Spiderwebs in the Sky: Raven Chacon at Heard Museum

Installation in the Jacobson Gallery, Heard Museum, Phoenix. Photos: Amanda Watkins, Heard Museum.

By Jenna Duncan

Opening this summer, Heard Museum will showcase immersive, experiential works, divergent from what some audiences have come to expect.

Upcoming featured artist, Raven Chacon, is the creator behind the upcoming Still Life No. 3, a sound and light installation that engages guests with an audio storytelling experience while bathing the gallery in rich colors of light.

Born in Fort Defiance, Chinle, on the Navajo Nation, Chacon says he spent most of his growing-up years between Albuquerque and the Grand Canyon State. He has been an active composer and performed with Kronos Quartet for decades.

“I don’t really make songs, they’re compositions or pieces,” Chacon says. “A song has been defined, usually by something that always has a voice or lyric. Also, the form of a piece of music, have a verse of a chorus, might define”

“It’s a broader term than just saying something is a song,” he says. “A composition might have other intentions.”

Chacon’s live performances and compositions often are improvisational. He describes them as something more liberating than a recording. They might only exist only in performance, or as a sound installation.

The exhibit at Heard, Still Life No. 3, tells the Navajo/ Diné story of emergence. It is voiced and the story translated from Navajo to English by Melvatha Chee, a professor of linguistics at University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

“The story goes back and forth between English and Navajo,” Chacon says. “Melvatha and I worked to go back and forth to recite the story in Navajo.”

The installation sprawls across Jacobson Gallery, taking up two floors (ground floor and mezzanine). Overhead, 10 LED light boxes immerse the space in red, blue, yellow and white light, slowly transitioning. Sound is projected from 16 speakers suspended from the ceiling in a half arc. When the experience initiates, Chee’s voice begins from the speaker closest to the floor, and then slowly the other speakers follow or are ignited, in a chain. Curator Erin Joyce describes the experience as something like singing or storytelling “in the round.”

“It allows the story to be told as past, present, and future, all at once, in a sort of non-linear way,” she says.

Meanwhile, the light melts from red to blue, blue to yellow and then to white. The colors selected are meaningful to the Diné story because they represent times of day, but also the worlds of emergence spoken of in the story. Red represents night, blue mid-day, yellow for dusk and finally the white light for dawn.

On the walls of the mezzanine, excerpts of the text are presented on large Plexiglass pieces in Navajo with the accompanying English translations. This way, guests can read along while they listen to the voice of the storyteller.

The melting colors come in a slow transition Joyce explains. “What was exciting for me, as a curator, was seeing people really spend some time in the space,” Joyce says of opening night.

Chacon has previously shown work in the Valley at Arizona State University Ceramics Research museum and at Scottsdale Museum for Contemporary Art. This piece, Still Life No. 3, was previously on view at the University of New Mexico Art Museum (2016) and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in New York City last year.

Before the installation at Heard, Chacon participated in an artist residency at Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts earlier this year (Jan. 28 – Feb. 17), where he was working on some new electronic music.

Chacon is also a former member of the art collective POSTCOMMODITY who has done many visual, two-dimensional, multimedia and sound and video pieces, mostly working in the Southwest. “The largest project we did was a piece called Repellent Fence on Douglas, Agua Prieta, Sonora,” Chacon says. The piece was the largest binational art installation ever created along the U.S./Mexico border. It features 26 enormous balloons, designed to look like the Scare Eye, which is an image of pigeons, known as a nuisance bird. The imposing birds seemed to keep guard, staring down the border in a similar way to the Border Patrol’s drones and other surveillance aircraft.

Joyce recalls a piece Chacon designed about a decade ago called “Drum Grid.” The artist equipped musicians with various percussion instruments and arranged them throughout a neighborhood. The players could not see one another but could hear each other. One drummer started a beat, and by listening, the other players picked it up and carried it until all were playing. Joyce describes the video as something like a game of telephone, but also similar to the act of storytelling. The story could still be the same, but depending on the teller, it always changes or gets adjusted just a little with every iteration.

Still Life No. 3 is part of a series that Chacon has been working on. Each of the Still Life pieces tells a different piece of Navajo/Diné mythology. Chacon says he is also working on other new compositions that incorporate voice, electronics, analog synths, and more percussive instruments.

Raven Chacon, Still Life, #3, 2015 (detail). Sound and light installation with text. Voice and translation by Melvatha Chee. Collection of the artist. Image courtesy of John Kuczala.

Throughout his career, Chacon has exhibited and/or performed at Chaco Culture (National Monument), documenta 14, Ende Tymes Festival, the Kennedy Center, Musée d’art Contemporain de Montréal, REDCAT, San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, Whitney Biennial, and the 18th Biennale of Sydney. He has been awarded the Creative Capital Award in Visual Arts, The Native Arts and Cultures Foundation artist fellowship, United States Artists fellowship in music, and the American Academy’s Berlin Prize for Music Composition.

“Throughout the story of emergence, Navajo people started in different worlds, below the current worlds we are in,” he says. Chacon says he wanted to acknowledge the concept of survivance, which can be viewed differently from the world survival. Survivance, by its construction, seems an amalgam of the words “survival” plus “defiance.” In this way, it is purposeful and intentional action to break down settler colonialism, decolonize minds, and make way for cultural healing.

In addition to his installation work and creating compositions, Chacon stays busy leading the Native American Composers Apprenticeship Project, a program he’s been running for 15 years. Chacon travels throughout the year to various schools around Arizona and instructs high school students within Navajo, Hopi, and Pima communities around Phoenix in composition and the instrumentation of string quartets. Each year these high school students write their own three- or four-minute pieces. The pieces are performed annually at Heard Museum and at the Grand Canyon Music Festival over Labor Day weekend. A professional string quartet is flown in to perform the compositions live.

Raven Chacon’s sound and light installation piece, Still Life No. 3, is currently on view in the Jacobson Gallery at the Heard Museum, 2301 North Central Ave. The exhibition runs through Nov. 3, 2019.