installation and was not prepared to offer an apology for his erasure of Native Peoples before the end of the meeting,” Oster said. “NASAC will not attend the installation opening and instead reminds the Cornell Community that Native Peoples are still here and have been since time immemorial.”

In response to the exhibit’s unaltered opening day, NASAC created a month-long Facebook event — “We Are Still Here” — to draw attention to the surviving Indigenous culture prevalent in much of central New York and Cornell. The public event coincides with the exact dates of the exhibit.

On Sept. 16, Mergold issued an apology, saying that American Spolia: Crossing the Line was created as a platform for the Cornell Community to discuss the consequences of the 1792 Central New York Military Tract by Simeon DeWitt.

“In the process, the artist and Cornell Council for the Arts were reminded that language, like drawing, has power, and that the written description of the project must be as thoughtfully constructed as the work itself, even more so in a digital age when text is easily detached from the visual context,” Mergold said in the letter.

Mergold thanked those who fought fault with the exhibit for drawing attention to the “problematic nature of the original published text” saying that he had not intented to use the term the “disappearance of a nation.”

“[This text] was deeply offensive and painful to indigenous communities for which the artist and CCA sincerely apologize,” he wrote.

The letter said Mergold also welcomes help from NASAC in re-writing the description of the installation.

“Recognizing this and the fact that lines drawn by Simeon DeWitt some 200 years ago continue to cause trauma to indigenous people to this day, the artist welcomes collaboration with the Native American Student Association of Cornell (NASAC) on a project description that includes the voices and narrative of the Haudenosaunee people,” the letter said.

Some students have expressed a disdain for the rhetoric of the exhibit but still maintain that the work itself is of use and value to the community. The exhibit’s description and literary aim at the 2016 Bicentennial is a concern to many, as it takes a definitive stance on a didactically challenging period of history, which declaratively altered the lives and cultures of many.

Jessica Biggott ’20 said the exhibit has begun a new dialogue in the somewhat-stagnant and often avoided history of American expansionism in increasingly divisive times.

“Despite the several conflicts that have started and its number of flaws, I believe the exhibit is good overall because it has started a conversation about history that has so often been ignored,” Biggott said.

The theme of the biennial is “Abject/Object Empathies,” focusing on how the human mind shapes experiences intentionally and unintentionally, according to the CCA website.

“American Spolia” was scheduled to be on display starting Friday, amongst other 2016 Bicentennial Abject and Object Empathies exhibits. However, the event has since been cancelled, according to a Facebook post.