An excavation into Beverly Buchanan’s Marsh Ruins
Jordan Gonzales / University of Southern California, Roski School of Art and Design / CRIT 510: History and Theory of Art and Exhibitions / Fall 2019
Upon beginning the task of writing this paper, I recalled for the first time in a handful of years (if not almost a decade) that I fervently collected rocks as a child. In some cases, I sought out rocks as commemorative tokens from the places through which I passed. Otherwise, I simply encountered small rocks that caught my eye throughout my everyday meanderings. I constantly (re)examined their forms and materiality, trying to find consistencies in hopes of unearthing and reinforcing some connection between the myriad and disparate places in which I had found them. Writing this essay has elucidated the connection between my almost compulsive desire to capture and understand geological features, and my longing to form a cogent sense of place for myself as a child who was from nowhere in particular. I find myself drawn to the work of Beverly Buchanan because it inspires that same curiosity and longing for place rooted in the evocation of time and memory by the resilient yet ever-changing material of stone.
This essay concerns Beverly Buchanan’s Georgia concrete ruins as they are constructed interventions into more or less natural landscapes (although the sites of many of her Georgia ruins have been shaped over time by human settlement and development both preceding and following the construction of her ruins). The goal of this exploration is not to preserve Buchanan’s ruins as they exist(ed) in any particular time, but to understand the power of her ruins in responding to place and activating sites of cultural memory through their ongoing performativity and ruination.
Beverly Buchanan hardly worked in obscurity following her decision to become a full-time artist. One glance at her curriculum vitae enumerates dozens of solo shows, group shows, and mentions in a variety of publications (and these are just selected lists).[i] However, these mentions are often just that – there is little literature devoted entirely to excavating the meanings, methodologies, and contexts of her works, with a few notable exceptions.[ii] Even so, in her career as an artist, Buchanan was recognized by several institutions, receiving the Guggenheim Fellowship and the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in sculpture (twice). It is the former award that enabled Buchanan to construct her Marsh Ruins (Fig. 1). These sculptures are the primary concern of this essay and the artwork through which I will attempt to excavate Buchanan’s methods of (re)creating place and activating sites of cultural memory.
Figure 1: Beverly Buchanan, Marsh Ruins, concrete and tabby, 1981. (Marshes of Glynn, Brunswick, GA). (Reproduced from Andy Campbell, “”We’re going to see blood on them next”: Beverly Buchanan’s Georgia Ruins and Black Negativity”, 2016). © Beverly Buchanan.
“… landscape provides a metaphor that is an expressive, evocative device transmitting memory, morality, and emotion.” – Setha M. Low [iii]
A brief digression into the formation and perception of landscapes is useful in contextualizing Buchanan’s body of work. Art critic, writer, curator, and activist Lucy Lippard, who incorporates Buchanan into many of her publications, asserts that art can be conceived as an “expression of that moment of tension when human intervention in, or collaboration with, nature is recognized.”[iv] Perhaps this is the crux of what distinguishes Buchanan’s ruins from those ruins whose previous iterative structures were born out of utility or even of religion and ceremony, as is the case with henges. In part, the incredible recollective and emotive power of her ruins comes from the process of encountering them, and the tension that arises from intuiting the humanness of these structures and their intervention into and collaboration with the landscape. As Lippard points out, landscapes serve as the “geographical component of the psychological need to belong somewhere.”[v] Inherent to the conceptions of landscapes are sociocultural assignations of meaning, which fundamentally characterize landscapes. Landscapes are not merely topological and geographical but are wrapped up in our perceptions of place as it pertains to our notions of who inhabited these landscapes across time. One merely has to survey the proliferation of landscape paintings in the nineteenth century, that coincided with Manifest Destiny and westward expansion, to get an idea of the extent to which landscapes are ideologically loaded, especially as they appear in and interact with art objects.
“…space combined with memory defines place.”- Lucy Lippard [vi]
From early on in her career as an artist, Buchanan was preoccupied with markers and makers of place. In the context of her body of work, as well as for the sake of this essay, it is helpful to think of place similarly to landscape, in that place is distinguished from mere space – the formation of place necessitates sociocultural and ideological associations. Our sense of place, again as the intersection between geography and the psychological desire to belong, disintegrates when we cannot know about a place’s peoples and histories which distinguish it from other places. To be sure, our understanding of place is largely elucidated not from the discursive renderings of hegemonic narratives, but rather we understand place through formations of and encounters with embodied space.
When bodies engage with space, as both objects and subjects, those spaces can take on human experience and consciousness into their material and spatial form. Embodied space can be framed as a “model for understanding the creation of place through spatial orientation, movement, and language.”[vii] Naturally, embodied space relies on an understanding of bodies (again both as objects and subjects) as not only a personal locus for experiencing the world, but also as socially embedded and constructed, moving through the world constantly engaged with social structures. It is these experiences as individual bodies and the body politic that we come to shape space as it relates to, responds to, and embeds human experience within it. Often it is through the creation and experience of embodied space that we come to mark and understand place. To illustrate, I will use the example of discriminatory housing practices based on race (i.e., redlining) and the role of these practices in creating embodied space.
Redlining is the practice of denying services, in this case mortgages, to residents of neighborhoods deemed to be a poor financial risk. These neighborhoods were highly racialized and these practices inordinately restricted the economic and social growth of African Americans. Combined with judicial codes and structures meant to further restrict the lives of African Americans because of their race, the effects of redlining can still be experienced in these neighborhoods (very often lower income, inner-city neighborhoods). Enormous wealth gaps between black and white Americans, overall poorer health and living conditions, and higher rates of policing and incarceration are among just a few of the ways black bodies and the places they constituted have inscribed themselves onto and into one another.
The effects of redlining are so engrained into place and bodies, that even in the present bodies are subjected to the injurious spatial configurations of the places targeted by redlining practices. Cartographer Reaghan Murphy visualizes this embodied legacy by overlaying a map of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation’s High Injury Network with a map detailing redlined Los Angeles neighborhoods from 1939 (Fig 2). This visualization makes apparent the reciprocal shaping relationship between social structure, space, and bodies that is encapsulated in the model of embodied space and as redlining practices exemplify embodied space. Yet even in the present, some would deny the racialized nature of redlining, and through language seek to negate both the lived experiences and physical remnants of redlining on African American bodies. Understanding how spaces may become imbued with the experiences and consciousness of bodies (once again, as both objects and subjects) is paramount to understanding Buchanan’s body of work.
Figure 2: Reaghan Murphy, 1939 Los Angles redlining map & High Injury Network, QGIS, 2019. Image courtesy of Reaghan Murphy.
“My work is about response and memory. It is a process of creating objects that relate to the physical world through perception rather than reproduction.” – Beverly Buchanan[viii]
While Buchanan’s more widely known shack sculptures and images respond to embodied spaces in the American South through her rendering of places and homes, her earthworks and ruins both respond to and create place through a process of excavating how embodied space came to be. This is done by recalling the people who inhabited Southern spaces at the margins, as othered objects, and who, through the formation of embodied space, transformed space into place, and themselves from objects to subjects. Although her shack works rarely feature any images or representations of bodies, the homes she creates in her artwork, whether real or imagined, recall the bodies that would have inhabited them. There is an incredible subjectivity in these works that elicits an overwhelming emotional response. In an interview with Marcia Yerman, Buchanan recounts her interaction with a pharmacist who told Buchanan that he went back to Oklahoma to see a house he grew up in that he recalled when looking at one of Buchanan’s shack sculpture.[ix] Home is a particularly emotionally loaded and personal place – it is a site of great subjectivity. The shack works often recall no one’s home in particular or the home of someone who we will never actually know.
From her shack works, we can begin to understand how Buchanan’s Marsh Ruins both respond to and create embodied spaces through activating sites of cultural memory. Buchanan’s ruins do not commemorate, memorialize, or monumentalize. Marsh Ruins neither creates nor reiterates any historical narrative or moment in time. These ruins serve as a marker of place, where “…the marker offers a small-scale, subtler, and potentially subversive way of recalling the history of a place.”[x] Marsh Ruins responds to the racialized history of the Marshes of Glynn, their form evoking the ominous ceremony of a henge, or the anonymity of an unmarked grave. While to the passerby on the adjacent road, the ruins might appear to be natural geological formations slowly disintegrating into the marsh, their very purposeful constructedness is evident when one takes the time to engage with the sculptures. As the tabby superstructure cracks and deteriorates exposing the concrete form underneath, new structures and formations are created, although these too will fall apart into new forms (Fig. 3 & 4).
Figures 3 & 4: Beverly Buchanan, Marsh Ruins today, concrete and tabby, 1981. (Marshes of Glynn, Brunswick, GA). (Reproduced from Andy Campbell, “”We’re going to see blood on them next”: Beverly Buchanan’s Georgie Ruins and Black Negativity”, 2016). © Beverly Buchanan.
Marsh Ruins responds to and is embedded within the memory of the racialized marshes and the rural South as both a place and an idea most evidently through its materiality. Buchanan constructed Marsh Ruins by pouring a concrete base and covering it with tabby, which she then stained with a brownish patina (Fig 5). Tabby is made through an arduous process of crushing and burning shells to extract lime particles, which are then mixed with sand and water. It is associated in the South with the construction of plantations, as the shells were abundant, found in middens left by local indigenous groups, and the use of slave labor to mix the tabby was free.[xi] The histories, narratives, and memories of both slaves and indigenous peoples in the rural South and the Marshes of Glynn are largely forgotten within the hegemony of history. Where they are included, they are warped, reductive, seen through the gaze of colonialism, imperialism, the slave and plantation owners. To create a monument would subject the memory of these colonized peoples to being “formed, defined, and reproduced in accordance with the requirements” of the hegemonic modes of history and memorialization.[xiii] Buchanan employs subversive modes of marking place, so as not to mark the peoples whose memory is embedded in that place.
Figure 5: Beverly Buchanan, installing and staining Marsh Ruins, concrete and tabby, 1981. (Marshes of Glynn, Brunswick, GA). (Reproduced from Andy Campbell, “”We’re going to see blood on them next”: Beverly Buchanan’s Georgie Ruins and Black Negativity”, 2016). © Beverly Buchanan.
Language acts as a mark on embodied persons, marking their difference and their otherness.[xiv] Buchanan does not employ any formalized language in her works, but rather departs from language as a means to subvert the objectification of the ‘others’ evoked by her works and endowing those peoples with their own subjectivity. Instead of reiterating or restating narratives, Buchanan excavates histories and memories of those objectified and othered in these Southern landscapes. However, rather than positioning them in dialogue with hegemony, she situates these histories and memories physically through her sculptural works, where they do not remain static or certain. History and memory are evoked, but nostalgia as it is used to make the past finite breaks down.
Through positioning Marsh Ruins outside of hegemonic modes of creating memory in the rural South and the nostalgia commanded by those modes, the past becomes not a thing left behind, but a part of the present and the future as the past is recalled but not restated.
The power sustained in hegemonic, static conceptions and perceptions of place, and subsequently, the people who inhabited and/or formed that place, are subverted and called into question in Buchanan’s ruins through their performative nature.
“…but ruins, as they are apprehended, actually belong to that neglected and fugitive tense: the present. – Andy Campbell [xv]
The construction and performance of memory in Buchanan’s Marsh Ruins are easier to understand by taking a brief consideration of the life and work of Ana Mendieta. The connection I draw here is by no means convenient or arbitrary – although Buchanan and Mendieta come from different backgrounds and personal histories, their earth works are similar in their performativity, methodology, and materiality. Both artists deal with the problematics of memory and remembrance, both as it pertains to individuals and collectively. Additionally, both artists were aware of the other’s works. In 1980, a year before Buchanan completed Marsh Ruins, Mendieta included three of Buchanan’s frustule sculptures in her show Dialectics of Isolation at the A.I.R Gallery in New York. The unearthing of memory in the work of Ana Mendieta has become even more potent following her untimely death, as people attempt to keep her memory and her importance in the art world potent.
In response to the question, “Where is Ana Mendieta?,” Jane Blocker asserts that “remembrance is a process, not a task to be completed; it is carried out through constant repetition and renewal. To be satisfied that Mendieta has been sufficiently memorialized is to admit, finally, that she is gone.”[xvi] It is useful to frame Marsh Ruins in this way – as an act of remembrance, not as an object of monument. The ruins recall the forgotten, or rather the ignored, memories and the iterations of place at the Marshes of Glynn. But the ruins do not monumentalize a single or even a multiplicity of peoples and histories, thereby rendering them static and confined to the past. Through dynamic and gradual deterioration of the ruins, new forms are created, renewing the ruins so that they may not be the same with every new encounter of them. In fact, the formation of new forms that emerge from the ongoing process of ruination was of particular interest to Buchanan when she first began to formally engage and experiment with the ruins of urban spaces. In her artist statement for her 1978 show at the Truman Gallery in New York, she wrote:
“My interest in walls involves the concept of urban walls when they are in various stages of decay; walls as part of a landscape. Often, when buildings are in a state of demolition – one or two structural pieces (Frustula) stand out that otherwise, never would have been “created.””[xvii]
Buchanan’s conceptualization of ruination as a mode of creation and how she employs this conceptualization in her Georgia ruins is paramount to understanding the performative nature of her ruins; it is this performativity that imbues the ruins with such emotive and conceptual power.
As both a methodology and an inherent component of a work itself, performativity “goes beyond the idea of performance to consider in greater detail the conditions of identity, the practice of historiography, and the effects of representation.”[xviii] To think of Buchanan’s ruins as performative or engaging in performativity seems counterintuitive, as these concrete forms espouse permanence and stagnation in their materiality. Yet the ruins, from the moment they were documented, are in a constant state of change through their mere existence in and exposure to the landscape and elements in which they are situated. They are constantly undergoing a process of ruination. In a similar manner to how we can conceive of Mendieta’s earth-body works as performative “to the extent that they invoke disappearance,”[xix] Buchanan’s ruins undergo the process of disappearing the moment Buchanan, or anyone for that matter, stops adding to them. To think of Marsh Ruins as “completed” or “finished” undermines their purpose and power all together. From the moment the ruins were documented and abandoned by Buchanan, they have undergone change, subjected to the daily ebb and flow of the tides, altered by the comings and goings of marsh wildlife, and invaded upon by the surrounding fauna (Fig 6). Just as Mendieta’s Rupestrian Sculptures “are destined to live and die with the earth to which they are connected,”[xx] so too are Buchanan’s Marsh Ruins destined to disintegrate into the landscape from which they were conceived.
Figure 6: Beverly Buchanan, Marsh Ruins at high tide and low tide, concrete and tabby, 1981. (Marshes of Glynn, Brunswick, GA). (Reproduced from Andy Campbell, “”We’re going to see blood on them next”: Beverly Buchanan’s Georgie Ruins and Black Negativity”, 2016). © Beverly Buchanan.
By employing performativity and ruination in her works, Buchanan effectively (de)constructs senses of place as they are created through embodied spaces, as well as activates sites of cultural memory. Looking at her works through the lens of performativity and ruination serves as a useful tool by which to excavate the layers of memory and recollection in Buchanan’s works, and the impact of the tensions between nature, place, and memory on the subjectivity of her work. Encountering Buchanan’s Marsh Ruins over time, one might never see the same sculpture twice as the tabby and concrete crack, break, and fall away to create entirely new yet reminiscent formations. If I never have the opportunity or ability to encounter Buchanan’s Marsh Ruins firsthand, my ideological exploration into them will remain valuable, as this exploration constantly prompts recollections of my past in ways that challenge me to confront, be critical of, and understand my longing for place in the present.
Figure 7: Beverly Buchanan, Marsh Ruins, concrete and tabby, 1981. (Marshes of Glynn, Brunswick, GA). Screenshot captured via Google Earth Street View, December 7, 2019. © Beverly Buchanan.
Figure 8: Beverly Buchanan, Marsh Ruins, concrete and tabby, 1981. (Marshes of Glynn, Brunswick, GA). Screenshot captured via Google Earth Street View, December 7, 2019. © Beverly Buchanan.
Figure 9: Beverly Buchanan, Marsh Ruins, concrete and tabby, 1981. (Marshes of Glynn, Brunswick, GA). Screenshot captured via Google Earth Street View, December 7, 2019. © Beverly Buchanan.
Figure 10: Beverly Buchanan, Marsh Ruins, concrete and tabby, 1981. (Marshes of Glynn, Brunswick, GA). Screenshot captured via Google Earth, December 7, 2019. © Beverly Buchanan.
Endnotes and Works Cited
[i] Buchanan, Beverly. Curriculum Vitae. n.d. Accessed December 1, 2019. http://beverlybuchanan.com/wp-content/uploads/beverly_buchanan_resume.pdf
[ii] See McArthur and Burris Staton (2015) and Campbell (2016).
[iii] Low, Setha. “Embodied Space(s): Anthropological theories of body, space, and culture.” Space and culture 6, no. 1 (2003): 9-18, 12.
[iv] Lippard, Lucy. Overlay: Contemporary art and the art of prehistory. New York: The New Press, 1983, 4.
[v] Lippard Lucy. The lure of the local: senses of place in a multicentered society. New York: The New Press, 1997, 7.
[vi] Lippard, The lure of the local, 9.
[vii] Low, “Embodied Space(s)”, 9.
[viii] Buchanan, Curriculum Vitae.
[ix] Buchanan, Beverly. Interview with Marcia G. Yerman, Women In Art, n.d.
[x] Lippard, The lure of the local, 110.
[xi] McArthur, Park, and Jennifer Burris Staton. Beverly Buchanan: 1978-1981. Mexico City: Athénée Press, 2015, 17.
[xiii] Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble, 4.
[xiv] Butler, Gender Trouble, 13.
[xv] Campbell, Andy. “”We’re going to see blood on them next”: Beverly Buchanan’s Georgie Ruins and Black Negativity.” Rhizomes 29, 2016.
[xvi] Blocker, Jane. Where is Ana Mendieta? Identity, performativity, and exile. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999, 3.
[xvii] Buchanan, Beverly. Statement: Wall fragments – series cast in cement. Truman Gallery. New York, 1978.
[xviii] Blocker, Where is Ana Mendieta?, 24.
[xix] Blocker, Where is Ana Mendieta?, 24.
[xx] Blocker, Where is Ana Mendieta?, 18.