To get to Newtown Creek, a severely polluted New York City waterway and Superfund site once teeming with oyster beds, the Mohawk artist Alan Michelson wended his way past the detritus of industrial Queens — the garbage haulers, the taco truck parking lots, the Mount Everests of scrap metal and building debris being clawed by construction cranes.
Before centuries of colonization, this tidal estuary between Brooklyn and Queens was home ground to the Lenape peoples, whose nurturing connection to the land and water and the life they support can provide a template for addressing woes of the present day, Michelson suggests, in his new multimedia installation at MoMA PS1.
The artwork, “Midden,” is a centerpiece of “Greater New York,” the museum’s once-every-five-year survey of artists in the New York area, opening Oct. 7. This year’s exhibition features 47 artists and collectives, and the boundaries extend to the Haudenosaunee, the confederacy of Native American nations that encompasses what is now New York State.
“Midden” refers to monumental mounds of oyster shells that were present when Dutch colonialists “settled and unsettled,” in Michelson’s words, what would become New York City. Long before bagels, hot pretzels and pizza, oysters were the regional culinary staple, flourishing in Newtown Creek, New York Harbor and beyond, some nearly a foot in length.
Michelson, a renowned artist who has had exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, is known for fusing moving video images and Native song to conjure the spirit of places and exhume ignored or forgotten aspects of American history, especially colonial exploitation of Indigenous peoples and landscapes. Many of his pieces are horizontal, recalling the forms of early panoramic art and the woven wampum belts that are a cultural touchstone of his people. The artist’s longstanding fascination with shorelines as liminal spaces has found him traveling from southern Ontario to Queens to shoot video from the bows of boats.
In “Midden,” he projects images of two riverine apocalypses — Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn — onto three tons of oyster shells positioned to resemble a shoreline. The vanished Lenape landscape is recalled in an audio recording of the Delaware Skin Dance, a call-and-response song with hide drums that, during one tumultuous colonial period, was entrusted to the artist’s Haudenosaunee ancestors for safekeeping.
The shells are on loan from the Billion Oyster Project, a nonprofit with which the artist collaborated that aims to restore one billion live oysters to New York harbor by 2035, using discarded shells from local restaurants (the group has reintroduced about 75 million oysters to the harbor so far).
In what might be a museum first, the artist and PS1’s curator Ruba Katrib spent a day on Governors Island whizzing around in a golf cart to observe piles of oyster shells being cured in the open air. The shells eventually provide homes for larval oysters known as spat that are placed in artificial reef structures in the harbor. Oyster reefs form natural barriers that can help protect shorelines from erosion and storm surges.
“It’s not a Band-Aid repair,” Michelson said. “It’s about restoring the cycles that need to be in balance with each other.” His three-ton mound of oyster shells has inspired the museum to plan an “oyster symposium” for November with cultural theorists, artists and scientists.
Michelson, 68, does not consider himself an “environmental artist.” But he has long been preoccupied by the destruction and transformation of the Indigenous environment by colonialism, “from the tiniest plant to the largest nonhumans around,” as he put it. Shifts in perspective “can’t be taken in in one gulp like a painting,” he said, explaining that his work ties in to the sense of natural motion found in Native storytelling.
“There is a poetic directness to Alan’s work,” Katrib said. “He’s very precise but opens up all these questions.”
Born in Buffalo, Michelson grew up in Boston and, after attending Columbia University for a time, returned to New York in 1989 to create “Earth’s Eye,” an outdoor sculpture at the Lenape site of “The Collect,” a spring-fed freshwater lake in Lower Manhattan that had such a large shell midden that the Dutch named it “Kalch Hoek,” roughly “limestone point at the corner.” The Collect was an early source of drinking water for New Amsterdam but within 200 years was degraded, “leaving ghostly features of the landscape that are gone,” he said.
Michelson visits the Grand River at Six Nations Reserve, in southern Ontario, several times a year, where a younger sister and other relatives now live and where his grandparents grew up. Narratives of colonial subjugation and Indigenous survival form the backbone of some of his most powerful work.
His “Two Row II” (2005), a monumental video piece, is based on the Kaswentha, a sacred wampum belt that embodied a 1613 trade agreement between his people and the Dutch. Michelson filmed from a Canadian cruise boat on the Grand River, separating non-Native towns on the U.S. side from the Reserve in southern Ontario. The piece captures the competing narratives from both sides of the river: the dinner cruise captain’s guided tour amid clinking silverware is juxtaposed with a soundtrack of Native elders talking about the river.
The brutal military campaign that forced the removal of Michelson’s ancestors from their homelands was captured in his video work “Hanödaga:yas,” or “Town Destroyer,” the name the Haudenosaunee gave George Washington. It chronicles the destruction of some 50 towns, farms and orchards that led to “a situation of being a refugee in our own land,” the artist said. The 2018 piece debuted at the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, Ontario. The center is on the site of the former Mohawk Indian Residential School, the boarding school that his grandmother Eleanor Green, who died two years ago at age 105, was made to attend and where she was trained to be a domestic, the occupation deemed suitable for an Indigenous woman.
In thinking about oyster shells, Michelson reflected on the cultural history of shells in Native art, from abalone jewelry to wampum belts used for diplomacy and incorporating hundreds of tiny shells. All express the Indigenous worldview is that “time and memory are embodied in something that had been alive,” he said, in contrast to the European idea that “everything alive is extractable.” “I think they missed a lot,” he added. “They weren’t very curious or interested in what was here and dismissed the cultures living in pretty good balance with the land and waters. It’s a way of living with. It’s understanding yourself as being in a kinship relationship with something larger rather than one of separation and dominion.”
The Billion Oyster Project is a cause for hope, he said, albeit as a reparative undertaking that he argues would not have been necessary under Lenape stewardship.
In recent years, tribes have been on the front lines of environmental activism, most famously in opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline and the risks it posed to water, land and sacred cultural sites. With wildfires raging out West, some government officials have begun partnering with tribes, acknowledging the wisdom of regular controlled burns to clear out underbrush and encourage new plant growth.
“It has to be people understanding how the dots connect,” Michelson said. “I think things are so bad that they’re turning back to us.”
Greater New York
Oct. 7 through April 18, MoMA PS1,22-25 Jackson Ave., Queens; (718) 784-2084; moma.org. Entry to MoMA PS1 is by advance timed ticket.