Yesterday I went to Los Angeles to visit the Stephen Cohen Gallery, where actor/artist/jack-of-all-trades Viggo Mortensen has on display a series of photographs titled “Miyelo”. According to the gallery info, “‘Miyelo’ is comprised of a series of large-scale, panoramic photographs of a Lakota Ghost Dance. They record a re-creation of the dance that was originally performed by members of Chief Big Foot’s band on December 29, 1890 near Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota. These long exposures represent what was intended as a hallucination by a veteran of the Wounded Knee Massacre, as shot in the California Desert in March 2003 for the movie ‘Hidalgo.'”

It took me about 45 minutes to get there (to the gallery, not Death Valley) from my humble home in Long Beach, and traffic on La Brea was terrible due to road construction, but it was well worth the trip. Street parking cost me 25¢, and I got there early enough to get a spot right in front of the gallery. The exhibit was free. I took a journal with me, and here’s what I wrote:

It is a very small gallery, and there are not many people here. “Miyelo” is on display from September 13 – November 1st.

When you walk in, you immediately see the first photograph. It is large, about 3’x7′, and is titled “Miyelo 9”. There are four figures that could be people (dancers) and a bright white light on the far left.

There are quotes on the walls from Natives. Some are from Lakota, some Paiute. They are legend. They are rituals. They are traditions.

The photo titled “Miyelo 12” is beautiful. Of course they all are – but this one is more so. There are two Natives in the lower right, and they have their hands raised toward a flash of light on the left, as if they are watching fireworks. To my untrained eyes, it looks like a volcano. The white light is bold and rather squiggly, looking almost like a simplistic Kanji character. It makes me wonder if the gods shared a hand in developing Viggo’s photos.

The pictures on either side of this one are of the dance. All of the pictures were developed in such a way that light and reflections make the dancers seem to move. They are all ghosts.

The pictures are all hung with black wire, four for the large ones and two for the smaller ones. It doesn’t take me long to see that most of the “Miyelo” collection are the large 3×7 prints. They are all framed in light-colored wood with off-white mats.

“Miyelo 15” shows one Native on the right side. He is cut off at the shoulders. His hands look strong, grandfatherly, and his bright ceremonial feathers contrast starkly with the rest of the image, which is all desert. You can see the Sierra in the distance. But my attention is drawn to the desert terrain, the dry, caked, very nakedness of the dirt floor, like a Native Father’s ancient skin. The picture behind me reflects in the glass of “Miyelo 15”, showing eight distinct figures seemingly walking away, fading with the desert dust.

“We came to kill the dead alongside new waters that whispered and winked as they playfully skirted our efforts at perfectly envisioning past misunderstandings. After one of the driest summers in memory, nearly all green had bled from the landscape, leaving cottonwood bark tatter and twig tip as grey as reflected dawn on the creek; pale as wrist scar, frost glass, clay cut bank, and barely there clouds running for cover to the Black Hills.

We also came to the California desert, hoping some of those who’d died hidden in frozen draws might come a little closer to warming fire and find ground giving enough upon which to finally lay their heads. As much as any careworn ghost shirt, torn voice, trance-footed delirious reincarnation, it was the false thunder of fighter jets on their way back to Babylon, mercilessly cracking the bleached sky above our best intentions, that made it feel like a morning in December 1890.

Viggo Mortensen
11 September 2003″

[Upon re-reading this, I realized it could cast a significant shadow over my own writing skills. But what the hell. It is beautiful.] The image accompanying this writing was of just that – a lone fighter jet, black against the crisp blue sky, with Viggo in his cowboy hat standing with two horses, who no doubt knew full well how privileged they were to be in the company of someone who seems, to us mortals, untouchable.

There are also some photos titled “Hindsight”. They are from 2002 and are all black and white. Number 18 depicts a solitary Native, standing on a hilltop and looking rather small (but certainly not inferior) against the mighty wind and sky.

Miyelo 13 is the one with the most transparent dancers. The top half is blue, the lower half a dusty tan. I imagine the spirits are going home.


Tunkasila heya ca
Cewakiya ca namahun yelo

It is I
It is I
It is I

Grandfather says so
I pray to him and he hears me

This is written on one of the partitions. There is no credit as to who spoke these words, where they came from, even what language the former verse is in. I can only assume it is Lakota. I am glad they posted this – the flowing tongue of unfamiliar but gentle words is fitting to this exhibit.

Miyelo 3 is much different from the rest. It has a lot of black, and at first glance it looks as if the picture was taken on a stage, or on steps or in some naturally formed cavernous amphitheatre. But as my eyes adjust, I realize that Viggo was probably kneeling or sitting, and now I can see at least seven figures standing solemnly. It’s hard to see how I missed that in the first place.

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