Many first-time visitors to Pittsburgh know of its history of steelmaking. A few are familiar with its legacy in jazz. But probably only Postcommodity would blend the two like the art collective is doing for the 2018 Carnegie International.
Postcommodity’s contribution to this huge group show at the Carnegie Museum of Art is titled Through Smoke and Tangled Waters, We Carried Fire Home. It was the first work to be installed for this incarnation of the venerable International, which will host new works by dozens of artists from around the world. It’s also surely the largest.
The materials, according to museum staff, included six cubic yards of crushed, recycled bottle glass; five tons of anthracite stove coal, and three flatbed trucks’ worth of rusting steel collected at the Carrie Blast Furnaces, the National Historic Landmark in Rankin.
Some might call it debris, but these are the ingredients of Postcommodity’s sprawling work in the museum’s iconic Hall of Sculpture. It’s usually a pristine space, with its marble cladding and classical statuary lining the mezzanine and overlooking a big open floor. Through Smoke and Tangled Waters occupies that floor – roughly the size of a tennis court – with a sort of sand painting. And it’s an installation that will be activated in a unique – and musical – way.
The installation was completed in July by Postcommodity’s members – Raven Chacon, Crístobal Martínez and Kade L. Twist – working side-by-side with museum staff. The deep-black lumps of coal were arranged by hand alongside the crushed glass, white as sugar. It was all laid out 2 to 3 inches deep into patterns suggesting Pittsburgh’s landscape, with its rivers, and the mounds of dusty-orange scrap metal, ladders and old tools stacked to resemble hills.
Martínez said it was important to include real artifacts from the Carrie Furnaces, which employed generations of steelworkers.
“There’s a certain spirit of place that’s embedded in these tools because these were handled by workers. And so their memories are embedded, are part of the DNA of these tools,” Martínez said. “And so it’s bringing the spirit of the people into the museum so that we can remember.”
Coal, of course, is crucial in the making of steel; Pittsburgh was once also a center of the glass industry.
Postcommodity is known nationally for large-scale works that make big statements. Its piece titled Repellent Eye consisted of a two-mile-long row of huge, tethered balloons, each with a gigantic eye painted on it. The row of balloons bisected the fence between a town in Arizona and another in Mexico, raising questions about borders and immigration.
“We’re not so much interested in the categories, for example, this town versus that town, but more metaphorically speaking, the river that connects those towns, and that’s sort of where our art is situated,” said Martínez.
All three members of Postcommodity are Native American, and the sand painting derives from those cultural traditions. All three live in California or the American Southwest.
The collective’s approach appealed to Carnegie International curator Ingrid Shaffner, who brought the group to town to make a new work. “They’re an indigenous collective, and their work asks us to consider the world through an indigenous lens," she said.
No one in Postcommodity had previously visited Pittsburgh, so the members began exploring local history. To learn about steel, they connected with Ron Baraff, of Rivers of Steel Heritage Corporation, which oversees the Carrie Furnaces. Their guides on jazz included James Johnson, an ethnomusicologist and head of the Afro-American Music Institute, in Homewood.
“Probably because I’m a spiritual musician and so are they -- they were spiritual people and those spirits probably connected us some type of way,” said Johnson.
Large as it is, Through Smoke and Tangled Waters isn’t just an installation work. It’s also what Kade L. Twist calls “a graphic score for solo jazz performance.”
Four days a week during the six-month exhibit, a local musician will interpret Through Smoke and Tangled Waters as if it were a musical score, and play it solo, on instruments including trombone, saxophone and trumpet. When the music is live, the doors between the Hall of Sculpture and the rest of the museum complex will be opened, to let the score permeate the building.
Johnson is among those helping to recruit the musicians for this task; at press time, none had been announced.
The idea is to celebrate Pittsburgh’s history of jazz and steel, and most especially the struggles of the African Americans who fought to join unions and find work in the mills, even while other African Americans here – Earl “Fatha” Hines, Billy Eckstine, Billy Strayhorn, Errol Garner, Ahmad Jamal, Mary Lou Williams – were helping push the music to new heights. But talk to Postcommodity’s members about Through Smoke and Tangled Waters, and you’ll also hear references to the Underground Railroad, the industrialization of America, the Great Migration of African Americans to the North, and even quilting and topographical maps.
“There’s a spirit in the music that is profoundly linked to this geography, this landscape, and the perception of self and the perception of labor and value and self-determination,” said Twist. “But more specifically the tactics of the black community to overcome everything, all the cards stacked against them, and to do it with class and dignity and power and generosity.”
And it’s the sounds drifting through the museum’s halls and galleries that will make the work complete, said Martínez.
“I think the people who really teach us the meaning of this piece are going to be the jazz musicians themselves,” he said.