The Underground Railroad Project at Twelve Galleries
by Jeriah Hildwine
Onli's Underground Railroad Project is currently on display at the JULY
Gallery, the eleventh of twelve temporary galleries each with a
lifespan of one month. Not previously familiar with Meg's work, I had
no idea what to expect when I entered the temporary apartment gallery.
One wall was covered with maps, brochures, and handwritten notes; an
explanatory brochure explained that these were artifacts from and
pertaining to a performance piece in which Meg walked 440 miles, from
Rockville, Maryland to Dresen, Ontario. Her walk followed the route of
the Underground Railroad, and is described by Meg as being "in search
of her blackness."
A side room features a slideshow of photographic documentation of the
walk. As both an avid hiker and a history buff, I found the both
documentation and my discussions with the artist very rewarding. Like
any performance piece experienced through documentation, a viewer in
the gallery can only taste a fraction of the real work.
The exhibition was not without its aesthetic component. In the main
room were displayed three 8"x10" inkjet prints of drawings, depicting a
runaway slave, a graveyard haunted by a "mammy" figure, and a monument
to the escaped slaves. A larger print, 33" x 40", was displayed with
its frame leaned into a corner of the room. The drawing was of Meg,
kneeling as in prayer, in a re-creation of a plate from an early
edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The apparently casual installation worked
well with the humility of the pose, and I also learned that the
orientation of the drawing was such that the figure faced north as she
Meg Onli's walk (and its accompanying exhibition) deftly sidestep the
usual limitations of performance and its documentation. The walk itself
is clear evidence that Meg takes her ideas seriously enough to put real
work into them. Coupled with this, she's done her research, and the
inclusion of the drawings shows that, like the best conceptual
performance artists, she hasn't lost touch with the aesthetic.
Twelve Galleries is located (this month) at 2156 West 21st Place. For more information, visit www.twelvegalleries.com