New York

Andrea Bowers

In a 2003 interview, the Los Angeles–based artist Andrea Bowers noted of her work that “it was just a matter of time before documenting people’s actions turned into documenting people’s activism.” In fact, it was within this same year that she began to incorporate overtly political themes into her drawings and videos, shifting her focus from crowd dynamics and spectatorship to the direct-action protests of the 1970s and ’80s. In recent exhibitions, Bowers has examined abortion activism and the AIDS Memorial Quilt through a feminist lens. For her first solo show in New York since 2004, she took up a perhaps less emotional but just as transformative issue––global warming––and used the context of the gallery as a platform for consciousness raising, drawing attention to a small Native American community living on the southern edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

A video titled Circle (all works 2009) includes interviews with four generations of Gwich’in women, who convey the difficulties of working with environmental groups that have interests in the land but not necessarily in human rights. Interweaving shots of the sublime landscape with scenes of the women cooking and working, the piece verges on documentary, and, like much of the show, feels as though it were made for an audience beyond the art world. This was underscored at the exhibition’s opening, the date of which was chosen to coincide with the international day of climate action proposed by Bowers listed the gallery as a venue on the campaign’s website and placed a stack of flyers at the front desk. But the question remains whether a white cube is the best venue for such activism: Why Chelsea over, say, Times Square, let alone PBS or NPR?

As it turned out, Bowers’s subtle defamiliarizing of the institutional space of the gallery was the most absorbing aspect of the show. A drawing of the first page of the Earth First! Direct Action Manual served as an aestheticized emblem of radical activism. Ephemera such as a large banner made for a protest of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 were presented as relics of earlier collective action. Perhaps what makes Bowers’s artistic practice and her political engagement so appealing is the rare dialogue she creates between restraint and forcefulness, keeping both the art world and activists interested.

Yet if Bowers has mostly resisted collapsing distinctions between art and activism, preferring the representation of activism to its embodiment, with this show she staked a claim on the gray area between the two camps. One further work, a nearly thirty-four-minute video titled Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Training—Tree Sitting Forest Defense, most pointedly raised the question: If we’ve abandoned the myth that art should be autonomous, why do we still demand such purity from activism? The piece features John Quigley, an environmental educator Bowers had previously filmed (for Vieja Gloria, 2003, a highlight of the 2004 Whitney Biennial) during a seventy-one-day tree sit. Here, he instructs her on how to climb a giant tree, providing useful directions and firm advice, while Bowers pans across the California landscape with her camera and asks him contextualizing questions. “These are lovely skills to teach somebody,” Bowers says as she ascends the tree with her newly acquired DIY know-how. It seems as if she wants us to say the same back to her.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler