By Hannah Carrigan | January 31, 2021
There were two individuals who stood out in the crowd at 13FOREST Gallery: a younger man named John, who found the event while looking for a protest to attend, and a Polish artist who had immigrated to America. The rest of the crowd was a homogenous blend of white, slightly artsy liberals. We were all there to watch “The Unraveling” take place.
Featuring a three by six foot knit American flag, hung vertically across a copy of the U.S. Constitution (printed on light, fragile fabric), Adrienne Sloane’s “The Unraveling” is bold and raw. With each of the flag’s stripes only partially complete—entrails sitting as deconstructed piles of yarn on the floor—it is clear that this flag was designed to be taken apart. And take apart Sloane does: throughout the course of Donald Trump’s presidency, she has been performing public “unravelings” in galleries, libraries, and other public institutions.
After the performance, John mentioned that Sloane seemed to be “preaching to the choir,” and that it would be interesting to hear dissenting opinions. Interestingly, the Polish woman had once been a board member at an institution where “The Unraveling” was to be displayed. When dissenting opinions likening the work to flag burning arose, she made the difficult decision to resign. As an immigrant who had fallen in love with America and grown up in a country without the right of free speech, she thought it imperative that we be able to show art that provokes thought and conversation.
As I watched Sloane unravel the flag, I was surprised to find myself moved—I felt a kind of mourning. I don’t know what exactly I had expected, but certainly not visceral emotion. And now I have to ask myself: what exactly was I mourning? Some idea of a cohesive national identity, of community? As a self-described progressive at a liberal arts college, I lay no claim to a sense of national pride. Having recently returned from a study abroad program in New Zealand, a country which seems to be doing a much better job of practicing true democracy than we in the United States are, my thoughts and feelings about mainstream American politics are far from sentimental. And yet, when Sloane began to pull apart the threads of the flag she had made, its stripes receding and stars falling, I felt a sense of loss.
Sloane’s performance gave body to emotions which had long been brewing in me. Since I first began to understand the amount and types of privilege that allowed me to have such unwavering faith in “American democracy” to begin with, my beliefs about the nature of my country gradually became less rosy and more inclusive of its faults, its failings and hypocrisies, its propaganda and its oppression. Particularly since, returning from New Zealand, I have realized the degree to which “America” and I are at odds: this does not feel like a place where my values are recognized within the dominant political framework. Considering the amalgamation of cultures and backgrounds that make up our population, there must be a diverse plethora of values that exist in this country and it is difficult to imagine a singular system which honors them all. That, I suppose, would be true democracy. As it stands, however, there are distinct patterns as to who is granted political power and thus whose values are enacted. Even more distinct are the groups which tend to wave the American flag with pride—I’m thinking primarily of the Donald Trumps, the white nationalists, those with pride in the singular American narrative. The point of “The Unraveling,” Sloane explained during one of her performances, is to take the flag back.
Sloane’s purpose of reclaiming the flag and conjuring dialogue is clearly bold and vital, holding immense potential for transforming our relationship with ourselves, each other, and our country. However, as art which is overtly activist and political—which challenges the status quo—it is imperative that we question our own and our society’s ability to display and engage works like “The Unraveling.” Recalling the demographics of Sloane’s audience and the pushback her work received from at least one institution, it’s important that we stay cognizant of and ready to name the systemic and individual racism, homophobia, sexism (and so on), that continues to limit the opportunities and platforms for art by under-represented individuals of today and of the past. It is the very values and lives of these individuals—individuals who in fact comprise the majority, while we’re talking about democracy—which are most excluded from the mainstream American narrative. It is imperative that we actively promote the works of such artists and creatives in particular.
I am hopeful that my perspective can be offered as a jumping off point into a plethora of questions; I believe this is what Sloane’s “The Unravelling” works to do as well. For me, some of these questions go like this: what does true democracy look and feel like? How can it best be supported, and what do we, as citizens, need to do to uphold and enforce it? What can we do? What is the responsibility of those of us with some form of privilege, in the pursuit of a system which is equitable and just? Call it democracy or anarchy, I think what most of us ultimately desire is a world in which we are “free.”
If we are able to reconcile the many visions and values we hold, we might then be able to concoct an American pride which is new and true: not Trump’s and not nationalists’, but our own; a collective one. As long as works like Sloane’s are shown, I can retain some faith that this is possible. Her art is proof of the potential that “freedom of speech,” can have when used. Her art is a reason for hope; the mourning that it evokes, a call to action.