Alan Michelson’s diverse installation work utilizes a variety of media and materials—such as sound, video, and objects—that are usually understated or subtle in form. His site-specific practice is informed by a number of sources including Native cultural traditions and North American colonial legacies that intermingle and affect present-day realities.
His poetic video Shattemuc (2009) retraces the 1609 voyage of explorer Henry Hudson on his namesake river. Shot at night from a moving boat with its searchlight trained onto shore, the work reflects on a violent encounter between Hudson and the Lenape while showing present aspects of the river, drawing attention to problematic outcomes of settlement and industry as represented by environmentally questionable local quarries and power plants. Aspects of the work also reference Hudson River School painting, which tended to romanticize the indigenous American landscape while erasing indigenous people or portraying them in the closed binary of the “noble savage.”
He(a)rd (2005, a play on the words ‘heard’ and ‘herd’) was a sound installation at Compton Verney, an architecturally significant 18th century manor in Warwickshire England converted to a contemporary gallery. In it, Michelson successfully disrupted the formal space of the marble Main Hall with the sound of running buffalo, forcing an acknowledgement of the ties between colonializer and colonized and suggesting that the opulence of one could not exist without the exploitation of the other. While unseen, the buffalo were emphatically not unheard, and reality resonated with the past in a sound once common in North America, and suddenly audible in the empty hall.
Michelson believes in the local in terms of community, identity, and historical detail, and uses context to question notions of imagined American ideals that remain unfulfilled or do not fit with its problematic past. Third Bank of the River (2009), a monumental art glass piece commissioned for the new U.S. Port of Entry in Massena, New York, draws upon both the local St. Lawrence River landscape and the mix of cultural traditions at the complex border, which defines not only the U.S. and Canada, but also Akwesasne Mohawk Territory. Shooting miles of local shoreline at the crossing from a boat, the artist fused the images into an arrangement both documentary and abstract, evoking, in its purple and white design, the historic Two Row Wampum Belt—an early treaty of friendly co-existence and mutual respect between the Haudenosaunee and Europeans.
Michelson was born in 1953 in Buffalo, New York, of a young Mohawk mother who was forced to give him up for adoption. Raised in a non-Native family in Massachusetts, he learned of his Six Nations ancestry while attending art school. This life-changing discovery informs his artistic practice in that he reveals the hidden, whether in the realm of space or time. A major retrospective of his work, Alan Michelson: Revealing the Absent Indian, was shown in 2005 at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in New York. He attended Columbia College, New York and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, obtaining his B.F.A. from Tufts University. He has exhibited nationally and internationally in venues such as the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and Oi Futuro Cultural Center in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His work is in a number of major collections including the Smithsonian Institution and the National Gallery of Canada. Michelson currently teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.