Heather Hart in Conversation with Kevin Buist

Heather Hart’s, The Oracle of the Soulmates, 2019.
Bryan Esler Photo

This conversation — which took place t the ArtPrize Hub in Grand Rapids, MI on May 17, 2019 — is part of the Project 1 Catalogue. Edited for length and clarity.

Heather Hart is an inter-disciplinary artist exploring the power in thresholds, questioning dominant narratives, and creating alternatives through viewer activation. Her submerged rooftops, complete with shingles and dormer windows, encourage visitors to climb on top and inside and contemplate regional oral histories, as well as serve as a stage for performance. The Oracle of the Soulmates features twin rooftop sculptures at separate locations.

KB

What are you making for Project 1?

HH

I am making two participatory, roof-shaped sculptures called The Oracle of the Soulmates.

KB

Tell me more about the term oracle. That’s a very ancient term and an ancient idea, obviously. It also refers to oration and storytelling. How does that relate to these sculptures?

HH

You learn about oracles through oral history. It’s passed down from person to person. There’s not a map to an oracle that you can just learn about in class. But there are also people or objects or sites that give you guidance and insight to yourself, to truths.

I WANT PEOPLE TO BE PHYSICALLY ENGAGED AT A DIFFERENT LEVEL AND THEN THINK OF THEIR POSITION IN THE WORLD IN DIFFERENT WAYS.

So the oracle is basically a metaphor for the kind of self-discovery or self-awareness gained through the work.

I want to slow people down and get them to look at things that are around them every day. So I use utilitarian building materials to create these sculptures. It is an everyday object pulled into a different context.

KB

What is the significance of doing two?

HH

Heather Hart, The Oracle of the Soulmates, 2019.
Bryan Esler Photo.

I was thinking about the opportunity of making a diptych of the Oracle rooftops and how context shifts the content of the work. Whenever I make an object in one place, it changes if I put it someplace else. It changes because of the environment, because of the people around it, because of the history and the context of that space that it’s in. I thought it’d be really interesting to have these sisters—these twins—in different parts of the city. It’s a metaphor for these sisters that grew up in the same space. They’re built out of the same materials and have the same form, but they have completely different lives, in a way. It asks the visitor to explore why that happens. The objects being the same in different spaces—one downtown and one at MLK Park—will take on different content.

Every place that I go, I understand a little more about humanity and understand a little bit more about each of the cities that I land in. But the roof has remained the same everywhere I go, with the same form, because it’s a metaphor for me. Whether it belongs or doesn’t belong depends on the dynamics in those spaces. So the process of having conversations with people and seeing who’s inspired to activate it, about digging into local archives or researching histories and finding what the intersection is between my narrative and the space is super important for me. That is why I leave the interactive heart of each of the Oracles to the end of the process because I really want to have that be influenced by my own experience. Whether consciously or subconsciously, I’ve grown into a practice that requires a lot of people, a lot of hands, and a lot of communication. It’s all a process and it’s all communication and it’s all that big question mark that I think makes a studio practice really exciting.

KB

So what draws you to making participatory work?

HH

When I was an undergrad and trying to find my language in sculpture, I was really frustrated at how dismissive viewers could be to things like painting. They would view something and think they understood it right away and moved on right away. And so I was enticed to make something that demanded more of them, asked them to be more responsible in the viewing process.

KB

So The Oracle of the Soulmates will host performances and other activities on these rooftops. How do you determine when to cede control to the creative activity of others and when do you feel the need to kind of hem in what is happening in that space?

HH

I have my own initial concept of it being site-specific in my intersection in that site. But then the visitors come and activate it and bring their own concepts. I like to have conversations in the beginning and talk with people.

I want the rooftop to host activations that don’t just treat it like a stage. I want the rooftop to be a player in the activation. So if it’s a dance performance then perhaps they don’t just use the top surface but maybe they go underneath or around or maybe the concepts involve this rooftop in some way. If it’s a violinist maybe they pick a part of the roof that’s really precarious or inspiring to them or maybe they walk in different places, or maybe they have a performance in different corners of the roof or underneath. Maybe the audience sits on the roof and the performers in the grass. The site-specific heart of the Oracle, that exists underneath each roof, will also inspire the concept of both and therefore the activation themes.

Lady Ace Boogie performing on Heather Hart’s The Oracle of the Soulmates for opening day of Project 1: Crossed Lines. September 7, 2019.
Bryan Esler Photo.

KB

You’ve spoken in the past about your rooftop sculptures, and the performances they host, as “claiming space.” Tell me more about that.

HH

The idea of claiming space comes up a lot for me. I think about that space of power that happens at thresholds. The roof is an in-between space, literally between the inside and outside, between public and private. If someone climbs onto one of those, they’re claiming that space, with a perspective shift on the world. And what, prospectively, would be happening at its twin rooftop, at the same time in this different context?

You know, as American Black people, we are kind of bequeathed the trauma that began when people were stolen from their homes and brought to this country. There was no space of our own to claim. The only territory that we were able to keep with us through generations was psychological space: oral histories and oral tradition. I’m thinking a lot about the audacity of claiming space. That’s not something we’re traditionally taught as Black people, to audaciously claim space, to think in terms of large-scale sculpture and mark your territory and shout your power from that space.

I think about the white male sculpture in that kind of audacity too and how few Black sculptors are making monumental works. You know, when I’m giving a lecture there’s inevitable a student or somebody who asks me if I made every-thing myself. I answer that by asking them if they would have the same question for someone like Richard Serra or Mark di Suvero, and why? The expectation and the power that comes in such monumental form of art is something I want to tease out.

KB

You talked about claiming space and thinking about this idea of Blackness. How do you think about those ideas in relation to architecture and the built environment?

HH

Architecture has such a huge impact on how we move through space, how a city is built, and it impacts equity and access. In my practice, I think about how people move through the architecture that I build in relation to one another, in relation to someone who’s not accessing it, in relation to the ground or the sky. They have free rein in that space and time to be the author of the narrative themselves. Thoughts about Blackness and architecture and power are swirling through my head a lot. I think about my great grandfather, who moved north ten years before the Great Migration and built his own house. I think about how that kind of skill really didn’t get passed down through the generations. My dad learned from his friends how to build when he was younger and I learned from him. Carpentry is an oral history. So I think about these oral traditions. I learn something and it transforms every time I build things because I build with different teams and they have their own oral histories. Names for things change, concepts and efficiency changes, access to materials change. It’s interesting thinking about how I am in all of these different spaces: as a woman, as a biracial Black woman, and how am I claiming my space through the process.

KB

Is the idea of home something you think much about with these works? The size and structure of these roofs call to mind single-family homes. Is that something you’re thinking about?

HH

Absolutely. The roof literally was inspired by the home I grew up in and also the house that my great-grandfather built. The Oracles are the size of a house. I like to have people bring their frames of reference. I’m thinking about housing and the stability of having a home in today’s economy and society. It’s obviously referring to a home just in the form, but it’s also an attic that is disjointed from the actual home. The attic is where you keep your things that you want to keep secret, the things that you want to throw away but not really yet. It’s the things that horror movies are made of. Attics are where slaves were hidden by Quakers and people on the Underground Railroad. It’s a threshold space, where people are about to have power in their lives or hold memories where they used to have power in their lives. I think about the idea of these small details with this big monument, all centering on home. Whether we’re thinking about thresholds or home or oral histories or building or access and equity, they’re all existing side by side. ■