The Quiet in the Land: Everyday Life, Contemporary Art, and the Shakers: A Conversation with Janet A. Kaplan

Article excerpt

During the summer of 1996, ten artists from Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America participated in month-long residencies at the last active Shaker community in the world, in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. This experience was the first phase of an ongoing project entitled "The Quiet in the Land," conceived and organized by the contemporary art curator and art historian France Morin. The artists were Janine Antoni, Domenico de Clario, Adam Fuss, Mona Hatoum, Sam Samore, Jana Sterbak, Kazumi Tanaka, Wolfgang Tillmans, Nari Ward, and Chen Zhen. The Shakers who were their hosts included Sister Marie Burgess, Sister June Carpenter, Sister Frances A. Carr, Sister Minnie Greene, the late Sister Ruth Nutter, Brother Alistair Bate, Brother Arnold Hadd, and Brother Wayne Smith. The onsite project coordinator was Tony Guerrero.

Before the commencement of the project, each artist visited the Shaker community. During the residencies, they lived, worked, shared meals, and worshipped with the Shakers; they experienced Shaker culture and its celebration of the aesthetics of everyday life. The artists drew on that experience to create works as diverse as sound recordings, oil paintings, photographs, sculptural installations, and videotapes. These works were exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Portland, Maine, from August 9 to September 21, 1997. In addition, a symposium was presented that summer at the Meeting House in the Shaker Village. An exhibition of the artists' works will be presented at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston from June 9 to September 20, i998. In 2000 an exhibition at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York will feature their works alongside historical Shaker works selected by the artists from the collections of the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and the Shaker Museum and Library in Old Chatham, New York.

Morin has written that "The Quiet in the Land" sought "to probe conventional notions of gender, work and spirituality, to redefine the making and experiencing of art, and to challenge the widespread belief that art and life exist in separate realms.... Its point of departure and inspiration was the Shakers, people who for over two centuries have stood apart, but not retreated from, dominant cultural practice, and who have lived and worked from an alternative social paradigm at the foundation of which is a belief in the spiritual value of the activities of daily life.... It was a unique encounter; each group, each individual, traveled a great distance in an effort to understand the other. The space that was created and shared between them through these attempts is as important a component of The Quiet in the Land project as the artwork in the exhibition. The Japanese word ma connotes this space between, this interval of fullness and harmony; although it is a concept with endlessly subtle associations, it seems an appropriate metaphor."-Janet A. Kaplan Kaplan: I'd like to begin by asking each of you to talk about why you chose to participate in "The Quiet in the Land" and to describe the work that emerged out of your experience.

Morin: I have been in the art world for more than twenty years, since I cofounded the magazine Parachute in 1975, and had always worked in art institutions until 1994, when I decided to leave my position at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. I had already organized many exhibitions and publications, and I wanted to push the limits of my own profession, to work differently. The Shakers and the artists had a lot of courage to embark on this project. I did not know exactly how it would work. I did not have all the answers. I just knew I had to do it.

Tanaka: I'm a sculptor and an installation artist, and my work reflects my past life in Japan and the experience of coming to the Western world. I chose to participate because I've been working with the memory of my past, and I felt that I needed new experiences to move on to something else. …