Community Takes: Mackenzie Morris and Nathaniel Meiklejohn on Nan Goldin

Community Takes: Mackenzie Morris and Nathaniel Meiklejohn on Nan Goldin

Editor's Note: Without a doubt, the most interesting aspect of presenting exhibitions is hearing the responses from visitors. For Nan Goldin, the responses have been incredibly nuanced, thoughtful, and surprising. So I reached out to a few folks from around town to have a conversation, hear what they had to say, and get their take. Below are excerpts from my sit down with Mackenzie Morris, owner of Étaínand Nathaniel Meiklejohn, owner of The Jewel Box.

Graeme: So how are you feeling?

Nathaniel: I feel both young and old. The subjects in the photography—some of them, it seemed like—it was the younger parts of their lives when they were partying a lot, and then as they grew up. All these different stages of life, from weddings to even funerals. As I was watching it, I was saying to Mackenzie that I want to party and enjoy life, and celebrate and eat cake. [laughs]

Graeme: Were you familiar with Goldin's work before?

Nathaniel: Not at all, no. It was a pretty comprehensive show as a whole, I thought, to see the different decades of work put together.

Mackenzie: I was aware of Nan, but not until somewhat recently. It was really cool to see the entire [Ballad of Sexual Dependency]. We came in almost exactly at the beginning, that was great to see. Although, I think it works no matter where you walk in.

Seeing that representation, that is something I value so much. I also just love the way that Nan approaches representation, where she doesn't label her subject manner marginalized, because most people are marginalized in some way or another.

It feels really cool to see a slideshow like that in an institution like this, where the respectability politics are taken out of it a little bit. I'm kind of like still marinating on a lot of what we actually saw in there.

Nathaniel: I haven't even totally processed everything I just saw. I just have these feelings of wanting to live most days to the fullest. I don't know why.

I mean, one way that I can relate to her work is [The Jewek Box]. It's about providing a place where people can be themselves and just feel comfortable. In Nan's case, comfortable enough where they can get their photos taken. For me, comfortable enough so people can just be themselves and not feel oppressed or like anyone's going to make fun of anyone or whatever—or get away with it, at least. It’s about letting people just be themselves and not feel freaked out.

Graeme: Why is that such a priority for you, with The Jewel Box?

Nathaniel: The majority of the bars that exists are usually geared towards one, more aggressive culture. I just felt like there's a whole huge section of—not even a slice, but like, the majority of the rest of the slices—that aren't having a place to have fun. I really just wanted a place that's fun. In Portland, there's hardly any places where you can just go and drag queens will come in. It's just a big mix of people.

Graeme: [To Mackenzie] That theme of positivity seems to run through to your business, too.

Mackenzie: Yeah. I think, for me, I was following my own logic of what I wanted my space to be. It's a little different because it's not a space that people spend a huge amount of time in at once. Some do, though. When I first had the idea for the shop, it was very much about creating this community space that is a business.

I was inspired by a lot of small business owners in my hometown and the way that they created these little spots in the community. I felt like they were always kind of just dominated by whoever dominates in general—namely, straight white men.

I was interested in subverting that and having a space that focuses on the people who are not served elsewhere and who don't always feel safe elsewhere. I think there are people who would call some of what we've tried to do "niche," and kind of label it. I think body positivity, in general, has become a little bit of a gimmick. It's very trendy and it's not always authentic.

To actually do that is risky, and businesses don't want to take that kind of risk, they just want to get the credit for doing it. Which is not to say that we're perfect, [laughs] by any means. I think people know when it's real and when it's not real. I did deal with some ideas around maybe like alienating people who are more in the mainstream, but I just don't see it that way.

It feels like it's a bold claim to say that I identify with Nan. I think the fact that she just sees [underrepresented groups] as her world and you want the people in your world to feel safe and supported and celebrated, as well as people who come into that space. I try not to make assumptions about folks, even people who are generally more celebrated in our society.

I've had so many people come into this space and either be exposed to things they weren't aware of, or bring up things that you don't necessarily expect, and in this way that makes you realize the queer community is so important and different marginalized communities, in general, are very important. I think there is a place for having spaces set aside for people who aren't safe elsewhere.

On the other hand, I want the whole world to be queer. We all are on some level.

Nathaniel: I think [the work Scopophilia] would probably be the good segue for people, who may feel more traditional or have other expectations of the Portland Museum of Art. That slide show is kind of a little segue into the rawer stuff. I think the show's amazing with or without that, but I did appreciate that.

I think the fact that the PMA has this show is a huge amazing step in a good direction. I haven't exactly been coming here—I don't get to openings or anything. I've been meaning to come in.

With so much artwork by one person, you forget where you are. To think about it, the people that I've seen in here, other visitors, you wonder what they're thinking. Or you maybe don't want to know what they're thinking [laughs]. You hope that people are not too ignorant. I mean, that happens everywhere. To the PMA's credit, getting it here in the first place and putting it on the street level is pretty cool, and not up in the third or fourth floor or whatever.

Mackenzie: This is the third time I've seen it. I have also spent a lot of time talking about it before it went up. I don't know if you know, I was in touch with folks at the museum about maybe doing some events. I don't know. I agree that it's a great step in the right direction for the museum, and on the whole, a really positive thing.

I've also had some concerns. Inclusivity—it's not necessarily an easy and fun thing. I was talking with my mom about my concerns [about white, cis, exoticism and voyeurism] around the show and its potential audience. Her response was like, "I love the idea of those people seeing the show," and I do, too, ultimately.

I think it's important. I think as long as people take something away from it that's not what Nan didn't want, of like thinking, "Oh, I just saw the dirty underbelly of society," I think that's a really good thing, too. As long as we're taking the time to lift up voices and celebrate people who aren't in those positions of power, it's a really good step in the right direction.

I think erasing any concept of what's taboo is really powerful. To just be like, "OK. It's all coming out," whether it's painful or terrifying or joyful, it's all there. It really gives you a warm feeling while there is still darkness there. Not to be cliche, but that's life, right?

Graeme: Why is inclusivity, to use your terminology Mackenzie, “not necessarily an easy of fun thing”?

Mackenzie: I think there are a lot of institutions and organizations in Portland, and all over the country right now, who are really, it's like an item on their agenda.

Like, "OK, become inclusive." That's all well and good. Like I was saying before, body positivity is very trendy. People are trying to do it. I really try to do it in a way that doesn't feel tokenizing of the people with the bodies that I bring into photo shoots and shows.

I know that's something that you have to keep in mind. You can't just go into it and say, "Oh, I'm just going to invite all these people that normally wouldn't be invited. Now I've done my job." There's also an impulse to be like, "Oh hey, why don't we feature you in such and such way?"

The important piece is to ask and to find the person, seek them out in a real way, not just somebody who's in close proximity, who is a friend of a friend. Find people who are already doing this work—so many people are—and ask them what they need, rather than saying like, "This is what we're offering you."

I think it's almost important for, especially white people who are in positions where they're contributing culturally to the community or highlighting certain things in the community, is kind of just accepting this notion that we're going to screw up and do our best not to. Then just be receptive instead of being defensive. That's such an important thing.

It's really hard to do in the moment, but it's heartening to hear that more and more places are doing that and thinking about it, and not being reactive.

Graeme: Anything else we didn’t touch on yet that you wanted to address?

Nathaniel: I could go for...

Mackenzie: Cake. [laughs]

Nathaniel: Oh yeah, cake.

Mackenzie: Sorry.

Nathaniel: When I go to museums in general, whoever I'm with, I'm always dumbing it down. Mostly, just so nobody has expectations from me to say something really profound. Also, so I can get comfortable being around amazing talented artists and artworks.

One of the things I always kept joking about— not really, I was serious about it—was the only real food in any of the photos was cake. I just kind of, I don't know...I don't have any final thought to that, other than that it was just something I noticed.

Talk about dumbing down somebody's body of work. Like, "I don't know. I left the exhibition and I was just hungry for cake.” But especially that picnic cake, and champagne. Did you notice the bottle of bubbly they had?

Mackenzie: That was an appealing picnic all around.

Nathaniel: [sigh] Oh man, yeah. It's not like...I don't think you should offer cake.

Mackenzie: But, maybe.

Nathaniel: Maybe, yeah.

Mackenzie: We would have liked cake.





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December 26, 2017
Director of Communications

Graeme is a Maine native who, after ten years living in New York and the west coast, decided to come back and set up shop in Portland. In addition to the PMA, he's held positions at GQ, Rogues Gallery, and Might & Main. He lives in Yarmouth, where he spends most of his free time with his daughters, Ramona and Maude.