Marie Watt Sky Dances Light: Solo X, 2023. Tin jingles, cotton twill tape, polyester mesh, steel 48 x 36 x 38 in.121.9 x 91.4 x 96.5 cm. (Image courtesy of Marie Watt Studio)

I used to be quite jealous. It used to arrive like black clouds on the horizon, building pressure as it gained a strange power. In college I dated a man who spoke of his ex like an inclement warning, eliciting from me a thrust of fear only felt by those unprepared for bad weather. But he was swift to tuck the evocations of her and their history, like the little artistic remnants of their lives, out of view. This reassured our tenuous harmony. One night, we went to a party near campus. Back then Kansas City had some blocks near the school where burgeoning painters and sculptors rented apartments in tall, unstable structures with rotting patios and painted-over cracks pushing slowly through the drywall. His ex was there, but I tried not to let that brewing storm cast its cold shadow over the night, even when I felt the jealousy build charge, powerful and ionic inside my heart. I kept catching her eyes as he spun me around the floor, and they reflected back to me that same jealous moil brewing within.

I slipped away from him for another beer, and she jumped at the chance. C’mon, old flame. Just a spin around the room. Just while she’s away. Minutes later she flowed past me out the door without a glance in my direction, and he informed me, proudly, that he had rejected her invitation. I must have had his attention that night, in an ochre dress with my hair still a deep brunette. He had mine entirely. Always had. We snapped and twirled a swing dance on the creaking floor as the records played and artists smoked outside, tethered to each other in a way that was easy and profound and often escapes my ability to describe. Our heads were unclouded and, therefore, understood love. We were like two weather systems who brushed together in the self-contained atmosphere of youth, overlapping, greedy to impose. But ones that did not, in the end, really merge.

Installation view of Marie Watt, Sky Dances Light (2023) at Kavi Gupta, Photo by Kyle Flubacker.

This dance only came to mind after leaving Kavi Gupta, where Marie Watt’s solo show “Sky Dances Light” has made a weather system out of the first floor gallery. I spoke of it a while later, too, when I tried to describe Watt’s colliding sculptures to a friend. They were like dancers, I said, who look like they do, but don’t belong together. Indeed, Watt’s large and glittery “jingle clouds” are all constructed in the same manner and possess the same formal qualities, but differ in size, shape, and proximity to one another. Only a few in the entire installation of about a dozen clouds that span between two rooms actually connect, and only when an outside force interacts. That outside force is you. All it takes is a slight push. A well-directed press. Activation is tempting and tactile, highly satisfying when the sculpture slowly spins in one direction. They hang from the ceiling, amorphous and suspended like storm clouds on a thermal shelf, composed only of conical tin bells made from rolled-up tobacco lids, and seem so heavy in places where the clouds droop low to hover inches off the ground. I have been informed they are quite light—the big ones about 95 pounds each—and hold each biomorphic shape against the armature despite frequent audience interaction. Not all the jingle clouds come together. Only a couple pairs have been installed to connect, briefly, when the intended sides align. When they do they brush up against one another, their bells jingle in a faint chorus as the bodies move away again. A few are more akin to disco balls, spinning on motors in circulations too slow to make a sound. Unless the nearest cloud spins too and the space between them shrinks, causing the bells to brush like fingertips reaching out for recognition, they never collide. Ones that do not touch, that have no ability to touch the others, are small and close to the walls, able to spin and swing but never so much as graze the others.

Marie Watt is a member of the Seneca Nation, one of five groups in the Iroquois tribe of Native Americans. Drawing from her heritage informs a practice that values collaboration and conversation between artistic elements, the community, and the natural world. The resulting work blends history into the present moment, and perhaps the clearest indication of this integration is the dancer who activated the space when the show opened. Although I was not present for this, there is a video of a similar initiation in the front room beside a jingle curtain. The video captures the dancer in a white jingle dress—a distinctive piece of attire worn during First Nations healing ceremonies—with the rolled tins embroidered around her shoulders and in rows down her skirt. She waves a feather fan in one hand and keeps the other planted firm at her hip. Her feet move in a kind of bouncy skip and slide across the floor, and she holds her chin high as she regards each sculpture in turn. Her regalia and the sculptures share an acoustic profile, but there are no other instruments or vocals at play. Instead, only the gentle bell tones chime in rhythm with the dancer’s footwork and produce an echo in the bright room. The Kavi Gupta gallerist that afternoon tells me the dancer will follow the show as it is installed elsewhere as a means to carry the sculptures through from one location to the next. It is a ceremony of sorts, a recurring recognition between the past and present. I see you, the dancer seems to say to each cloud as she weaves between their shadows and the little glints of light that bounce off the polished tin. We are part of something big together.

The dance was used widely during the 1918 Spanish Flu; it is immensely fitting to reengage with jingle dancing and its materials during the dip in our current pandemic. In this way, history is not only repeating, but is becoming itself re-contextualized. During the early days of COVID-19, a ceremonial gathering to promote healing would have been dangerous for some, terrifying for others. But to encounter a sculpture constructed in a way that pays tribute to spiritual knowledge is rather comforting. Maybe the communal practice has been removed, but materials have meaning and remain powerful in other contexts. Another theory wonders if sculpting these rather imposing clouds out of tobacco lids is a way to remind the viewer that an organized collection of disparate parts can move, heal, and eventually sing. They all possess the same shine, so I could not tell the age of the individual jingles, nor their origins, for the names have been concealed by the conical manipulation. But snuff tins were once widely available, pliable, and sturdy enough to hold a tight roll and bang against others, and thus serve a practical purpose when incorporated into movement. Only those who are familiar with chewing tobacco tins would recognize the lids as the primary material. They happen to be another product introduced to the Native people during colonization that found new meaning when re-contextualized for creative and spiritual use. Tobacco has had an interesting life story, transitioning from spiritual medium that the earth provided freely, to mass-produced disambiguations plastered with ominous warnings. Watt selected this material, it seems, for its connotation with dance, healing, and to recall its original place in history. 

Marie Watt Sky Dances Light: Forest VI, 2023. Tin jingles, cotton twill tape, polyester mesh, steel 99 x 61 x 45 in.251.5 x 154.9 x 114.3 cm. Image courtesy of Marie Watt Studio.

I am someone who likes to analyze titles. Perhaps we can glean a little more context from the official jingle cloud titles. Each one begins with “Sky Dances Light:” and is followed by what at first seems to be the condition of each sculpture: “Revolution IX,” “Revolution VII,” “Solo X”—these for the sculptures that are meant to spin, or the ones that hang alone at the edges of the room. But then the subtitles change: “Kin XV,” “Forest VI.” They culminate to produce a sense of natural harmony between elements, and the titles modify the sculptures in a manner that adds a layer to Watt’s process. She does not seem to prioritize individuality at any point in the jingle cloud body of work, because even the “Solo” sculptures are part of the larger “Solo” category. It is a wonderful and honestly refreshing approach to large sculptures, without the faux modesty that accompanies “Untitled” works, absent the clear pretension of long-winded and highly theoretical naming conventions. The clouds are part of a built artistic environment. They belong to the artist’s mythology, an ecosystem where the individual does not thrive without context and connection to its surroundings. A single jingle cloud would have neither gravitas nor history. 

I appreciate this more with age. I suppose there is still some jealousy lingering inside my heart, but I have come to terms with the conditions and factors that make someone or something you love complex, multi-faceted, part of a larger narrative. It’s hard to feel threatened by something so benign as a dance anymore. When intricately connected parts gather for a brief and glittering display (storms, ceremonies, former loves) it makes sense to step back and notice the greater logic in place. For an artist like Marie Watt, sometimes a dance is a graceful way to recognize what happened in the past, a means of carrying each body forward into the next iteration.