Abigail DeVille was doing some reading in preparation for “The American Future,” her massive 10,000-square-foot installation at Portland Institute for Contemporary Arts, when she stumbled across Thaddeus Kościuszko.
Kościuszko, a Polish nobleman who served with distinction during the Revolutionary War, was close to Thomas Jefferson. Baffled by his friend’s refusal to free his slaves, Kosciuszko left Jefferson a considerable bequest in his will, with the condition that his money and property must be used to buy freedom and an education for Jefferson’s slaves.
DeVille notes the author of the Declaration of Independence “doesn’t take the money.” She counts this among the many paradoxes of Jefferson’s ideals.
“He was always conflicted,” DeVille said. “Who isn’t, right? You’re high-minded and you set certain kinds of ideals for the nation, for yourself, things that you don’t actually ever attain. You want to be that guy, but you’re just never going to be that guy!”
Exploring the contradictions between Jefferson’s words and deeds would be rich material for any artist, but DeVille has a larger vision in mind. Her macro-sized art installations connect us to lost pasts and dive down historical wormholes. She uses found objects and architectural forms to create fantastically complex and immersive experiences. You might feel, entering the space, like a character on a set.
“I’ve consistently done theater work for the last four years,” DeVille said. “It’s totally changed the way I think about space, or the people as actors in these spaces, and history always being re-enacted.”
Taking Jeffersonian ideals as her point of departure, she structured “The American Future” around monuments recalling neoclassical archetypes. But her assemblies juxtapose these powerful representations with reminders that American philosophies haven’t always matched up with American practice — from Jefferson’s slaveholding to modern-day Portland’s breathtaking housing crisis.
The installation incorporates thousands of back issues of Street Roots, Portland’s weekly street newspaper. Circling this mountain of stories delivers a sense of narratives and lives piled one on top of the other.
At the base of the structure lies the entrance to “Tunnel of Ancestors”, a burrow set with lights and mirrors. It’s the ideal spot to reflect on a shared responsibility, and what exactly we ought to do under the pressing weight of the problem.
The installation took a full year of preparation and research, but DeVille’s narrative is neither didactic nor dusty, as she guides us through history in PICA’s cavernous space.
You can stroll amid 35 columns that mirror the structures of Jefferson’s plantation, or look up at the black lightboxes, entitled “Death Star,” meant to mimic rooftops on Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse. (Don’t skip the gallery guide, which includes a fascinating discussion of how violence hangs over the head of black Americans, much as these forms dangle above visitors’.)
Along one wall, a bright pink diorama filled with couches draws visitors into a more communal experience. But the walls of the space also carry a subtle, chilling message: the shape of an American flag formed by punctures that recall bullet holes.
As incredible and surreal as her sculptures can be, DeVille makes conscious use of these forms to strip away the fantasies of America. Her structures create a sacredness, a ritual, to places and people that were not considered in the writing of our collective history. Having come from a family where both of her grandfathers were orphans, DeVille’s devotion to finding truths is now a cornerstone of her practice.
She spent a weekend in October at the Oregon Historical Society, searching images of North Albina Avenue from the early 20th century through the 1980s, and found pictures of the street’s commercial districts over the years.
“The language is so different,” DeVille said.
In the ‘30s or earlier, text captioning photos of white business owners reported stories of civic pride and achievement. Fast forward to years when black businesses predominated, DeVille said, and the headlines suggesting the same storefronts laid a veneer over vice and crime.
“It’s total nonsense. They’re not any different than the Irish, German, Scandinavian folks living in the neighborhood 30 years before that,” DeVille said. “Take the images side by side — the cast of characters is different, but there really isn’t anything different in terms of the buildings. It’s all just fantasy projections.”
PICA presents Abigail DeVille’s “The American Future” through Jan. 12. Several events are programmed there, include a Street Roots zine launch party and poetry reading Dec. 9, and film screenings Jan. 10 and 12. Keep an eye on PICA’s calendar for more information.