Next month, the town of Gettysburg will honor the 150th anniversary of the eponymous Civil War battle with ten continuous days of ceremonies, programs and reenactments at the opening of the Seminary Ridge Museum. One and a half centuries later, the Civil War remains one of the most poignant periods of American history, perpetuated by honorary events, museums, and a thriving reenactment culture.
Artist Allison Smith has been combing the metaphorical grounds of the Civil War and reenactment culture since receiving her MFA from Yale University in 1999. Smith forges ties between American history, social activism, and craft. “Reenactment culture is a complex arena that is motivated by many things,” she explained, “from researching and teaching the general public about the past, remembering and honoring the past and the fallen dead, contesting and questioning the past, and offering new interpretations based on the contemporary resonance of past events.”
Now a tenured professor and Chair of the Sculpture department at the California College of the Arts, Smith was once an emerging artist living in New York City. In 2004, she began a series of large-scale public art events hinged on the aesthetic vernacular of the American Civil War. The project, called The Muster, took its name from a military term meaning a gathering of troops to critique, exercise, and display. The project culminated with an encampment on Governors Island in 2005. At that event, over 100 enlisted participants created uniforms, built campsites, and publicly vocalized their causes to an audience of over 2,000 spectators. This muster created a metaphorical battleground for the clashing ideologies that shaped the American political landscape at the time.
As in the Civil War, America was sharply divided by the 2004 presidential election. States were steadfastly red or blue. In lieu of further polarizing the viewpoints of this schism through a dualistic approach—“Are you red or blue?”—all Muster events during were prompted by the question “What are you fighting for?” In doing so, Smith set and decorated a stage, embellished with banners, flags and other paraphernalia that invited free expression and introspection of historical events.
As a feminist, Smith views history as contestable. History should be revised, retold, and reinterpreted. Moreover, dredging up a difficult or painful history can be cathartic. For example, Smith said, “The issue of slavery is something that still, 150 years later, is a painful and unresolved source of inner conflict for many Americans.” Smith’s work investigates how identities are constructed and consoled through reenactment. All who muster are not mad. Every time a history is reopened, so opens the opportunity for hindsight.
Allison Smith (b. 1972, Manassas, Virginia) holds an MFA from Yale University School of Art. Her current exhibition, Rudiments of Fife & Drum, is on view at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut through September 2, 2013.