Counter Culture

Rahel Aima on Counterpublic 2019

Rodolfo Marron III’s cookies. All photos by author.

“IT’S AN INTERESTING MOMENT FOR REGIONALISM,” writer-curator Leah Triplett Harrington remarked one night at dinner. We were catching a breather after Nic Kay’s moving, sinuous concluding procession through the predominantly black and Latinx neighborhood that hosted the inaugural edition of Saint Louis’s Counterpublic triennial. A ravey closing party followed in the stained-glass church turned punk club that housed Cauleen Smith’s Sky Will Learn Sky, a stunning video and banner installation. Harrington was referring to the spate of new biennials in American cities such as Cleveland, Atlanta, and Santa Fe, and while the event, organized by nonprofit the Luminary, certainly fits this phenomenon, it feels entirely more local than those other efforts. The triennial closed on July 13—just a month shy of the fifth anniversary of nearby Ferguson’s unrest. It describes itself as an expansive “public art platform scaled to a neighborhood, a community-oriented revision of the triennial form that builds bottom-up from the complexities, conflicts, energy, and opportunities within a single place to imagine new ways of living and working together.” 

Big if true. But there I was, casually parachuting in as if this were Sharjah, Yinchuan, or Kochi. Part of the problem, which I learned in a wide-ranging, context-rich conversation over tacos with Luminary director James McAnally, was the relative dearth of local art journalists who weren’t already associated with the initiative. A quick tour of some of the twenty-four sites followed: a discount store, two panaderías, a Buddhist temple, a Western-wear store, phone and muffler repair shops, a craft-beer joint, and a bakery run by people transitioning out of homelessness, all within a twelve-block radius around the commercial strip of Cherokee Street.

Triennial curators James McAnally and Katherine Simone Reynolds.

In Yowshien Kuo’s compelling installation at Carrillo Western Wear, I found the sign I had been looking for. The back of a dress shirt was printed with “Requirement.” on the collar, and below an embroidered yoke, “WORLD RESTART.” Another of his shirts featured the Boy Scout maxim “Imagine yourself in the place of an animal.” On one wall, subtly altered cowboy hats bulged like exaggerated ostrich skin or were blinged up with crosses on chains. As with Ohad Meromi’s modular bed-like sculpture, almost camouflaged in the furniture section of a thrift store, the strength of the piece lay in the subtlety of its integration into the fabric of the store. It was particularly well-matched with Kuo’s output, in which cowboys stand in for an archetypal American masculinity denied to Asian American men. His small paintings were a highlight of a side trip to the remarkable Granite City Arts and Design District in a nearby Trump tariff-rejuvenated steel town. 

How to restart the world, though? I think of German anarchist Gustav Landauer, who wrote in 1910, “The State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another.” The triennial takes these prefigurative politics seriously: Its catalogue features a land acknowledgement, and the thirty-nine participating artists are largely BIPOC. And a good number of commissions engage the community in an admirably BUFU way, from Azikiwe Mohammed’s Armor Photo Studio, for which the artist makes portraits of and for locals, to libraries of Latinx and the Global South volumes housed in a bakery and a specialty teashop, respectively, and a robust schedule of talks, screenings, performances, potlucks, and other curricula, including a session with the local alderperson. These programs happened on a near-weekly basis, an anti-parachuting strategy which meant that you really had to be a resident to experience much of the triennial. In a reversal of convention among the majority of biennial exhibitions, Counterpublic kept the focus of the event on the city’s actual residents.

Assistant curator Leah Triplett Harrington and executive director Kate Gilbert of Boston’s Now + There.

Instead of champagne toasts, there were two-dollar beers at dive bars, and John Riepenhoff’s The Luminary Counterlager, brewed with local hops and masa from a Cherokee Street grocer. Kahlil Robert Irving provided the only large public sculpture, although the street offered its own in the form of a twenty-foot indigenous man, replete with headdress—a landmark commissioned by the street’s business association circa 1985. Instead, works were overwhelmingly sited in retail establishments, an aspect that made explicit the transactional nature of this kind of event. In addition to Riepenhoff’s beer, visitors could buy Rodolfo Marron III’s cookies iced with phrases such as “estamos aqui” (proceeds went to a local immigrant advocacy group). Thomas Kong’s commission, Be Happy, took the form of a lagniappe: Visitors had to purchase something from the discount store to receive a bag embellished with one of  Kong’s collages, which covered every available surface of the establishment in a parallel of his own store outside Chicago. By the time I and other nonresidents flew in for the closing, the bags and beer were already gone. And even though the triennial wasn’t city-sponsored or -engineered, organizers encouraged visitors to support the local businesses, to “thank them for their generosity and honor the place that they hold for the communities.”

NIC Kay performing pushit!

If anything, the triennial provided a model for what the coexistence of art and community could look like, warts and all, even if weaker works sometimes felt subsumed into the curatorial gesture. Often, there was a sense that the shop proprietors really couldn’t care less about the art. But they trusted longtime neighbors the Luminary and triennial curators McAnally and Katherine Simóne Reynolds—both of whom live in the area—enough to go along with it, with the casual proviso that they would be allowed to renegotiate the piece down the line. One of two locations housing a pair of thoughtful Sky Hopinka films, a phone repair shop, became so irritated by the buzzing of the CRT monitor that it took to turning it on only for visitors who asked. Marron’s cookies, meanwhile, were supposed to accompany his altarpiece installation featuring photos of the panadería owner’s family, but this was nixed at the last minute when the owner changed his mind after seeing the work. How often do local residents, whose lives and community histories provide the inspiration and material for so many biennial commissions the world over, have this kind of agency? 

“This used to be where people from western states would come for culture,” my Lyft driver told me on the way to STL. And, indeed, a number of side trips to artist-run galleries, CAM St. Louis (which featured strong Lawrence Abu Hamdan and Paul Mpagi Sepuya shows), the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, the aforementioned G-CADD, and the stunning Cahokia Mounds across the Mississippi River helped contextualize the triennial within a broader city that boasts a surprisingly extensive arts ecology for its size. It became clear that this was not a Saint Louis triennial, but a Cherokee Street triennial. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to several sculpture parks and city museums, the latter of which are notably free, funded by a unique provision in the tax code. And the dregs of Hurricane Barry squashed a trip to the botanical gardens’ rather dubiously funded Monsanto Center. Art is not the only sphere with a patronage problem, but Counterpublic demonstrates that another art world is possible.

Wassan Al-Khudhairi, chief curator of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

Marianne Laury, curator and director of Granite City Art and Design District.

Artists Gavin Kroeber, Kristin Fleischmann, and Edo Rosenblith.

Kate Gilbert, Laumeier Sculpture Park director Lauren Ross, and Leah Triplett Harrington.

Studio Land Arts director Chris Carl.

Flood Plain codirector Amelia Jones.