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A new sound art exhibit at the Confederate Memorial Chapel uses powerful oration to reflect on a country united



Come in close next to one of the 12 speakers. Better yet, stand at the pulpit of the Confederate Memorial Chapel. There you can physically feel the throaty, forcefully spoken words of U.S. Representative John Lewis—a Civil Rights leader who has served in Georgia's 5th District since 1987—interspersed with the sharp staccato bangs of a gavel.

The audio bounces from one speaker to the next in quick succession leaving listeners disoriented but spellbound, rooted to a single spot. Another track plays the whispers and shuffling of the other people in the room as Lewis speaks to the House of Representatives in 1998 at the impeachment hearings for then-president Bill Clinton.

This muffled sound, which similarly bounces rapidly from one speaker to the next, resembles a rushing wind — the noise seems to be nowhere but everywhere all at once.

The short, 2 minute and 20 second clip rises to a crescendo, along with rapping gavel, as Lewis declares: "The wind may blow [rap]. The Thunder may roll [rap]. The lightning may flash [rap]. But we must never leave the American house [rap]. We must stay together as a family [rap]. One house [rap]. One family [rap]. The American house. [rap]. The American family."

It's a powerful oration made palpable in "Impeach" (2006) a sound installation by artist Donald Moffett, recently purchased by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in conjunction with the Brooklyn Museum and installed at the Confederate Memorial Chapel on the grounds.

Moffett's art falls into many categories and "Impeach," which was recorded by the artist while watching the proceedings on CNN, was his first immersive sound piece. Moffett emerged during the 1980s as a founding member of Gran Fury Collective, best known for works like "Silence=Death" (1987) in response to the AIDS crisis and the Reagan's administration silence on the matter. The museum's Sydney and Frances Lewis family curator of modern and contemporary art, Valerie Cassel Oliver, had worked with Moffett earlier on the retrospective "Donald Moffett: the Extravagant Vein" at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston in 2011, where "Impeach" was exhibited.

Previously, "Impeach" had only been installed in the white cube of a gallery space and Oliver explains that when installing art in the chapel, the museum treads very carefully. InLight 2015 is the only other time the chapel has housed contemporary art, which drew protests from the Virginia Flaggers at the time after a review in Style.

However, the chapel made sense as a site because "this retains a layer of history with why the chapel was built in the first place," explains Oliver. "It was built as a site of reflection and meditation but also one that heralded reconciliation between the North and the South. … So it made sense that John Lewis's speech and oration would resonate within this."

The Confederate Memorial Chapel was built in 1887 with funds provided by private residents, veterans and money from the sale of donated tobacco. Since 2015, the museum has operated the building, which is open 365 days a year.

While the stained-glass windows feature Confederate flag motifs and the central archway declares, "This Chapel is Dedicated to the Memory of the Confederate Dead," the chapel was used by Southern and Northern veterans for reunions, lectures and other events. A pair of stained-glass windows at the front of the chapel feature U.S. shields that served as emblems for the North and the South. They stand adjacent to one another in reconciliation.

Although "Impeach" focuses on a contentious political moment in American politics, Oliver maintains that she doesn't see it as a political piece.

"It's not about politics. It's about the unification of this country and the understanding that we are a family," she says. "That we have come to several salient moments within our history where we have been on the brink of being torn apart."

That distinction is important. Experiencing "Impeach" in the chapel is different than learning about it and the political context of 1998. I heard it twice while at the museum and then I replayed it several times at home after researching the actors involved—Moffett, Lewis and Clinton — and watching the impeachment hearings on C-Span. I became bogged down with the extended narrative. Yet, I kept recalling the experience of being there. Concentrating. Hearing and experiencing the audio in that space close to the speakers and listening to the clanging gavel that rings out alongside Lewis' words: "We must stay together as a family. One house. One family. The American house. The American family."

It was overwhelming in a visceral way. I can't shake that feeling. I don't want to.

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