As another new year approaches amid the greatest global pandemic in this century, and a new variant rears its ugly head, it’s frankly remarkable how much art was able to happen in 2021.
Even in the dark of January. One of the first bright spots of the year was “Illuminate The Lock: Madweyaashkaa: Waves Can Be Heard by Moira Villiard.” It was part of the “Bring Her Home: Sacred Womxn of Resistance” exhibition presented by All My Relations Arts, in partnership with Northern Lights.mn, Mississippi Park Connection and the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.
Moira Villiard, a Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe direct descendent, created gorgeous animation that was projected on the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam for the project, while music by Jaakola (Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe) played in conjunction by narration. It was cold, people were masked, and yet the feeling of gathering together, witnessing Villiard’s lovely story offered quite a bit of hope for the new year.
There were even shows indoors early on, albeit small ones. Michael Sommers, a co-founder and former artistic director of Open Eye Figure Theatre, has a new space called m.i.a. (mike’s intimate area), where he’s been doing independent projects and showings. In February, he put on an intimate production of “Snow Man, a Fable for a Winter Night , by Kira Obelensky, played for just a handful of masked audience members. Sommers’ ingenius puppets, animation and performance, along with fellow performer Kalen Rainbow Keir, with voiceover by Maren Ward, made for a dreamlike bit of magic in the cold of winter.
In 2020 after the pandemic first hit, “virtual shows” became the only way performers felt safe reaching their audiences. Lots of experimentation happened in those first dark months, but by 2021, the technology part of virtual content improved. Production values of virtual videos made leaps and bounds forward as groups got a hang of making online content happen, including the right equipment and the right team. By early 2021, a number of shows started to display a sense of creativity and play within the form of live video.
A great example was Emily Michaels King, who used Zoom for a solo performance piece called “DIGITAL,” which premiered in February. Michaels King mixed up different digital media methods, including Zoom, a web cam, found footage, and screen sharing for a compelling piece that reflected on memory and trauma amidst a technological world. It’s hard to imagine the piece occurring if it weren’t for the pandemic. The strange and emotionally gripping work used methodology in tune with its moment, even as the content reached for something beyond merely reflecting on the present. Michaels King is a compelling performer, and a creator not afraid to experiment.
Minneapolis held its breath during the Derek Chauvin trial in March and April. There seemed to be a shift that occurred following its conclusion, which happened to coincide with a whole lot of people getting vaccinated. After the guilty verdict, there was a sense of the Twin Cities being able to move on, even as the death of George Floyd left a permanent mark and a call to action, and even after more recent protests over the death of Daunte Wright ignited further anger in Brooklyn Center.
A month later, the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder in May was marked by a poignant outdoor exhibition at Phelps Park called Justice for George: Messages from the People. Leesa Kelly, of Memorialize the Movement, and Kenda Zellner-Smith, of Save the Boards, teamed up with the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery for the outdoor exhibition. The year before, both women had independently made efforts to save the street art that had been created on plywood boards used to cover businesses ad Saint Paul during the unrest. They felt the art and messages was of historical value, and captured the sense of grief, anger and loss that gripped the Twin Cities at that time. The exhibition was beautifully put together, the boards set up all around the park. With a mixture of colorful examples of street art as well as scribblings that evoked a raw sense of grief, the show was a powerful memorial.
Outdoor shows were all the rage throughout the summer. The open air provided a lot of freedom. The Picnic Operetta, for example, became the Pickup Truck Opera. Though the new show, which took on the story of the Odyssey with a mix of Dolly Parton music and Claudio Monteverdi, skipped the gourmet sustainable food samples Mixed Precipitation normally offers with their outdoor performances, they delivered a marvelous production. Sod House Theater, too, had to make adjustments to the way they do things, with a smaller cast and crew than normal and not featuring local performers at each site. Still, Sarah Agnew delivered with her goofy chef character, Arla Mae, supported by the hijinks of the ensemble cast of Arla Mae’s Booyah Wagon.
Even now, there are some museums that haven’t opened. The Minnesota Museum of American Art, for example, has remained closed throughout the pandemic, though they still put on an exhibition viewable from the outdoors. “Many Waters: A Minnesota Biennial” was viewable from the storefront windows outside the museum. If you went at the right time, you could also watch a series of videos by Andrea Carlson, Amina Harper, Tia-Simone Gardner, John Kim, and Jenny Schmid from the skyway, as well take in the paper cut-out talents of Sonja Peterson.
The artists reflected on Minnesota’s waterways in the works, with standouts of the show being a mesmerizing video piece by Mona Smith (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate) and a whimsical photo series by David Andree (Red Lake Band of Chippewa) that documented sculptures the artist created by freezing fabric in Northern Minnesota’s cold temperatures.
For the museums that have remained mostly open, a standout this year has been the American Swedish Institute. “Papier, Bea Szenfeld and Stina Wirsén,” mixed up fashion and visual art in a show that was a feast of color and texture. Later in the year, “Kindertransport: Rescuing Children from the Brink of War” made a gut punch with its emotional impact, telling the story of children whose families sent away to safety following the Kristallnacht of 1938.
Local galleries mustered along as well, amidst the ebbs and flows of the pandemic waves. One exhibition at Bockley Gallery, featuring Diné artist Eric-Paul Riege, made a strong showing, for the artist’s first exhibition in Minneapolis. The hanging textile works incorporated storytelling and intricate fiber work. They also looked handsome as the light from the gallery windows made their turquoise colors glimmer.
Rosy Simas, meanwhile, along with her composer collaborator François Richomme, created an alluringly hypnotic sensorial experience at All My Relations Gallery with Yödoishëndahgwa’geh (a place for rest.)
The debut of the art-filled Minneapolis public service building was another highlight, with interactive art installations, murals that speak to Minnesota’s history (not always in a positive light,) and a gorgeous centerpiece by Tristan Al-Haddad called “Current Conditions.”
Andréa Stanislav’s wonderfully esoteric and glittery “Cosmist Reconstructions – Memories of Earth” exhibition at the Museum of Russian Art offered a subversive sparkle this year, while Julie Mehretu’s airy and architectural abstract paintings at the Walker Art Center was a must-see. Meanwhile, this summer and fall saw a string of joyful community-oriented arts and culture events at the old Roberts Shoes lot.
As mentioned previously in this column, Pamela Espeland’s celebration of life at Orchestra Hall was also a memorable event for the year, a testament to the varied and far-reaching talents Espeland sought out in her career. With stories of the late writers life, and a mix of classical music, jazz, experimental sounds, and more, the evening hummed with a vibrant energy and pulsing rhythm.