Arts Review | Ridgefield, Conn.: A Review of ‘Allison Smith: Rudiments of Fife and Drum,’ at the Aldrich Museum in Ridgefield

June 8th, 2013

Ms. Smith’s best-known project to date is “The Muster,” a daylong event held on Governors Island in New York Harbor in 2005, before that island was regularly open to the public. Inspired by military calls to gather troops — typically for inspection or service — and Civil War re-enactments, Ms. Smith put out a “call to art” in which individuals needed only state what they were “fighting for,” which could be anything from civil rights to various forms of radical self-expression.

American colonial and Civil War-era crafts and customs interested Ms. Smith long before “The Muster,” however, and her current project continues in that vein. The exhibition fits in perfectly at the Aldrich, which is nestled in a colonial village that was the site of a 1777 Revolutionary War battle.

The one-room installation, which resembles a period room in a historical museum, includes objects pertaining mostly to fife and drum culture, which dates from the colonial period, but also has roots in Europe and the Ottoman Empire. (The Swiss, in particular, developed precision techniques for battlefield communication, but objects here also have connections to instruments mentioned in the Torah and represented in medieval Islamic manuscripts.)

There are new and vintage rope drums (the rope along the drum is used for tuning the drumhead); a variety of fifes, the high pitched, flutelike instruments designed to be heard on battlefields; wooden cabinets and furniture painted by Ms. Smith in the American fancy pattern, a decorative motif developed in the late 18th century to distinguish American objects from European ones; a bulletin board with pictures of Turkish musical ensembles; a copy of “The Original 26 Rudiments of Drumming”; and “Connecticut’s Fife and Drum Tradition” (2011), a book written by James Clark, one of Ms. Smith’s collaborators for the project.

The “social” element comes in a different form. On Memorial Day, Ms. Smith’s exhibition opened with a performance by the Celestial Ancients Fife and Drum Corps, a band the artist formed with Mr. Clark (Ms. Smith designed the gingham tunics they wore). Workshops and lectures will be held throughout the run of the show, and on Aug. 25, there will be a muster in the museum’s sculpture garden, with food trucks (a new American tradition), fife and drum performances and other participatory activities.

So, the question arises: What makes it art? And particularly, in this case, what distinguishes Ms. Smith’s practice from those of, say, re-enactors? The answer lies in the context (Ms. Smith is a recognized artist and the venue is a contemporary museum), but also the subtler areas of approach. Rather than merely celebrating war or national identity, Ms. Smith questions these categories by showing how fife and drum practices reached back to Turkey (interestingly, the site of recent political unrest), and how what we call “patriotism” might very well be viewed, from various perspectives, in a different light: Were American insurgents revolutionaries or terrorists? Who owns the claim on “American” history? (An image on the bulletin board in the installation shows a historical marker for Drum Hill in Wilton, Conn., where a drum corps would, among other things, warn settlers against the approach of Indians.)

Moreover, there are a number of other tensions rippling under “Rudiments of Fife and Drum,” like the hierarchy between “art” (traditionally painting, sculpture and architecture) and “craft” (ceramics, textiles and other utilitarian objects) which were divided historically along gender lines, with women producing “lowly” domestic objects and men producing “high” art.

In this sense, while Ms. Smith’s practice seems initially conservative — what could align her more with the Tea Party movement’s revival of colonial garb? — there is a serious and studied subversion at its core. Not only does Ms. Smith herself don uniforms historically made for men, a kind of military drag that complicates the supporting roles women played in these periods, she also upends the premise that historical re-enactments are only about celebrating war; instead, they might be more about community and acceptable outlets for creativity in a culture focused on consumerism and technology.

Perhaps most important, colonial and Civil War-era practices are revealed as part of a larger field of culture: fife and drum as part of a globalized practice that predates our current era, and connects us with some of our former and contemporary “enemies.” Moreover, if what is prototypically “American” didn’t originate here, we might want to rethink how much weight we put on national identity, particularly when it divides us from people whose interests might be, on closer inspection, similar to our own.

“Allison Smith: Rudiments of Fife and Drum” is on view at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, 258 Main Street, Ridgefield, through Sept. 2. For more information: (203) 438-4519 or aldrichart.org.

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