Megan and Murray McMillan, When We Didn’t Touch the Ground, photograph, 2012
As we make our way through the shifts and changes during the COVID-19 crisis, art and poetry provide solace and alternative perspectives. They give us both room to see ourselves now and to imagine possible futures.
Our current exhibition, Some Things We Can Do Together: Megan and Murray McMillan, presents over a decade of collaborative work by the McMillans. The works tell stories with images, stories you are invited to imagine as you experience the work. In fact, artist Megan McMillan started as a writer. She says, ”I went to school originally in creative writing and got a degree in rhetoric, creative nonfiction, and poetry. So that was really where I was coming from. I wanted very much for the work that I was making before to be able to move forward into this different realm, this visual realm.”
Megan and Murray have known each other since they were kids, and started collaborating in 2002. Early on they thought of their works as tone poems. The works are “very short, we’re focusing on mood, we’re focusing on metaphor, we’re focusing not so much on character. We’re really thinking a lot about atmosphere, and we’re thinking a lot about how objects relate to other objects, what people are doing in spaces.” Like tone poems which use music to evoke mood and inspire listeners to imagine certain scenes, the McMillans’ works are narratives without words that share a strong relationship to the metaphors and images distilled within poetry; they give us space to enter the work on our own terms.
J.R. Uretsky, who curated Some Things We Can Do Together: Megan and Murray McMillan at the New Bedford Art Museum in 2019 notes that a poem, as described by Claudia Rankine in her 2004 book Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, “is both an extension of self as well as an exchange. A poem is active; the poet extends fragments of herself to be received by a reader. The reader then adds their own experience to the poet’s, and the original poem becomes something else entirely. Like Rankine’s poem, each of the McMillans’ videos offers an extension of self as well as several opportunities for exchange between viewers.”
“We were really interested in moving away from the text but letting the visuals work as their own text.” says Megan. “So that became kind of a guiding principle for us as we were thinking about these [works]. It also helped give credence to the short form, because we thought we don’t have to make a full length feature film, we’re not writing a novel. This is what we’re doing. We’re thinking about this in these very specific, concrete, even haiku-esque videos.”
Q: What poetry is on your bookshelf these days?
J.R. Uretsky, Curator New Bedford Art Museum/ArtWorks!: In addition to Rankine, Sylvia Plath, Wendell Berry, Audre Lorde, Anne Carson, Eileen Myles, Mary Kim Arnold, and Sandra Cisneros occupy my shelves and my thoughts these days, as does What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump which at this point feels like necessary reading. Wild Geese by Mary Oliver is one of the most important works of American art and basically nursed me through my 20s. I find myself returning to it now, as a source of comfort in this crisis.
Julie Poitras Santos, Director of Exhibitions, ICA at MECA: I’m reading Deaf Republic, by Ilya Kaminsky. It’s a series of poems that operate as a parable for our times. The narrative unfolds in relation to an act of violence and an act of protest, of refusal; the citizens coordinate their dissent through an invented sign language, which is illustrated throughout the book. I’m also really enjoying reading Arthur Sze’s new book, Sight Lines, and catching up with Tracy K. Smith’s 2011 work, Life On Mars, both poets alternate an intimate focus with expansive vision.