Locust Projects is proud to present The Litany, a new site-specific installation by the Chicago-based artist Bethany Collins. In the center of Locust Projects’ Main Gallery is My destiny is in your hands, a white-on-white flocked wallpaper installation designed by the artist that exists within a “chapel” custom-built for the exhibition. The floral designs on the wallpaper represent official state flowers from the historical South where the artist’s family are from, as well as the state flowers where the artist’s family moved to during the Great Migration of millions of African Americans from the South to other parts of the United States.
In using these specific flower motifs, Collins is referencing floriography, the language of flowers as a means of coded communication. Meaning has been attributed to flowers for thousands of years, but floriography enjoyed a resurgence in popular culture in 19th century, Victorian-era England.
According to flower dictionaries published in the 19th century, the meanings behind the flowers represented in the wallpaper include: “I am your captive” for Delaware’s official state flower, the peach blossom; “I burn for you” for Louisiana’s iris; and “My destiny is in your hands” in Alabama’s camellia. The artist brings the coded messages of the language of flowers on the walls together to memorialize moments of repeated violence throughout American history.
In the center of the wallpapered room is a copy of America: A Hymnal, an artist book by Collins from 2017. The hardcover-bound book consists of 100 versions of the song My Country ‘Tis of Thee by the Rev. Samuel F. Smith. Since the original version’s debut on July 4, 1831, the lyrics of My Country ’Tis of Thee have been re-titled and re-written at least one hundred times between the 18th and 20th centuries. Each re-writing—usually done in support of a passionately held cause, from temperance and suffrage to abolition and even the Confederacy—articulates some version of what it means to be American. Like the coded meanings of state flowers, these patriotic hymns sometimes communicate messages of love, or indictments, or both.
Surrounding the chapel on the gallery walls are two new bodies of work that continue the artist’s exploration of race and language. Two large paintings, one red and the other blackish purple, are abstractions of classic American songs. In his 1988 book, "Cultural Literacy: Things Every American Should Know," E.D. Hirsch identified nine patriotic songs as crucial to a unified American identity. The artist’s erasing, re-writing and repeatedly deconstructing these lyrics makes noise out of each of the nine hymns, while challenging the notion of a cohesive American identity.
The other body of work, Do you know them? (1896), is a collection of classified ads placed by former slaves separated from family members by war, slavery and emancipation. These "lost friends" ads—which were published in six different newspapers shortly before the end of the Civil War until the 1920s—read as love letters from an individual to those they loved and no longer know. The text within these ads is short; constructed from memories, a name, their loved ones’ former owners, where they once lived. The stories are presented in groupings, illustrating a shared experience by different individuals. The repeated phrase “Do you know them?” at the top of each ad was adopted time and time again by people looking to find family they once knew.
PERFORMANCE DURING ART WEEK 2018:
A day-long performance of “America: A Hymnal” will debut at Locust Projects on December 6, 2018 as part of Bethany Collins’ solo exhibition, The Litany. All 100 versions will be sung by volunteers and small choirs continuously throughout the day. In its many lyrical variations, “America: A Hymnal” presents a chronological retelling of American history, politics and culture through one song. Visitors are invited to come and go quietly throughout the day of the performance, which will take place between 10 am to 5 pm on Thursday, December 6.
Participating singers include: AK Gomez, Morgan Bryson, Jenna Efrein, Tara Long, Bear, Jenna Balfe, Kali Geiger, Layla Bessito,Tom Blazejack, Michelle Lisa Polissaint, Gabriella Villalobos and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami Choir.
This exhibition has received support from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Emergency Grant.
About the Artist
Bethany Collins is a multidisciplinary artist whose conceptually driven work is fueled by a critical exploration of how race and language interact. In her Contronym series, for instance, Collins transposes definitions from Webster’s New World Dictionary of American Language onto American Masters paper, then aggressively obscures much of the entries with an eraser. What remain are specific snippets of meaning that are poetically charged through their isolation, as well as the crumbled paper bits left behind by her erasing. As Holland Cotter noted writing in The New York Times, “language itself, viewed as intrinsically racialized, is Bethany Collins’ primary material.”
Her works have been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions nationwide, including the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Drawing Center, the Wexner Center for the Arts, and the Birmingham Museum of Art. Collins has been recognized as an Artist-in-Residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the MacDowell Colony, the Bemis Center and the Hyde Park Art Center among others. In 2015, she was awarded the Hudgens Prize.