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Heather Hart’s The Western Oracle Open

Heather Hart’s The Western Oracle Open

: Tubaluba plays New Orleans 2nd-line funk on the rooftop of The Western Oracle. Tubaluba, from left to right: Joseph Lahdenpera, Bill Jones, Jason Cressey, Kohen Burrill, Jon Hansen, Josh Wilson, and (not in the shot) vocalist Janet Adams Schwab. Photo by Mark Bocek.

Heather Hart’s The Western Oracle Open

: Tubaluba leads a 2nd-line procession to The Western Oracle. Photo by Mark Bocek.

Heather Hart’s The Western Oracle Open

: Heather Hart (blue dress with camera) follows Tubaluba to The Western Oracle. Photo by Mark Bocek.

Heather Hart’s The Western Oracle Open

: Donal Byrd dances on The Western Oracle, accompanied by Quinton Morris. Photo by Mark Bocek.

Heather Hart’s The Western Oracle Open

: Heather Hart, The Western Oracle, installation, exterior. Photo by Mark Bocek.

Heather Hart’s The Western Oracle Open

: The Western Oracle opening at SAM's Olympic Sculpture Park: Heather Hart (center) with Cornish's Chris Stollery (left) and Atilla Barcha, former professor of furniture design, who helped fabricate the project's drum wall. Photo by Mark Bocek.

Heather Hart’s The Western Oracle Open

: Heather Hart, The Western Oracle, installation, exterior. Photo by Mark Bocek.

Heather Hart’s The Western Oracle Open

: Heather Hart, The Western Oracle, installation, interior, drum wall. Photo by Mark Bocek.

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Back home in Seattle from NYC, alum Heather Hart is on hand to open an installation commissioned by SAM for its sculpture park.

Update The Seattle Art Museum’s Summer Season Opening took place July 11 at the Olympic Sculpture Park.  Heather Hart’s The Western Oracle was at the center of it all. Local, funk-heavy jazz band Tubaluba led a 2nd line procession of the gathered multitude from the SAM Pavilion across the park to the roof top of the sculpture, where they entertained with tunes with a New Orleans vibe. Later, Donald Byrd, artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater, danced on the rooftop accompanied by violinist Quinton Morris.

It is as if the earth on the west slope of the sculpture park had boiled up and swallowed a house all the way past its eaves. Now only the roof and the attic windows remain above ground, enigmatic, seductive, tragic but somehow hopeful. It’s usefulness at an end, the house’s top is now an invitation to climb, explore and soak in the delicious air of sin born of being somewhere your mother told you never to go. Your mom was right of course (when is she not?); climbing to a roof peak would in other circumstances be dangerous. With this piece, however, it is child’s play — and it is a child’s vision it excites in the viewer. It’s hard to feel like a real adult as you tunnel into the house’s attic or clamber up its shingles and stand at its top looking west, out over the shore of Puget Sound where the first people, the Duwamish, once camped to dig for clams.

The work is called The Western Oracle: We Will Tear the Roof Off the Mother, and it is the work of Cornish grad Heather Hart (AR ’98), who now lives and works in Brooklyn. The piece is an installation commissioned by the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) for its Olympic Sculpture Park. It should be noted that it is a temporary installation: when its run is over on October 13, it will be dismantled. The work joins sister installations in the body of Hart’s work, The Eastern Oracle, at the Brooklyn Museum, and The Northern Oracle, at the Franconia Sculpture Park in Minnesota. All the oracles share the subtitle “We Will Tear the Roof Off the Mother.” It is intriguingly unclear what Hart means by “the mother” or why she suggests the roof has been torn off.

Hart is careful with her language. Like all artists, she has to be: language is quick to define, mostly too quick. The very act of defining is meant to put an issue to rest. In Hart’s view, she doesn’t create her work to answer questions but to ask them. Her work is meant to start a conversation, not end one. Hart will admit that the beginning of her artistic exploration is caught up in her being biracial and the questions of identity that stirred in her. She is adamant, however, that being biracial does not define either her or her work. “I don’t want to be boxed in,” says Hart. “My work is about more than that, it’s not didactic.” In other words, she sees the definition trap posed by her admission, and is quick to avoid the kind of simplistic criticism that would spring it and claim to have “solved” the Heather Hart problem.

But it is nevertheless important to understand Hart’s search for her roots as a jumping off point for understanding her oracle series and much of her other work. The search starts close to home with her carpenter father. “As with the legends of an oracle,” she writes, “the method of building the Roof was passed to me by my father. Growing up in Seattle, I want to pay tribute to how important this place is.” The roofs she has built have in fact been communal exercises, the one in Seattle involving family members in its construction.

Hart’s search expands from her family to include all African-American culture. It’s easy to grasp in works like her Build a Brother Workshop and New Numinous Negro. But in terms of understanding The Western Oracle, the nexus of her built environments is the work she produced for her M.F.A. thesis at Rutgers, Uncle Julius’ Porch. The work was essentially a platform filling an entire room in a gallery, high enough off the permanent floor that it allowed viewers to crawl beneath it. Its title refers to an ex-slave character from black, post-Reconstruction author Charles W. Chesnutt and to a derogatory reference to blacks that included the term “porch.” The installation’s material was also a tie to the past: southern pine. Hart’s conception of an oracle is a medium that sees not only the future, as in the traditional sense, but also peers into the past, reviewing things that have already taken place and giving them new meaning. The porch exists both in a material present that yearns for a future and in a psychic past that is in a flux of redefinition.

As with her oracles, visitors to Uncle Julius’ Porch were encouraged to walk on top and explore beneath. For those who were willing to crawl under, Hart fashioned series of tunnels out of blankets, as kids create, with secret areas, almost like altars. Each of her oracle structures, in fact, features such an area. Inside The Western Oracle, surrounding the attic window that looks over the ancient clam beds is a series of panels that act like drums. Two drumsticks are provided for visitors to pound out a rhythm and make a connection to the first people whose hillside this was.

Hart’s work is meant not just to illuminate her experience or even African-American culture as a whole. Inclusion, exchange and participation, which are seen in so many of her pieces, are the final keys to approaching The Western Oracle. In a fine interview in ArtSlant, she says she was “thinking about the community that is critical for a barn-raising.” In other words, the raising of her oracle roofs is meant to throw light on what we do together, it’s about everyone who gathers at the oracle:

“In all my work I play with multiple narratives,” she goes on to say, “and how they converge and fracture, but I always need to keep them open enough to invite the viewers to bring their personal frames of reference to the space.”

SAM’s Olympic Sculpture Park is at 2901 Western Ave, Seattle, above Myrtle Edwards Park.

Time lapse animation of the building of The Western Oracle, from SAM’s site:

Time lapse animation of people enjoying The Eastern Oracle at the Brooklyn Museum:


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