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Reading Rämistrasse #104: Rachel TonThat on Sky Hopinka at Luma Westbau - Akademie - Kunsthalle Zürich

Reading Rämistrasse #104: Rachel TonThat on Sky Hopinka at Luma Westbau

The way to any exhibition could be a kind of pilgrimage; curiosity and anticipation build on the walk there. We ascend the many stairs made more by the height of the ceiling, go to the door, and pull back the curtain. Inside is a broad room with a long wall upon which the films are projected, a bench, and a single chair which the docent has left unoccupied. It is a Tuesday, and the Löwenbräu is nearly empty. The high, echoing halls of art are silent but for the murmurings of pre-recorded audio which trickle through a few of the many doors.

There is a room beyond this, which we sense as its music wars with the soundtrack of this one, and without entirely meaning to, find ourselves drawn inwards first. There is a warm and womb-like feeling in these kinds of rooms, wrapped in the dim, away from all others. We sit in the darkness, bodies static, carried aloft by the shifting colors and ambient sounds of Sky Hopinka’s Fainting Spell (2018). Vivid color negative images move, sometimes fluidly, sometimes flickering like the starbursts of sunlight behind closed eyelids, buoyed by the sounds and the music and traversed by handwritten text telling the story of the Xąwįska, or the Indian Pipe Plant. Later, we will try to find some of the songs from the film, including Arliene Nofchissey’s Go My Son, to find a way back to this moment.

Sky Hopinka, Behind the Evening Tide, Luma Westbau, 2022

Image: Nelly Rodriguez

Sky Hopinka is a Native American artist working primarily in film, and his video works in this exhibition have been separated into two categories, with his more experimental videos, Fainting Spell, In Dreams and Autumn (2021), and I’ll Remember You as You Were, Not as What You’ll Become (2016), screened in the inner room and what is deemed more documentary, Wawa (2014), Cloudless, Blue Egress of Summer (2019), and Dislocation Blues (2017) on the outside. Despite this separation, there are a few recurring motifs that emerge in both — distortions of color and image and screens framed within the frame — that seem to fray the edges of reality. At the end of Dislocation Blues, a black shape overlays the last scene of the film in which Native American leaders astride horses pace through a jubilant crowd at Standing Rock. The shape feels familiar, as if we are standing behind a structure silhouetted against the radiant blue sky, but tilts disorientingly, folding and transforming into a screening room not unlike the one we now sit in, in which another screen plays a video of the road. This tapestry of different types of narrative — realistic clips interspersed with surreal, fragments of historical and literary texts, some of them Hopinka’s own — helps to blur nonfiction and myth and examine the mutable essence of storytelling.

In his three-channel film, In Dreams and Autumn, Hopinka reads his poetry aloud over footage of a drive through desert canyon roads. The camera shakes as the vehicle traverses the rough path; his words travel across the screen horizontally as the camera moves forward in the right hand screen, and seemingly backwards in the left. The sight of these words in motion reinforces the visual perambulation of moments cut into narrative nonfiction. Yet spoken aloud, the words come to life, another form of oral storytelling.

Sky Hopinka, Behind the Evening Tide, Luma Westbau, 2022

Image: Nelly Rodriguez

Hopinka references Eliot Weinberger’s phrase, 'ethnopoetry' to describe the adoption of the camera by cultures who were once viewed through it, and each of his films contains Native American culture, history, and experiences told by its people. In these rooms, an ocean away from the lands of the Ho-Chunk Nation, his stories exist not only for them but also for us, for every culture which once recited stories around a fire, for every country fighting for their rightful land, for every person for whom the sound of lost language fills them with longing. We are sitting in the dark near the flickering screen, listening.

Sky Hopinka, Behind the Evening Tide, Luma Westbau, 11 November 2022–26 Februar 2023

Reading Rämistrasse

If art criticism is losing ground, we must act. That’s why we created space for criticism – Reading Rämistrasse – on the Kunsthalle Zürich website and publish reviews of current exhibitions in Zürich. What is published here does not represent the opinion of the Kunsthalle Zürich. Because criticism has to be independent.

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