Three artists lend their contemporary voices to PEM’s exhibition Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle. Bethany Collins does this through her work America: A Hymnal. This special edition artist book unifies 100 versions of the song My Country ‘Tis of Thee to show how words and meanings change over time. As the laser-cut pages of this book are turned, the work is gradually destroyed. A recording of disjointed voices singing a capella accompanies the installation. The piece offers an audible layer to Lawrence’s Struggle series, which depicts black Americans, women and Native Americans in historical moments as they struggle to create a democracy. We spoke with Collins when she visited PEM for the exhibition opening.
Artist Bethany Collins in her installation of America: A Hymnal in Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
Q: Can you describe the work for those who've never seen it or experienced it?
A: I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, in the heart of the deep South, in a Presbyterian church. I made the hymnal thinking about national identity, patriotism and singing of belonging. In my chapel space, which visitors will discover near the beginning of the exhibition, the heart of the chapel is America: A Hymnal. This is a bound hardback version of 100 versions of My Country 'Tis Of Thee, written from the 18th to 20th centuries. Some of these versions support temperance, prohibitionist, suffragettes, abolitionist and even the Confederacy. It's 100 dissenting versions of what it means to be together, or what it means to be American bound together.
Bethany Collins, America: A Hymnal, 2017, book with lasercut leaves. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
The version we all know and most of us sang in school was written in 1831 and was first performed in Boston by a children's choir. The hymnal becomes a version of what it means to be American. All 100 versions are bound together. The musical notes, sometimes in that burning process, they want to hold onto the page itself, but rather they fall apart as more of the hymnal is read. I made America: A Hymnal right after the 2016 presidential election. It gave me the language to say this moment feels familiar and expected, unlike a repetition of the past. That's inherent in Lawrence's series.
Q: What do you see in the Struggle series?
A: There is no one way of thinking what it means to be American, what it means to have struggled for these ideas of democracy, what it means to hold faith in this place that often betrays.
Q: Can you tell us more overall about the role of language in your work?
A: Most of my work concerns identity and history, American history. I found that language becomes a prism for which to interrogate other topics. I started my language-based practice in graduate school. One of the first series I worked on was contranyms, the words that contain their own opposite meanings. Quiddity is still my favorite contranym. Quiddity is the essence of something and a trifling nothing. It is everything and it is nothing at the same time.
I'm interested in the language of others. That's also then what I find interesting in Lawrence's use of the inscriptions on the back, is that the work begins with a really intense research process. But also that he leans into giving voice, and allowing those 30 different voices to not just become the impetus for the work, but to be a part of the work.
Q: What do you see as our No. 1 American struggle today?
A: The struggle of this moment is actually not different than the rest of our history. It's just a continuation. We keep repeating over and over again. We move a little bit forward and then we fall way back into the abyss and we keep doing this again and again. It's like when you live in a place and you don't visit the museums because you think they'll always be there. I had an assumption that the institutions that I valued were stronger than I think they are.
Q: How can perspective and different narrators change our understanding of history?
A: You don't know the story until you've heard all the voices.
Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle is the first museum exhibition of the series of paintings Struggle: From the History of the American People (1954–56) by the best known black American artist of the 20th century, Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000). Reunited for the first time in more than sixty years, the paintings revive Lawrence's way of reimagining American history as shared history and, as he wrote, “depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy.” The exhibition is on view at PEM through April 26, 2020. Share your impressions with us on social media using #AmericanStruggle and #peabodyessex.