In 1861, during the early stages of the American Civil War, poet and social activist Julia Ward Howe wrote the powerful lyrics to one our nation’s most renowned folk songs, “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Using the melody of “John Brown’s Body,” a song about executed abolitionist John Brown, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” encapsulated the values of America during its most tumultuous era and its omnipotence has only grown with time. From small town parades down Main Street to performances at the Super Bowl, the song is expressed to its highest potential when sung by a large group, yet its origins come from the story of one single man and his sacrifice for the enslaved people of our country. Inspired by the song’s history, longevity, and relevance into the present day, artist Paul Ramírez Jonas created his sculpture His Truth Is Marching On to be an interactive artwork that articulates his interests in identity, performance, and micro/macro relationships. While usually on view at Dikeou Collection, His Truth Is Marching On is currently installed at the Contemporary Art Museum Houston for Ramírez Jonas’ survey exhibition Atlas, Plural, Monumental.
His Truth Is Marching On consists of 80 glass bottles filled with different quantities of water (some are completely empty) hung on a wooden hoop suspended from the ceiling like a chandelier. In addition to the bottles, a wooden mallet hangs from the hoop, which anybody can use to strike the bottles to play the tune “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” An intriguing aspect to the installation is how the artist managed to arrange these 80 bottles, each with a different weight, in a perfectly balanced floating circle. I have yet to figure this out… His Truth… is a beautiful work of art to behold, but the actual art ‘object’ is the song itself and how no two people will ever perform it the exact same way. Some people drag the mallet across the bottles in one swoop, while others hit each bottle individually. Some start at the beginning, others in the middle, and some people play it backwards. Though a singular creation, its output is infinite.
“Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a song about one man that has come to represent a nation of people over 150 years, is an ideal anthem for Ramírez Jonas whose intent is creating art that requires an audience as part of the medium. His two other artworks at Dikeou Collection, 100 and Pause and Play both address the ideas of the dynamic between the group and the individual.
In 100, black and white photographs of people ages 0 through 99 are joined together in a folding book format that wraps through three rooms in the collection. Viewers are invited to count the photographs sequentially starting at 0 until the land on the number/photograph that matches their age. At that moment, the viewer is introduced to someone that is meant to represent their place within the artwork, and investigate what other commonalities or differences they share. With all the images connected and standing upright, the work demonstrates how people are linked together in a generational spectrum, and if one part of it were to fall, all others would fall with it.
Like His Truth Is Marching On, Pause and Play is a musical installation, but one that is activated by machines rather than a person. A digital clock counts down from random time increments, and when it reaches 0 the instruments on the floor start to play a non-melodic tune for about 2 minutes. It is the opposite of His Truth… in how it is activated and how it sounds, but it shares the idea of connectivity and how independent components come together to create a singular sound.
The title of Ramírez Jonas’ mid-career survey exhibition, Atlas, Plural, Monumental, is interesting because it does not include his name. As noted by Devon Britt-Darby for artsandculturetx.com, it is a title that seems more apt for a large group show than a single artist. But that is what makes so perfectly indicative of the artist’s practice, which is to blur the lines between broad and insular, many and few, and small and large. Atlas, Plural, Monumental is on view at CAMH through August 6 with studio workshops, tours, talks, and more scheduled throughout the summer. If you are in Houston, stop by and see, listen, and contribute.