Greg Staats for at least one day, you should continue to breathe clearly

Todmorden Mills ⁠ accessible_forward
67 Pottery Rd
Jun 11–Oct 18,  2021
    Greg Staats, transformation, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

Six Nations Hodinǫhsǫ:ni, Toronto-based artist Greg Staats was commissioned by CONTACT to create a site-specific public installation at Todmorden Mills. Transforming the building with photographic imagery and pictographic representations creates a dialogue between Todmorden Mills and the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, and conveys a photographic narrative of renewal derived from the Mohawk condolence ceremony.

European settlers asserted their presence in Canada through naming places—such as Todmorden Mills—after their homelands. Staats reasserts First Nations’ presence on this site in an act of reconciliation, though it arrives and derives from a double displacement. First came the original displacement of the Hodinǫhsǫ:ni from the Mohawk Valley in upper New York state to the Grand River; then came a forced displacement from which many of the other colonial disinheritances derive—of the deprivation of language, culture, and governance. Staats’ restorative aesthetic redresses these losses. He utilizes a mnemonic of place (Six Nations of the Grand River Territory) and the knowledge that resides in the Mohawk language and the Great Law of Peace to shape a narrative of transformation and renewal that circulates us around Todmorden’s restored paper mill.

First, Staats links the histories of Six Nations and Todmorden Mills through the remembrance of the 1900 paper mill fire brought back by an image of an on-reserve burnt building. The stark question (superim)posed here is how to move on from trauma that is both cultural and personal. There is a path we take up, following Staats through the embodied landscape of Six Nations, though what we find in our wanderings may be scattered, like the strewn branches and roots depicted in white roots of peace (2020). (The White Pine is the sacred tree the Peacemaker chose five centuries ago as a symbol of the newly formed Five Nations Confederacy.) Unfortunately, the path is broken. Staats has created his art out of a dilemma he shares with other Indigenous people—of the restoration of a relation to culture and tradition shattered by colonial customs. The pictographs from a Cayuga Condolence cane used by the lead orator as a mnemonic aid in the Condolence ceremony might represent, in their current context, this broken transmission, but this was possible even in the distant past: “Excuse errors of sequence, omission as anciently performed when all words were together” one pictograph calls forth. So there is hope today that fragments of a culture can be meaningfully strung together in a truly restorative aesthetic that also elevates the mind.

Staats looks to the Hodinǫhsǫ:ni Condolence ceremony for resources to raise himself up to a clear state of mind so that “for at least one day, you should continue to breathe clearly,” as the Ceremony intends. This is achieved through the artist’s unique methodology: “My Hodinöhsö:ni restorative aesthetic employs a continuum of reflective mnemonics that hold body and place, including: oral transmission, wampum, pictorial, photographic, and electronic energies of video signals,” he says. “The original Hodinöhsö:ni philosophy of a reciprocal responsibility to knowledge, which passes on values and worldview to the coming faces, influences my research and image-making process from opacity to transparency of memory of an on-reserve lived experience, which includes a compulsion to share this visual knowledge. A parallel methodology includes the conscious absorption of Indigenous methods of acquiring and retaining knowledge, that of: observing, reflecting, visiting, participating, witnessing, dreams, and image-making. So with this in mind, I move forward, (re)learning and conceptualizing the images I have intuitively gathered while making connections between personal and historical trauma, ceremonial orality, language, and place making. The accumulative effect, of repetition and subsequent presentation of images in groups, briefly countervails the dissociation of the good mind. Then, as long before, these are embodied within a specific place and state of mind as future recall toward renewal.”

It is as if Staats follows the example of Ayenwatha, the ancient founder of the Condolence ceremony, who in the attempt to raise himself from debilitating grief condoled himself and in the process invented the first wampum. Ayenwatha strung together sections of a cored sumac branch on a sinew cord as if “words” he struggled to make sense of. Likewise, Staats works out a “language” from fragments of the continuum of his cultural inheritance and through this process of remembering links various pictorial elements into a transformative narrative. Yet, as the Peacemaker aided Ayenwatha in his grief, reciprocity takes two sides. Perhaps this is why Staats has “hung” a dark string notification wampum on top of the building. It announces a trauma (originally the death of a chief or common member of society) that still needs condoling. And because reconciliation is multi-dimensional, the installation ends, but does not come full circle, with a hand-drawn map of Six Nations (derived from Staats’ family archive), the locale of his gathered material, but also a reminder that conciliation is a nation-to-nation affair.

Further reading:

Sheila Staats, “Cultural Remembrance,” in Greg Staats: Reciprocity (Kitchener: Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, 2007)

Richard W. Hill Sr., “The Restorative Aesthetic of Greg Staats,” in Greg Staats: Condolence (Corner Brook: Grenfell Campus Art Gallery, 2011).

Curated by Philip Monk

Supported through Toronto Arts Council Strategic Funding

Installation Views

    Greg Staats, for at least one day, you should continue to breathe clearly, installation at Todmorden Mills Heritage Site, Toronto 2021. Courtesy of the artist and CONTACT. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid
    Greg Staats, for at least one day, you should continue to breathe clearly, installation at Todmorden Mills Heritage Site, Toronto 2021. Courtesy of the artist and CONTACT. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid
    Greg Staats, for at least one day, you should continue to breathe clearly, installation at Todmorden Mills Heritage Site, Toronto 2021. Courtesy of the artist and CONTACT. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid
    Greg Staats, for at least one day, you should continue to breathe clearly, installation at Todmorden Mills Heritage Site, Toronto 2021. Courtesy of the artist and CONTACT. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid
    Greg Staats, for at least one day, you should continue to breathe clearly, installation at Todmorden Mills Heritage Site, Toronto 2021. Courtesy of the artist and CONTACT. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid
    Greg Staats, for at least one day, you should continue to breathe clearly, installation at Todmorden Mills Heritage Site, Toronto 2021. Courtesy of the artist and CONTACT. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid
    Greg Staats, for at least one day, you should continue to breathe clearly, installation at Todmorden Mills Heritage Site, Toronto 2021. Courtesy of the artist and CONTACT. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid
    Greg Staats, for at least one day, you should continue to breathe clearly, installation at Todmorden Mills Heritage Site, Toronto 2021. Courtesy of the artist and CONTACT. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid
    Greg Staats, for at least one day, you should continue to breathe clearly, installation at Todmorden Mills Heritage Site, Toronto 2021. Courtesy of the artist and CONTACT. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid
    Greg Staats, for at least one day, you should continue to breathe clearly, installation at Todmorden Mills Heritage Site, Toronto 2021. Courtesy of the artist and CONTACT. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid
    Greg Staats, for at least one day, you should continue to breathe clearly, installation at Todmorden Mills Heritage Site, Toronto 2021. Courtesy of the artist and CONTACT. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid
    Greg Staats, for at least one day, you should continue to breathe clearly, installation at Todmorden Mills Heritage Site, Toronto 2021. Courtesy of the artist and CONTACT. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid
    Greg Staats, for at least one day, you should continue to breathe clearly, installation at Todmorden Mills Heritage Site, Toronto 2021. Courtesy of the artist and CONTACT. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid
    Greg Staats, for at least one day, you should continue to breathe clearly, installation at Todmorden Mills Heritage Site, Toronto 2021. Courtesy of the artist and CONTACT. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid
    Greg Staats, for at least one day, you should continue to breathe clearly, installation at Todmorden Mills Heritage Site, Toronto 2021. Courtesy of the artist and CONTACT. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid
    Greg Staats, for at least one day, you should continue to breathe clearly, installation at Todmorden Mills Heritage Site, Toronto 2021. Courtesy of the artist and CONTACT. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid
    Greg Staats, for at least one day, you should continue to breathe clearly, installation at Todmorden Mills Heritage Site, Toronto 2021. Courtesy of the artist and CONTACT. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid
AUDIO GUIDE

Greg Staats
for at least one day, you should continue to breathe clearly

Greg Staats: This is Greg Staats speaking to you from my home studio just north of the Danforth. Shé:kon skennen’kóh. Greetings, is your mind at great peace? My visual works are based on Mohawk translation as a way to find out where relationships and behaviors come from. for at least one day you should continue to breathe clearly is one of 15 burdens from the requickening address, a portion of the Condolence Ceremony, where reciprocal gestures from the clear-minded side move over to the grieving side. It’s the transformation from grief, at least for one day. Each burden is embodied within different strings of wampum, representing the voice and the intentions of the good mind. The initial image of the burnt building references another transformation, a historic fire here at Todmorden Mills. Evidence of the fire can be seen in the rafters of the theatre. Rafters are also a Hodinöhsö:ni metaphor of inclusion without enclosure, so that with additional rafters added to the longhouse, more nations can come and live under the great law of peace.

Another connection I made is the evidence of photographs documenting the encampment of World War II veterans who suffered from severe PTSD, and made the grounds here their home for a time. The unbalanced mind or depression translates as “your mind has fallen to the ground.” Place, memory, naming, and image-making are all an important part of being Hodinöhsö:ni — people of the longhouse. My process, which I call a restorative aesthetic, comes from my on-reserve lived experience. I find meaning and gathering images from that place. It has named me.

I see my photography as part of a Hodinöhsö:ni continuum of remembering, beginning with the good mind. Oral transmission of ceremony, embodied wampum, the pictoral reminders of the condolence cane, photographics of sacred places. And lastly, the electronic energies of video works. The physical space of Todmorden Mills where I’ve installed these photographic images overlap with events of trauma and renewal, where land, architecture, and images can reunite to bring attention to our own personal stories, traumas, and journeys. Niá:wen, thank you.

Philip Monk: Hello! The installation before you, for at least one day you should continue to breathe clearly, is by Greg Staats, the Tuscarora and Mohawk artist from the Six Nations of the Grand River territory. Staats has lived in Toronto since 1986, not far from this site. Staats has used this opportunity at Todmorden Mills to unsettle settlers with a few reminders. Overlaying the territory of Six Nations of the Grand River on this site, the dramatic image of the remains of a destructive fire links the two places. His purpose, however, is not to remonstrate, or even to demonstrate, he has taken on the performative burden of remembrance. Remembering is no easy task for Indigenous artists, riven as it is by trauma, trauma that is the destructive legacy of colonialism. Memory itself has been interrupted. For Staats, this legacy has meant displacement from his land, language, and culture, each of which he attempts to recover somewhat through his art by means of what he calls a restorative aesthetic. As part of his path to the good mind, Staats’ work, thus, is a process, not a product. It is an art not of authority and resolution, but of difficult steps and uncertain means. Nor does his work have an identifiable look that could be recognized here in his photographs as an Indigenous iconography. And this makes his work all the more remarkable.

Staats intuitively gathers images from Six Nations of the Grand River, and reflects on Indigenous forms of acquiring knowledge, whether of material or spiritual incarnation. His work draws as resources from the Mohawk language, the great law of peace, the original Constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy, and Hodinöhsö:ni ceremonies, in particular, those of renewal and condolence, the latter from where Staats’ exhibition title derives. These resources, however, are not a given. A heritage you’d consult in a library for instance, but must be painfully and perhaps imperfectly reconstructed through the gaps of their broken transmission. Learning is a mnemonic practice relied here, for instance, on wampum and pictographs, ancient entities whose teachings have to be reconstituted. This learning, however, is undertaken with the knowledge that the mnemonic aid itself has become the form of transmission, not its means.

For Indigenous artists like Greg Staats, much difficult work remains to be done. This also means that I cannot presume to tell you the meaning of for at least one day you should continue to be clearly, but merely set you on a path to use what you see circulating around this building complex as wayfinding devices. My name is Philip Monk. I’m a writer, curator, and past director of the Art Gallery of York University. I am proud to say that I’m a friend of Greg Staats.