Marie Watt: Singing Everything
On ViewMarc Straus
Marie Watt: Singing Everything
March 12–May 14, 2023
Hundreds of chorusing voices, hands, and stories crest across Singing Everything, the second solo show at Marc Straus by Portland-based interdisciplinary and multicultural artist Marie Watt. For twenty-five years, Watt has collaged and sculpted blankets into layered wall hangings and towers that deconstruct the household object’s symbolism within her own diverse German-Scot and Seneca heritage—and the grander scale of the human life cycle. We’re born on blankets, bond with them as teething children and slumbering adults, and die wrapped in them, if we’re lucky.
Viewers first participate in Watt’s practice by donating the blankets she uses, so her working materials come loaded with stories. Sometimes the artist immortalizes these personal histories on tags attached to the blankets, as she did during her 2014 sculptural series “Blanket Stories.”
The narrative nature of Watt’s work achieves a critical mass in Singing Everything and makes an unprecedented leap, acquiring its own voice in the form of bells adorning almost every new blanket tower and quilt in this show, all made from curled tin lids—a tradition culled from the Ojibwe tribe’s Jingle Dance, which took root in 1910 while the northern midwestern tribe fought an influenza outbreak. One medicine man received a communication via dream to heal an ailing girl by having women dance with bells around her. Although the US had outlawed Indigenous ceremonial gatherings in 1883, the practice of healing through this cooperative dance persisted.
Singing Everything bridges Watt’s solitary and communal practices. Blankets are meaningful gifts across Native American cultures that signify warmth and friendship, but numerous crafts inform Watt’s oeuvre, from printmaking to beadwork. The latter again references Indigenous heritage, but it also honors the greater affinity for shiny things shared by humans and magpies.
A 26-foot-long chant titled Shared Horizon (Eastern Door) (2023) written in neon lighting opens the show with an alternative shimmer. Each word repeats twice across the piece’s three fluorescent stanzas, save for two adjectives that each appear once: “great” and “lowly.” This introduction elaborates on rhythmic explorations inspired by the song “What’s Going On,” where Marvin Gaye trills “mother, mother.” Most members of Watt’s tribe would continue the chant, “grandmother, grandmother” and “sky, sky.” Watt’s own lyrics like “beaver, beaver,” New York’s state animal, are tailored to honor the Eastern Door’s ecology. Like a real sunrise and sunset, these neon verses radiate hues illuminating the room, dancing with different daylight each day.
The exhibition’s tension cycles upwards, and viewers ascend a set of stairs in the gallery as the tempo mounts. On the second floor, Companion Species (First and Last) (2023) greets their arrival. The wall-mounted textile perpetuates the horizon motif with layered lines of jewel-toned satin evoking a ledger. We use the sun’s path across the sky to keep time, after all. Two swaths of tin bells could be heavenly bodies. Watt’s words from the installation downstairs echo against themselves, reverberating again in the next room, where scraps of embroidered blankets wear tears proudly on their sleeves. They feel like the thought bubbles of the two blanket sculptures standing with dignity opposite each other like steel-skewered party guests, wearing brilliant bells.
In the show’s final, skylit room, Watt’s works serve mostly as a conduit for the collective. A fever pitch of language immerses the viewer through three massive hanging quilts, culminating a project Watt started at the Whitney Museum before the pandemic. Inspired by Joy Harjo’s poem “Singing Everything,” she asked participants to submit one entity they’d like to sing a song for.
Every answer Watt received abounds across these three tapestries. Some heartfelt responses honor “healthy grandchildren,” and “all of us.” Others, like “stroke” and “waiting,” are ambiguous. Foreign languages prevail, as do pictures. If any contributor made a crass offering, it’s in there too, Watt says, though maybe on the B-side. She created patterns retaining each submission's original handwriting. When COVID-19 lockdown restrictions loosened, Watt invited hundreds of volunteers to participate in sewing circles at the Whitney, stitching those patterns onto blanket patches of ranging blue tones which Watt then assembled into these three tapestries whose visual flow keeps the score of a silent, yet very real song.
Their rhythm culminates counterclockwise with quickening cursive, abrupt shifts in patchworked blues, and expanding seas of shining bells. These noisemakers don’t have their own ringers, but on opening night Watt was there to demonstrate—grabbing and shaking one work, the bells made noise only by clinking against each other. One isolated voice is a dud, these works suggest, but a chorus can rock. The sonic potential in this show lies latent, suspended within blankets, neon lights, and horizons, but it’s still real, available to those who know how to listen.