Exploring the Great Migration: Axis V installation at PS1 brings past into present

Axis V // Bleue Liverpool

Public Space One — through Nov. 28, gallery hours Friday 3-6 p.m., Saturday 12-3 p.m., Sunday 2:30-4:30 p.m. or by appointment

Bleue Liverpool’s Axis V site installation at Public Space One/Center for Afrofuturist Studies. — Malcolm MacDougall/Little Village

Axis V, on display at Public Space One‘s 229 N Gilbert St location, is a site-specific multimedia work by current Center for Afrofuturist Studies resident Bleue Liverpool, a New York-based interdisciplinary artist. The piece, according to copy provided, “conceptually transfigures the infrastructure of the gallery into a navigational axis line … travers[ing] both intimate geography and the subsequent identities within an identity forged” by the Great Migration, when many African Americans moved north over the course of the early to mid-20th century.

Liverpool does this through the fictional narrative of Vesta, a woman who leaves Carroll Parish, Louisiana and makes her way to Iowa City, where she works for a widower and daughter at 231 N Gilbert St. The gallery becomes an axis between past and present, providing access to an experience that many African American women had in some iteration, while also laying bare the fragmented nature both of African American history and of memory itself.

The show consists of two projections and one sculpture. In the west gallery, Vesta appears in many guises, in black and white negative, positive and color film. In negative, she is an indeterminate figure in the early-20th century, cleaning a floor and slicing watermelon. In positive, she appears in a modern white uniform dress. In other moments Liverpool dances. In color, feet step on the watermelon slices; the artist and/as Vesta stand on train tracks.

The ambient sounds of a broom sweeping and a train whistle further bring us into Vesta’s world. In another moment, Liverpool stares at the viewer and points her finger, implicating the viewer in Vesta’s experience in the North, where people look at her suspiciously while still wanting her domestic labor. Her fictional history helps us to understand that it is in the fragments that we must look for lost narratives and ordinary lives now forgotten.

Bleue Liverpool’s Axis V site installation at Public Space One/Center for Afrofuturist Studies. — Malcolm MacDougall/Little Village
Bleue Liverpool’s Axis V site installation at Public Space One/Center for Afrofuturist Studies. — Malcolm MacDougall/Little Village

The sounds of the video were still audible as I stepped into the east gallery. There is a moment in the video where Vesta picks up concrete pieces, as if trying to put them together or make sense of them, and in the east gallery we see these same pieces laying on a platform with a railroad spike. This movement between galleries is a moment of realization that best conveys the emotional fragmentation of Vesta’s experience and evidence of her existence, as created by Liverpool, physically bringing the past into the present.

The east gallery projection is an animated a map. The Mississippi River runs through the middle, and lines emanate from the riverbank and show streets. Look again and the map undraws, then redraws itself. Quotes from or about Vesta are found in various corners of the map, describing her reasons for coming North, and then her impressions of it, as if pulled from historical documents or oral history transcript. Liverpool powerfully reminds us that no amount of interpretation can bring us to a complete body of knowledge about the past and its relation to the present, or its implications for the future.

Bleue Liverpool’s Axis V site installation at Public Space One/Center for Afrofuturist Studies. — Malcolm MacDougall/Little Village

The force of Axis V is in its ability to create an atmosphere in which the world shrinks and time repeats, turns in on itself and moves between the past and present. Past, present, memory and fiction come together reveal a truth in the experience of American history. As a viewer, it also reminds us that historical evidence is always fragmented, the truth reliant on both recovery of information and on reinterpretation, as seen by the artist’s intervention.

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