Significant and Insignificant Mounds

August 20th, 2019

Significant and Insignificant Mounds looks to read two landscapes across one another in order to complicate our understandings of authenticity, meaning, and form.

We are told that prior to European contact North America was a territory defined by its emptiness: a space without human mark, a fallow continent, devoid of evidence of human occupation and meaning. Yet, beneath the settler-colonial ploughs, pierced by the land surveyors’ monuments and shrouded by cities and fields, a vast network of Native American mounds predate European contact. Standing as silent witnesses to millennia of settlement in North America, as evidence of being and meaning, they put to rest this narrative of absence. However, alongside the burial, effigy, and temple mounds are our present-day forms: The slag heaps, landfills, and sundry detritus of an anthropogenic landscape humans make when we aren’t thinking about making landscapes. Significant and Insignificant Mounds looks to read these two landscapes across one another in order to complicate our understandings of authenticity, meaning, and form.

The project looks to the building and un-building of landscapes—the mounds and mines, piles and pits—to define one symptom of the anthropogenic condition we inhabit today. It sets up a flicker of signification between the proximate and the distant, to push back on a narrative of singularity, to position humans within a continental history that long predates contact, and to draw an interpretive arc that crosses through the now and the then and the forever. After all, each of these mounds, on its own terms, is both significant and insignificant. They are all markers of a way of being, a way of shaping the world—where meaning mingles uneasily with form.

As an extension of the three years of research within The American Bottom project, this project extends the research to Missouri and St. Louis in order to tell a more complete story of pre-contact landscape transformation in the region. While Cahokia remains the signal mound site in the public imagination—if such an imaginary exists—its visibility also works in many ways to conceal the hundreds of other mound sites in the region. As such, this project will connect these sites with a broader history of indigenous inhabitation, and ask questions about commemoration, narrative meaning, and municipal priorities. It focuses on three sites: the Big Mound site in North St. Louis (erased by a small stone monument), the Sugarloaf Mound site in South St. Louis (a single-family house built atop a Native American mound), and the Forest Park Mound Group in the west of the city (with the entire Group leveled for the 1904 World’s Fair). Each of these sites carries with it the many layers of inhabitation and erasure expected in a region with an aggressive pairing of settler-colonial histories and erased indigenous histories set in stark relief.

Significant and Insignificant Mounds approaches the topic of mounds through writing, an exhibition, and embodied experience. Alongside an essay that historicizes and reads across millennia of material accumulation, this project will also take form as a billboard installation at the Big Mounds site and a bus tour—beginning at the Cahokia Mounds archeological site and ending at the Weldon Spring disposal site. Arguably the area’s most defining mound sites, both installation and tour provide material substance and meaning to the anthropogenic epoch of the region.