Before artist Dana Levy came to St. Louis, she didn’t think the city would provide an “extreme” enough setting for her work. But when the Israeli-born artist traveled in 2019 to north St. Louis, she had never seen a place like it, she recalled.
If the buildings, abandoned, crumbling and covered in vegetation, were any indication, many people from wealthier parts of the city had not seen it either — or at least taken a long look. Levy had found the right area to film her surreal warning about the future.
She gathered eagles, owls, vultures and lizards and filmed them north of the Delmar Divide, a geographical boundary often used as a reference point to explain the socioeconomic and racial differences that exist in the city.
“When I saw all these houses that were being taken over by nature, I had this idea to bring live animals into these environments,” Levy explained. “I kind of thought of it like a fictional future, where humans no longer exist and the whole city has been taken over by animals.”
Levy believes that if the current social stratification and environmental destruction continues, a scenario where humans are gone but animals remain may be more than just the stuff of a vivid imagination.
To see what north St. Louis — and urban areas everywhere — might then look like, visit the St. Louis Art Museum and see its new exhibit, “Currents 119: Dana Levy.”
Levy, who was born in Tel Aviv and now lives in New York, will also talk with art museum curator Hannah Klemm on Monday, March 8 at 7 p.m. For more information on the free virtual event, visit https://www.slam.org/event/artist-talk-dana-levy/
Levy is the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. Her mother was born in Germany. Her father was born in Egypt. She moved around a lot growing up, including time in Israel, Atlanta and the United Kingdom.
“I have always had this thing of, ‘Home is something temporary,’ which attracts me to houses that are abandoned,” she said.
Levy earned a bachelor’s degree from Camberwell College of Arts in London and a master’s in electronic imaging at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Scotland. She previously had exhibitions at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem and the Petach Tikva Museum of Art, in a Tel Aviv suburb.
Before coming to St. Louis, Levy’s work with live animals had always taken place indoors, including releasing 100 monarch butterflies at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh and filming them among the drawers and cases of butterflies (dead ones).
“I finished editing just as the Arab Spring had begun,” Levy told ARTFORUM. “It suddenly became clear that, for me, the work was about an awakening from an obedient slumber into a revolution.”
Levy landed in St. Louis because she was selected for the Henry L. and Natalie E. Freund Fellowship at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University. (The Freunds were prominent local arts patrons and Jewish.)
In fall 2019, Levy started exploring the area and not only learned about north St. Louis but also the Campbell House Museum and the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.
The Campbell House is located in the Lucas Park neighborhood, in the former home of a successful St. Louis fur trader and businessman, and has been preserved with furniture, fixtures, paintings, objects to look as it did in the 19th century.
At Cahokia in Collinsville, Ill., Levy was moved by the fact that the settlement had once been a booming city, larger than London in the year 1250, before its demise. Scholars have suggested a range of theories for its downfall, including a changing climate, flooding or social conflicts and fighting.
Between that, and the contrast she noticed over the river in St. Louis —the elegant Campbell museum just minutes from the deteriorating buildings available for purchase from the city for $1 — Levy wondered if the future might look like Cahokia.
“It interested me how [Cahokia] was this mound that people hardly remember and hardly know about it, and when I saw all these neglected houses, it made me think that perhaps this is the direction we are going in, that civilization will collapse,” Levy said.
To show others her vision, Levy borrowed rescue birds that had been sickened by rodent poison from the World Bird Sanctuary in Valley Park and lizards from a pet store. The owner of a once-abandoned church in north St. Louis allowed Levy to film inside, which resulted in striking footage of birds sitting where you would expect to see worshippers.
The exhibit also features video of 19th century photos of the Campbell House with an image of Levy projected onto them, kind of like “a ghost from the future,” she said.
And it features a short film explaining the history of Cahokia interspersed with interviews of residents and historians of north St. Louis, who describe the modern city’s tragic trajectory due to redlining (the federal government’s denial of services in particular areas); white flight; the closing of factories; and the crack epidemic.
“When this whole ‘war on drugs’ happened, it truly felt like it was a war on Black people in general,” Cheeraz Gormon, a spoken word artist from north St. Louis, said in the movie. “Looked like a bomb hit it. It’s the bomb of redlining, divestment and racism.”
During the course of talking with residents and historians; conducting research; and driving around the area, including to the impoverished East St. Louis, Levy realized that north St. Louis was not as extreme, as abnormal, as she first thought.
She said she realized, “This is not St. Louis, this is a national thing. There is a place like this in every city.”
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