What’s the point in seeing art in person when one can comfortably see a show through high-res photos, videos, and — especially lately — through a slew of livestreams? Not only are the best shows in the world experienced best in person, but in David Jeremiah’s newest art exhibition, Offerings, at The Janette Kennedy Gallery, the audience is the art.
The premise to this interactive solo show requires social engagement. After walking into an atmosphere reminiscent to a catacomb — dark, somber and holy, viewers are confronted with six altars. Each altar corresponds to one of the six people who died in the 2016 shootings in downtown Dallas after Micah Johnson opened fire at police officers during a protest for police brutality. Five police officers died, and Johnson was killed by police at a standoff later that day. Viewers are invited to leave a monetary offering at any of the victims’ altars, and at Johnson's. The money will be delivered to the families of the deceased at the end of show.
“It’s a trap,” Jeremiah says of the concept. “If I go up to these families and say ‘Hey, collectively, as a city, your loss and grief is only worth $1.38 and a Wild Detectives [bookstore] gift card’ That is what it is. Life is cheap.”
Jeremiah says he's resolved to make sure the donations reach the families, regardless of the amount collected.
“Everyone is culpable in this," he says of the low funds he's collected so far. "If no one knows about this show that’s everyone’s fault. The Dallas art culture scene’s fault. The publications’ fault. I can only advocate [for this show] so much. I am only one person.”
Part of the reason the donation tally is low is because some visitor, or visitors, to the show decided that he, she or they were a more worthy recipient of the money.
Since the show’s opening on July 7, between $400 and $500 worth of donations have been stolen. With Offerings open to the public 24/7 and with no cameras, or security around, Jeremiah says he is purposely welcoming chaos.
“I wanted anything that could happen to happen,” he says, posing a hypothetical ethical quandary for consideration. “Let's say, thinking optimistically, someone who is hungry and homeless stole the money. Now we’re dealing with a bigger issue. [Homelessness and hunger] are vying for the attention that it needs from us to be resolved.”
So while the families of the victims might receive very little donations, whoever stole the offerings came out of the gallery a little less stressed about money, Jeremiah says.
“I’m happy someone stole the money,” the artist admits.
The use of people as vital props in art is nothing new; it's a valid and popular conceptual art practice known as “performance art.” The fact that this exhibition is ongoing, all day, every day for months is a subsection called “durational performance art.” Jeremiah has coined a new term: “inverted durational performance art.” It means that he, himself, is not the performer, rather the viewers who step into the gallery to see the show are the performers. Their responses create the art piece.
The deceased whose altars Jeremiah erected are performers as well: Officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, Patricio Zamarripa, as well as the shooter himself, Micah Xavier Johnson.
Jeremiah has heard boundless questions since he opened the exhibition: "How can David Jeremiah use other people’s pain, death and loss as the subject of his artwork?” or “How can David Jeremiah capitalize off Black Lives Matter and George Floyd’s death?”
The simple answer is that artists have used painful-yet-critical moments in history since the beginning of time. One would argue it is the artist’s job to depict, interpret and document historic moments in real time, regardless of the difficulty presented in a subject. From Jeremiah’s perspective, conversations about police brutality didn’t start and will not end with George Floyd, and as a Black man in the United States, this is his story, too.
In this inverted performance, the belief that one’s participation is limited is a source of frustration to some of Jeremiah's critics.
“If you see a ton of money in the cop’s plate and you’re [messed] up about that, take the money and put it in Micah’s plate,” Jeremiah says.
Some visitors may feel second-hand embarrassment thinking about Jeremiah delivering chump change to their families. The artist invites those people to "do something about it."
During the 2017 Whitney Biennial, a group of five or six people stood in front of Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket” blocking it from view for several hours until the museum closed for the day. The painting depicted the mutilated face of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black Mississippi boy brutally attacked and murdered in 1955 by a group of white men.
If a group were so moved by Offerings, they could stand in front of the police officers' altars, or Johnson’s, blocking any of them from receiving donations. The result of the art experiment will vary by the visitors' values; Jeremiah will deliver these results in the name of Dallas. That’s the trap.
Offerings is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at The Janette Kennedy Gallery inside South Side on Lamar (1401 South Lamar St.) and has been extended to the end of September 2020. The altars and offering plates are for sale. For more information, visit southsideonlamar.com.
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