You have bought a fair land, but you will find its settlement dark and bloody.

– Dragging Canoe, Leader of the Cherokee Nation

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

– Genesis 11:1-9, NKJV

Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography. That struggle is complex and interesting because it is not only about soldiers and cannons but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings.

― Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism

About an hour’s drive east of Lexington, Kentucky sits the town of Mount Sterling. Established in 1792, the settlement was initially named “Little Mountain Town” after the colossal burial mound that once rested at its center. Constructed roughly 2,000 years ago by the Adena people, the Little Mountain Indian Mound was 25 feet tall and 125 feet wide, a heavy presence in the heart of the land. In 1845, European settlers removed the ancient mound in order to build a house. Arrowheads, beads, stone tools, and human bones were discovered within; the skeletons were found with strings of shells around their necks.

A sacred site is reduced to a flattened crossroads. Elsewhere, new buildings are erected with eternity in mind. As Americans, we are encouraged to claim this country from childhood. We are taught to sing: “This land is your land, this land is my land…this land was made for you and me.” The children of immigrant families are encouraged to build something for themselves, to override what has been lost by attaining a new dream. Stories of another land both affirm and confound us––we have come to belong here, yet cannot ease the longing for a place we may have never seen.

John Hee Taek Chae’s A Dark and Bloody Ground echoes the distant past, blending historic residues to illustrate an imaginary homecoming. He explores our collective of mutating stories, challenging the sense of lack that drives so many to pack up and start over again. Chae’s materials echo these cycles: the wooden frames supporting each artwork are recycled from a previous body of work, revealing taglines––“perpetual foreignness” and “we know so little of us”–– that take on new meaning. Patchwork canvases are printed with cyanotype, yielding vague and hazy maps and landscapes in rich, fluid blue. Anonymous yet familiar, the prints are made from AI-generated images. Chae merges historic maps, East Asian brush paintings, Western oil paintings, and photos of wooden masks. Mutations abound and chaos is organized into an uncanny equilibrium.

Small, shining landscapes float on the reverse of these uncertain scenes: paintings by Albert Pinkham Ryder, George Inness, and James McNeill Whistler are blended into glimpses of a perfect, promised land. The resulting images reflect all the qualities of American Tonalism, an artistic movement that preceded the First World War. Glowing and rich with atmosphere, these paintings emphasize––in more ways than one––a heightened sense of beauty before darkness sets in.

There is a well-known myth that the true meaning of the word Kentucky is “a dark and bloody ground,” a Cherokee description repurposed by European settlers to suggest that the land’s ownership was disputed and that it was thus free for the taking. In reality, the etymology is likely tied to the Iroquois word kentake, meaning “meadow land,” or potentially the Algonquian name for a river bottom: kin-athiki. Equally possible is that the name comes from a dead Iroquoian language called Wyandot. In Wyandot, ken-tah-ten means “land of tomorrow.”

Our feet may have never touched the earth once tilled by our ancestors; we may long for a place only known through stories and fantasy. A Dark and Bloody Ground is as much an acknowledgment of the past as it is an invitation for the future. Chae asks us what it means for us to make this land our home. He questions the role and validity of possession as it has long existed, a practice inevitably disrupted by the passing of time. Finally, he employs new technologies alongside tradition in this vision for the future: a land truly reflective of its history, a living archive of all those who make their home upon it.

Text by Maria Owen

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