Dear Friends and Readers,
“We never know how high we are Till we are called to rise....” — Emily Dickinson
“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
In October 2017, as our first response to the Trump administration’s policies on immigration, human rights, international relations, and the environment, Rail Curatorial Projects undertook a monumental exhibit at Mana contemporary, Occupy Mana: Artist Need to Create On the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy, Year 1. This exhibition was organized in one month, and from start to finish our community of artists mobilized swiftly and with great urgency to generate a collective voice of dissent through works of art, poetry readings, dance and music performances, and panel discussions to amplify the sustaining power of subtlety and the beauty of our language against the bombastic, abusive, and vulgar noise of Donald J. Trump.
We recognize that Lauren Bon’s 2006 neon work Artists Need to Create On the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy speaks as presciently for our time as Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture did in the 1960s, embodying the spirit of autonomy and solace that each work of art offers in a world otherwise dominated by technology, social media, and other forms of endless distraction. Because of this prescience we asked Lauren for the permission to adopt the title of her neon as the official banner of Rail Curatorial Projects. With this banner we acknowledge the work of artists that mediate social and political issues while expressing an inner freedom, truth and beauty. We also feel this call-and-response curation can apply to any given space or specific narrative as long as the selection of works of art by particular artists speak to the conditions of the call.
In January 2018 when Sharon Corwin invited me to curate a version of the Occupy Mana exhibit at Colby College Museum of Art, Rail Curatorial Projects had just been invited to participate in the 2019 Venice Biennale. Together with Francesca Pietropaolo—my good friend, a native Venetian and co-curator of our exhibition in Venice—we decided to address the theme of climate change in both shows, thereby creating a bond between the exhibition at Colby Museum and the exhibition at Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Penitenti. In addition to each mirroring the other as a generative force to spread wider public awareness of the imminent and grave condition of our environment, we feel an absolute necessity to bring our friends and colleagues from various disciplines in the arts and the humanities together, at least in these pages of the River Rail, to be published and circulated freely throughout the Colby campus, and delivered to several communities in Waterville, Maine.
As I wrote in my editorial in the October issue of the Brooklyn Rail, “[un]like the Occupy Movement which, as Michael Levitin observed in 2015, was ‘a moment constrained by its own contradictions: filled with leaders who declared themselves leaderless, governed by a consensus-based structure that failed to reach consensus, and seeking to transform politics while refusing to become political,’ we now have a young and fierce leader.” When I marched in solidarity with the students at Colby college on the day of the International Climate Strike, the strength and passion of the youth was palpable.
I feel honored to be named the 2019 Lunder Institute for American Art Fellow and to receive the Jetté Award for Leadership in the Arts from Colby Museum. I feel equally grateful for the support Sharon Corwin and her remarkable staff from the museum have provided me and our team at the Rail—just to name a few: Diana Tuite, Megan Carey, Lorraine DeLaney, Julianne Gilland, and Stew Henderson; along with those at the Lunder Institute including: Lee Glazer, the Director, Daisy Bousquet-Desrosiers, Director of Programs, Jessamine Batario, the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, and Mareisa Weil, administrative coordinator, as well as the three editors: Denise Bruesewitz, Kerill O’Neill, and Christopher Walker who worked tirelessly with their colleagues and students to produce this luminous issue of the River Rail.
Lastly, John Keats’s timeless remark on negative capability, “that is, when [an individual] is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” which refers to our ability as human beings to transcend, think, and act above and beyond ways that we’re conditioned to otherwise, has inspired us to bring our communities of all disciplines, types, stripes of colors, and from all walks of life as an international exertion to restore a love of culture and our environment. We must march forward together to ensure none are excluded or feel condescended to by writing of high intelligence, which at times can be as obscure and inaccessible. The discoveries of science and creation of works of art depend on the terrific brevity of our ability to communicate with one another and among ourselves in both small and large degrees here, and there, and everywhere.
In solidarity, onward and upward,
Phong Bui & the Rail