“These are days of confusion and contradiction”, begins the editorial introduction to the September 1917 issue of The Crisis 1, the official magazine of the NAACP. Published a couple of months after the East St. Louis Massacre, the issue provides detailed accounts of the labor- and race-related attacks that left between 40 and 250 African-Americans murdered2 at the hands of white rioters and another 6,000 African-Americans homeless as a result of burning, vandalism and property damage. Founded by writer and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, The Crisis shares the stories and perspectives that are often ignored, overlooked or downplayed by mainstream publications. The publication continues to fill the gaps in our knowledge and refuses to allow histories of violence and oppression to be silenced.
Often citing Du Bois as a source of inspiration, the late artist Terry Adkins permeates his works with a similar sort of resistance. Moving seamlessly between sound and form, Adkins spent much of his career navigating the textures and tones of history; its loud, spontaneous crescendos, as well as its hushed whispers and moments of pause. I went to see a survey of Adkins’ work, titled Terry Adkins: Resounding, at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation upon its reopening this past August, on the tail end of a particularly tumultuous interval of protests and political turmoil in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, and just across the Mississippi River from the site of the brutal violence that took place over a hundred years ago now.
Adkins approaches his sculptural practice the way a jazz musician might. He takes an object and obscures its intended function. He sets a tempo, then deliberately interrupts or transfigures it. Some of the artist’s sculptures are, indeed, musical instruments that have been altered - elongated trumpets, towering drum sets, saxophones bent out of shape – while others are simply teeming with the potential for sound. Industrial, rotting, rusted, and gnarled, Adkins’ works carry a heaviness with them, exuding a harsh quality which becomes amplified within the clean, angular spaces of the Pulitzer.
In Divine Mute, we are confronted by a large, reflective disk with the end of a wind instrument placed in its center. When viewed at different angles, light reflects off of its uneven edges, casting shadows of small spirals that orbit the central vortex. Instead of expelling sound outwards, this instrument beckons us into a deep, dark void. The closer we get, the more it feels like we could climb right in, get swallowed up by its bottomless throat. The work, like much of Adkins’ repertoire, resides in a space of tension, suspended between curiosity and danger, stillness and action, a deep inhale and a powerful exhale.
Muffled Drums consists of eight bass drums carefully placed one on top of the other. The work references the Silent Protest Parade that Du Bois helped to organize in response to the East St. Louis riots. Thousands of protestors took to the streets in New York City, urged along by a muffled drumbeat. This slow and solemn rhythm finds physical form in Muffled Drums, as though with each beat the sculpture were to multiply, a new drum materializing on top of the one before it. The piece feels at once precarious – like it could topple over with a gentle push or a gust of wind – and ascendant, towering over us and lurching our gaze towards the sky. There is strength in mourning, Muffled Drums seems to remind us. Those who took part in the Silent Protest Parade marched in silence not because there was nothing to say, but precisely because what had occurred was unspeakable.
The “rioters combined business and pleasure”, Du Bois describes of the East St. Louis Massacre, “…They stood around in groups, laughing and jeering, while they witnessed the final writhings of the terror and pain cracked wretches who crawled to the streets to die after their flesh had been cooked in their own homes.”3 The symmetry and repetitions that flow throughout Adkins’ work are therefore not only meditative, but they speak to the cyclical nature of history as well; the echoes of hatred and violence that reverberate across generations. I think of the uproar when a Minneapolis police station was burned down during protests over the murder of George Floyd in May. I think of the critique that is often leveled against “rioting” and “looting” in moments of crisis. I think of the St. Louis couple who made headlines back in July for brandishing guns in front of their mega-mansion in the Central West End. Clutching their triggers with crazed eyes, they claimed to be ‘protecting their property’ from Black Lives Matter protestors. Over a century since the East St. Louis riots, each day feels more ‘confusing and contradicting’ than the last, but it’s a different type of silence that we now hear in the streets; the kind that hides behind a pointed gun, that stands by while a colleague chokes a man to death, that chooses not to speak when the utmost decibels of loudness are required.
In the only film in the exhibition, titled Mute, Adkins offers cropped views of blues singer Bessie Smith performing in St. Louis Blues (1929). We cannot hear her voice. Instead, Adkins draws our attention to Smith’s body language; her furrowed brow, eyes slowly opening and closing shut, looking up and away in anguish. “Feeling tomorrow like I feel today,” we can just about read on Smith’s lips, as she wrings her hands, interlaces her fingers and squeezes them tight, before hitting one fist down on the other. The tension builds and then dissolves, on a seemingly endless loop.
Terry Adkins: Resounding presents history as a composition whose decrescendos and refrains are as integral as the moments of action and intensity. Presented within the context of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, not too far from the site of the East St. Louis riots, in the midst of a pandemic and in the wake of months of protests against police brutality and systemic racism, the quiet solitude of the exhibition speaks to the tumult of this moment with an eerie poignance. It compels us to consider how silence can be a form of protest in one instance and a form of complacency or cowardice in another. It all depends on how the instrument is played; who is plucking the strings, whose fingers are on the trigger.