Given the brief, if rich history that has preceded the Portland Art Museum's presentation of local artist MK Guth's installation "Ties of Protection and Safe Keeping," the show itself (part of the ongoing APEX series) might seem like a bit of a victory lap. Not only was the piece chosen for this year's Whitney Biennial, it was also the product of a dialogue Guth opened with the public in cities across the country. As the in-progress "Ties" made its way east for the Biennial, the artist invited participants to contribute to it: By first considering what they believe to be worth protecting and then writing their answers on a strip of red flannel, later incorporated into a mammoth braid of synthetic hair.
Allusions to the Rapunzel fairy tale dominated Guth's most recent hometown solo exhibition, 2006's Growing Stories at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery, but, here, her use of the braid literally weaves multiple significations together. As an emblem of collective strength, the braid perfectly reflects the communal spirit that spawned it; its weave even puns on "social fabric." Likewise, just as Rapunzel's braid was transformed from a symbol of her captivity to her freedom, the naming of those things individuals value most parlays a fear of their vulnerability into a ritual of preservation.
While "Ties" is buoyed by its conceptual strength, there's nonetheless a visceral response to seeing more than a quarter-mile of flaxen hair, flecked with dangling red strips. With no clear point of entry, the braid loops and sags, coils on the floor, crisscrosses, and generally creates a dense, smothering web. The disorientation of its physicality is mirrored by the sheer range of individual answers, which run from patently earnest ("freedom," "stories, memories") to flip ("my manhood, bro," "my integrity, I guess"). Still, there's something touching in the way Guth's project goads participants into declaring the few things they cherish most of all. Through art—and the detached safety representation affords—she was able to engage segments of the public in candid, if momentary self-examination. It's as if, through the distraction of an artistic exercise, she persuades her audience to let down its own hair, escape a self-imposed prison of cynicism and self-doubt, and revel in those essential ties that bind us to the world and to one another.