On the walls of the St. Louis Art Museum’s Gallery 250 appear moving images of raptors, which prefigure flights from four St. Louis landmarks: Cahokia Mounds in the east, the convergence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers to the north, Old Des Peres Presbyterian Church in West County and South St. Louis City’s Sugarloaf Mound, an ugly house plopped uneasily on top of the ancient construct.
The story they tell, says artist Andréa Stanislav, is one of crossroads and the end of empires. “The entire exhibition is a portrait of the place as a whole.”
The four videos were shot from drones and helicopters. All end at “Apotheosis of St. Louis,” the statue that reigns over Art Hill, with the horse’s head made, through animation, to look like it’s covered in chrome. They’re the framework and the essence of Stanislav’s “Convergence Infinité,” the latest in the museum’s contemporary art “Currents” series. (It also includes, in Gallery 301, a short film, “Blow Away.” Filmed on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, it shows a group of mirrored obelisks exploding, then coming back together.)
“The exhibition was conceived from my first visit to St. Louis,” says the Chicago-born Stanislav, a professor at the University of Minnesota who is the museum’s 2015-2016 Henry L. and Natalie E. Freund Fellow. The fellowship comes with teaching responsibilities at Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts, as well as Currents 112.
Stanislav does what she calls “intuitive research” of each new locale. In St. Louis, she says, “the (Mississippi) river was primary. It’s omnipresent, and it’s the focal point for the exhibition.” It’s not her first project of that kind; in St. Petersburg, Russia, she staged a “video intervention” on the Neva River. “Nightmare” featured a video screen pulled by a barge at night, showing an image of a white horse in full gallop.
In “Convergence Infinité,” the videos surround and embrace “river portraits,” diamond-shaped prints of river scenes on mirrored surfaces, and a pair of large mirrored abstract sculptures that, she says, reflect the natural world. “Apogee 1200” mirrors the forms of the ancient Indian mounds in Cahokia; “Apogee 1969” — topped with a long-dead and taxidermied juvenile bald eagle — reflects the Gateway Arch. Light and color play throughout the gallery.
From the ceiling in the center of the gallery hangs a chrome-plated horse’s skull, dangling above a clear cube filled with water from the Mississippi. Sediment from the water is drifted on the mirrored bottom, at what could be seen as the crossroads of the gallery.
Playing over loudspeakers is a soundtrack that combines Olivier Messiaen’s “Reveil des oiseaux,” filled with transcribed birdsongs, with trumpet solos by Miles Davis and natural birdcalls.
Stanislav says her inspiration to work with the river as a site derives from the “Land Art” of artist Robert Smithson (1938-1973). “How can I bring the river as a site, as subject matter, into the museum, and how can I connect the river to the museum?”
Cahokia, she says, “was my anchoring point. Then I looked around and found Sugarloaf. Sugarloaf was a ready-made subject matter, with this clashing of elements, this house from the 20th century that doesn’t look happy.”
Stanislav worked with a skilled drone operator (“There’s a bit of a learning curve”), and rode in the helicopter with a three-camera crew. She estimates that she shot 90 to 95 percent of the footage in the helicopter. The doors were removed from the helicopter, “so we had the purest, the widest amount of vision” possible. Stanislav directed the pilot, as well as a still photographer and a second video camera operator.
Simon Kelly, curator of modern and contemporary art, says Stanislav “is less interested in surveillance and more interested in mapping the landscape. The drone is like a bird.” Stanislav adds that she told the others on her crew, “We are thinking like a raptor today.”
The confluence of the rivers, and the role they play in avian lives was important, too. “It really is like an expressway for the birds,” Stanislav says. “A natural highway.”
The events of Ferguson played into her decision to use the urban areas of the region, “and this very complex history of St. Louis,” from Cahokia to the present day. “It became overwhelming. St. Louis is centered in the country, and the city was the site of (one of the) oldest civilizations in the United States. Those mounds were all over St. Louis. What else was here?”
That question, she says, intrigued her. So did the idea of convergence, “bringing together the sense of place and time. I was interested in using the museum and the gallery as this nodal point for all of these ideas. It became a micro-crossroads for all the ideas I was working with.”
She also “found myself overwhelmed by all the expressways” and realized that “it’s not an accident that all these interstates are here. It’s by design. It was also a crossroads for trading around 1200, for the Cahokia people. This place circles through different civilizations, but because of the physicality of the Mississippi and what the Mississippi gives to animals, to cultures, starting just from nutrients, it continues to be the centering crossroads.”
Although Stanislav says she “didn’t want to focus on Ferguson events,” it’s reflected in the exhibition. “In the bird flight, there is this nonjudgmental, very democratic overview of the entire city.” One of her starting points, the stone Old Des Peres Presbyterian Church, was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and its churchyard contains many slaves’ graves.
“It’s a crossing in a different way. It’s also another part of the large scope of time that I’m trying to encompass, between the ‘Apogee’ sculptures. It’s a part of the empires; empires encompass a slave existence, too, and it’s not to be forgotten.”
‘Andréa Stanislav: Convergence Infinité’
When • 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays. Runs through June 19
Where • St. Louis Art Museum, 1 Fine Arts Drive, Forest Park
How much • Free
More info • 314-721-0072; slam.org