In 1970, Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles produced his conceptual work Insertions into Ideological Circuits: The Coca Cola Project. At a time when Brazil was experiencing severe censorship at the hands of an oppressive dictatorship, Meirieles used a popular consumer product as a vessel to secretly communicate politically and artistically with Brazilians by way of an unknowing global brand, Coca-Cola. Meireles affixed initially invisible statements onto empty coke bottles and returned them to the factory to be refilled and sent back into circulation. Once refilled, messages like how to turn the bottle into a molotov cocktail or Meireles’ artist statements became visible to the consumer. This insertion of thought into a pre-existing system of circulation challenged dominant powers of information and exchange while engaging the public with the artwork.
Today, Felipe Steinberg (also a Brazilian born artist) works within a similar conceptual vein as he explores constructed notions of “truth” in local and global systems. As an artist, researcher, and cultural producer, Steinberg is interested in the meanings created around events–in how the act of re-telling shapes past events as much as how events forge new ways of telling. “I have been interested in capturing the idea of truth, or fact, through its mediations and circulations; to look at facts not in their crude facticity, but through the contexts by which they acquire immediacy: psychological, historical, ideological, and economical” Steinberg states. These interests are exemplified in Steinberg’s 2014 work, I See You, You See Me.
I See You, You See Me was produced during Steinberg’s residency at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. This piece derived from an object that represents the local in a potentially global system; a postcard. More specifically, Skowhegan’s official postcard which shows an image of the town’s main attraction, The Indian. On the back is an inscription that reads:
“The Indian, ’world’s largest sculpted Indian…dedicated in memory of the
Maine Indians, the first people to use these lands in many peaceful ways.”
Both of these statements hold truth. The Indian is the tallest wooden sculpture depicting an indigenous person (a very niche record to hold) and the people claims to memorializes did live in Skowhegan peacefully for thousands of years.
In fact, the word “skowhegan” comes from the indigenous dialect of the Kenipekw Norridgewock Abenaki people who originally inhabited the region. Its meaning describes the offerings of the land – “place of watching fish.” The positioning of a waterfall on the Kennebec River created wading pools of abundant fish and fertile soil where the Abenaki grew squash, beans, sunflowers, artichokes, and cherries. This land was cultivated and lived on by the Abenaki for thousands of years. However, the geological characteristics and resources that made it a thriving village also made it desirable to the European settlers.
Years of brutal violence between French and British over the land and the proselytization of the Abenaki people culminated in a gruesome conflict known as the Battle of Norridgewock. In August of 1724, two hundred British soldiers raided the Norridgewock Village to scalp the French missionary, Sebastien Rale, and take over the land and its surrounding territories. The Abenaki were massacred and their village was burnt to the ground; any survivors were forced to migrate to a northern Abenaki village in Quebec.
Although the image on the postcard, and the statue itself, represent an Abenaki person, these objects were not made with the intention to commemorate their history. Rather, they were made to lure people into, or inform people about, Skowhegan byway of an odd, rare attraction and its colonial history. The inscription on the back of Skowhegan’s postcard continues:
“...Sculpted by Berand Langlais, the Indian is 62’, and stands on a 20’ base.
It was erected in 1969 in observance of the state of Maine's 150th anniversary.”
Skowhegan remained unsettled until the 1770’s and wasn’t an incorporated city until 1823. The land continued to provide rich soil which allowed Skowhegan to become an agricultural center for Maine’s counties. Major modern industries followed with the building of a railroad and dozens of different types of mills powered by the Skowhegan Falls. Those falls, the very same that provided the Abenaki fish and bountiful soil, were dammed in 1930 by Central Maine Power.
Like Meireles and the Coca Cola bottle, Steinberg alters this locally familiar object to engage with the public in a re-telling of the narratives held in its original function. For his work I See You, You See Me, Steinberg created his own postcard and distributed it around town. The image on the front is a photograph taken from The Indian’s perspective, showing a mundane americana view of gray skies over a drug store parking lot, a car dealership across the street, and a white steeple hidden among distant trees. The inscription on the back states, “I see you, you see me.”
This visual and literal change in perspective immediately personifies The Indian. It no longer stands as a kitschy representation of an indigenous person, created in celebration of the ideology that killed them, and gawked at only for its massive stature. It is an Abenaki fisherman gazing down saying “I see you, you see me.” This statement is a challenge to the Skowhegan inhabitants to not just look up at him, but join him in looking at his history and what he sees; the erasure of the Abenaki people and destruction of the land that was once their home.
Steinberg attended the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York (2019), The Core Program, Museum of Fine Arts Houston (2016-2018), and Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (2014). He was an artist-in-residence at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha (2019), and RAW Material Company, Dakar (2019). His work has been presented in venues such as Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Museu Oscar Niemeyer, Curitiba, Brazil; Museu de Arte Moderna Aloísio Magalhães, Recife, Brazil; Socrates Sculpture Park, New York; Anthology Film Archives, New York; Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center, Ramallah; Visual Arts Center-University of Texas, Austin; 1After320, New Delhi; and SESC, Ribeirão Preto, Brazil. Recently he was one of the Lumbung Program Coordinators (Public Program) at documenta fifteen and he is currently a Production Coordinator at Mophradat in Athens.
For more information about Felipe Steinberg visit : felipesteinberg.info