A human-size pendulum dangles from the ceiling in a corner of the Weisman Art Museum. During the opening reception for “Harriet Bart: Abracadabra and Other Forms of Protection” last weekend, people mingled around it, but no one succumbed to the temptation to give it a shove.
“Harriet Bart is often drawn to these objects that can work in many ways,” said curator Laura Wertheim Joseph. In this case, the pendulum suggests a plumb bob, a tool employed in construction to determine a true vertical. “It has this functional utilitarian usage,” Joseph said, “but it is also mysterious and associated with divination.”
This multilayered, mystical approach, with roots in the 1970s feminist art movement, is at the heart of Bart’s practice. More than 40 years of work by the Duluth-born, Minneapolis-based conceptual artist make up this show at the University of Minnesota and a sister exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Bart is also donating her archive to the university, an apropos place for it to live on, since four generations of her family graduated from there.
Drawing on themes of collective cultural memory, commemoration and protection, Bart’s collaborative, mystical philosophy is also informed by her Jewish cultural background.
Protection and memorial
“I remember hearing this woman writer/activist/feminist, Meridel Le Sueur, speak once, and she said there are only two subjects for an artist — the borning world or the dying world,” said Bart. “Somehow that really struck me.”
Memory is at the core of her work.
Bart was born in 1941, six months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Her father was drafted, so she and her mom went to live with her Orthodox Jewish grandmother in rural Hansboro, N.D.
She remembers always being surrounded by books written in Hebrew, though she never did learn to read it.
Books and the written word would become two important influences throughout her life. The Weisman show includes a series of five book-shaped granite objects, “Abracadabra,” inscribed with the magical word said to ward off bad spirits. Each has its own pedestal in front of a wall separating the entrance to the retrospective. Stacked book forms are also used in a spiral sculpture.
The book becomes both a form and an object. Bart’s Jewish background is another influence; wartime meant anxiety and stress as news of the Holocaust trickled into Jewish-American homes.
“As soon as the country recovered from World War II, then along came the Korean War, then the Vietnam War,” said Bart. “I have grown up in these times when there were serious wars.”
Commemorating the victims of war is another theme apparent in the Weisman’s two-room retrospective. Rather than being organized chronologically, the show is like a labyrinth, letting visitors get lost while it circles the same themes: protection — both whom we protect and what we are protected from — and the commemoration of collective and cultural memories.
In her blood-red 1986 work “Re-Marks (Memorial),” Bart stitched lines of thread to conjure a ledger, then painted names of Americans who died in the Vietnam War in the background. In “Caged History” (1995), she folded a Nazi flag captured by her uncle in a 1944 battle in France and put in a cage with no locks, a symbolic protection.
The piece lives at the Jewish Museum in New York; Bart decided she could not sell it. “I used [the Nazi flag] to make this piece and then realized it was a dangerous piece,” she said. “I needed to know how to protect the world from this outside, how to protect the piece I had made from those who might misinterpret it.”
A mystical Jewish influence is most apparent in the second gallery, defined by a wall-sized, shelflike work, “Geniza.” With nearly 40 objects, including a small golden plumb bob and a bronze pomegranate, it looks like a cabinet of curiosities. The title is Hebrew, denoting a space used to protect fragile old texts.
Though the exhibition focuses on her personal archive, Bart is also a frequent collaborator with other artists, including Yu-Wen Wu (with whom she has a collaborative works website), performer/writer Nor Hall and German artist Helmut Löhr; all are represented through smaller objects in “Geniza.”
A WARM beginning
Bart’s practice stretches back to the 1970s. She honed her feminist conceptual chops as a co-founding member of WARM — the Women’s Art Registry of Minnesota, which was one of the first feminist art collectives in the United States. It presented her first solo exhibition, “Bart/Belvo,” in 1978.
Many of the women at last weekend’s opening have known Bart since then. (She also co-founded the contemporary art space Traffic Zone Center for Visual Art.)
“WARM was like graduate school,” said Bart. “It was a place where we as women came out of our home studios. ... It was where I became a professional.”
If WARM was where she learned to become an artist, the book was where she discovered her love for many-layered conceptual art ideas.
Bart seems to always return to books, whether it is through the book as object, or as an artist book. She has won two Minnesota Book Awards, published 12 artist books and created 12 book objects.
The companion show at Mia, “Harriet Bart: Artist Books + Works on Paper,” focuses on her smaller artist books.
Another element that connects the two shows is the pomegranate. At Mia, it shows up as a cast brass die that Bart used to create embellishments for a book, “Punica Granatum,” inspired by a 2000-01 trip to Israel where she encountered an abundance of the fruit.
Bart’s interest in mythology comes through in this piece, a reminder of Persephone’s giving into temptation that would trap her forever as Hades’ bride in the Underworld. It is an ancient tale reconsidered, imbued with the mystical quality that echoes throughout both shows as she strips everything down to its most essential qualities: the sweetness of pomegranate seeds, the absolute vertical of the plumb bob, the grief that accompanies memorial.