The seductive works of Yam Lau

Oftentimes, when confronted with art that is highly specific in its use of digital technology, there is a distancing, or an almost palpable space between the artwork and the viewer. This need not be a negative experience. If you happened to see Jennifer Steinkamp’s work in Ecotopia, recently at the College Gallery, it’s so artificial that it seems a world unto itself, inside the monitor. It was like an artificial environment, remote and untouchable, and very beautiful.

Yam Lau’s Inaugurations (Two Instances of Illuminations) at PAVED arts, however, seem to invite an intimacy with the viewer: this is despite the bare nature of the gallery and the antiseptic cleanliness of the installation. The larger projection, nearly wall sized, is not quite directly across from the smaller, white-boxed monitor. This mild misalignment allows you to engage with one work at a time, allowing you to interact with either “space” exclusively.

This is helpful, as both are scenes with voyeuristic overtones. The larger projection, on a loop, brings us to a scene of a young woman, seemingly unaware of our intrusive gaze. She seems upset, and her positioning – her back to us, but facing a mirror in her “room” – allows us to see her facial expressions while avoiding direct engagement with her. The sole audio in the space is rainfall, corresponding to the film of “rain” in the image, hinting that we’re outside, like someone who desperately needs to see this person, or this scene unfold, and will brave the elements. There’s no menace, no implication of stalking, in our looking. She sits, weeping, before rising to leave, seemingly no happier and just as oblivious to our gaze.

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This “ignorance” – not in a pejorative sense – of our presence is also occurring in the smaller work. The “boxing” of the monitor in a white structured frame is both effective in breaking that hideous “let’s put a television on a wall and pretend its art” laziness and quite lovely. It works in both a formalist manner of “hiding” the tech, but also in terms of continuing the “whiteness” of the space to privilege the scenes in the darkened gallery.

The smaller image rotates, featuring a transparent cube in an empty (gallery?) space, where a man and a woman seem to engage in private, domestic tasks, sometimes folding clothes, sometimes reading and undressing, as though we’re not even there. The scene is not entirely clear as to whether it’s a projection on the clear walls, or actual figures within it. The players don’t seem to interact with each other, and of course, don’t interact with us anymore than their singular counterpart in the other work. Which is really there, or if they’re ghosts or imaginings, from one to the other, is vague.

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I’m sure I could come to an appropriate, “factual” conclusion about this: but this would simply cramp the ethereal experience. I prefer to think that everyone is really “there”, the same way that I’m part of this scene, and my interaction with him or her is real, as well.

My suspicion regarding artist talks is well known, and I’d paraphrase someone whose cynicism makes me blush in commenting that artists should tell you what they ate while making the work, as everything else they say is just as (not) relevant. I’m not quite that dour: and Lau’s talk was one of the more engaged and enlightening in terms of his current work that I’ve seen. His past works have also played with notions of space, reflection, and the idea of seeing oneself and your environment in alternate ways. He joked that an earlier, almost dangerously fragile glasswork that incorporated the works of poet Paul Celan was his first projection, as it let light shine through it, to shadow Celan’s words on the wall.

Celan was a survivor of the concentration and death camps of World War II. His writings (specifically Todusfuge, or in English, Deathfugue) are both poignant and cutting, and like many camp survivors (Primo Levi, Jean Améry), he took his own life (I highly recommend, on a side note, the anthology Holocaust Poetry, edited by Hilda Schiff). There is an element of absence, and they hint at things lost and gone, in the works of Yam Lau: a presence and an absence, and the title of Inaugurations (Two Instances of Illumination) seems to suggest that brevity and intangible transience…

The Child Taken / Mendel Art Gallery

I’ve been reading Boris Groys’ excellent book The Art of Stalinism, and it’s fascinating not just for it’s unvarnished look at a much misunderstood period in the history of art, but also for some of the asides (often barbed) he makes about “Western” art history. One of these is the idea that “real art” is somehow separate of economy, or class, or the other strictures and structures of society. The writing you’ll see in Canadian Art is a good example of this: but ignoring class just makes very clear the higher position you hold, that others “below” you can’t ignore.

That hypocrisy is in my mind for this reason (and another I’ll mention later), when I experience The Child Taken in the auditorium space at the Mendel Art Gallery. This was a partnership between the Saskatoon Tribal Council and the Department of Art and Art History at the U of S that happened this summer. The works had been exhibited in the Snelgrove Gallery on campus, but this is a more appropriate site. I mean this in terms of potential attendance numbers (the Mendel always does well, which makes political discourses a bit stronger) but also in terms of a metaphorical site as the Mendel is not so conflicted (or bluntly hypocritical) about race as the Art Department.

The description of the project is as follows: “The Child Taken art commemoration project honours the resilience of the children taken from their families and homes for generations and placed in Indian Residential Schools. This exhibition of senior student artwork was created in response to Indian residential school stories told by Elders in a unique project partnership between the Saskatoon Tribal Council and University of Saskatchewan Department of Art and Art History”.

The downstairs space is somewhat sparse, and the works are few in number, but often quite powerful in affect and content. The room is dominated by Kayla Prive’s New Child, and you can see why this is the work that was chosen to be enlarged to a massive and powerful size. It’s hopeful: and in that respect it does look forward, as we live in a country that is being made appropriately uncomfortable about its history, and where Idle No More has not “fizzled out” so much as focused and expanded (or consider that the upstairs exhibition of Contemporary Drawing from the National Gallery is very heavy on works from Cape Dorset, which would have been unthinkable thirty years ago…)

Corinna Wollf’s The Fourth Hill presents imagery both familiar and haunting, and Wollf’s words, alongside the image, are eloquent and evocative. Hill is dominated by an image of Alvin Cote, whom you may remember from an award-winning piece in the SP that talked about him, and his life on the streets, and what brought him to that space, as well as his recent death. Wollf writes very clearly and honestly about her encounters with Alvin, and how we sometimes see people, and see their histories, or how sometimes we chose not to see them at all. This is a more localized version of what is considered “history”, or truth, or what is not. Consider that the National Post recently polled its readers (as it so often does, on many polarizing topics) about Residential Schools, and there was no lack of individuals willing to declare them “not so bad” when they had neither experienced them, or knew anyone who had…

This brings me back to the aforementioned hypocrisy, as another work of note is Nicole Paul’s Unwanted Children of the Indian Residential Schools. Nicole samples text from artist Cathy Busby, specifically Busby’s appropriation of the PM’s apology for residential schools. Some of you may remember Busby’s Budget Cuts billboard that was on 20th Street several years ago, which has become a touchstone (for me and many others) about how politicians are gleeful liars. Budget Cuts listed all the Aboriginal focused programs eliminated by the Harper Gov’t™ since the “apology”. Talk is cheap when the actions that follow are the same, or worse.

This raises another point: it’s odd the Art Department is engaged in this project. If you’ve seen the TransformUS report that came out of that area, you’ll note section 5.1, BFA honours program, “Faculty Member awarded SAB Lieutenant Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award.” That’s obviously Ruth Cuthand, who last taught there in 2005 (since none of the rest of them have ever even been in the running for this award) – as a sessional, not faculty. Ruth also expressed exasperation to me about when she did apply for a tenure position at the U of S…

I add this screen grab with the appropriate areas highlighted, as there’s been some “controversy” regarding this assertion and it has led to some bullying from respective parties. You can click on it, to see a larger version.

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There’s no finer definition of institutional racism than passing of the work of others as your own, while keeping those same individuals away from genuine power. Further: Adrian Stimson (whose works about his residential school experience was featured in a recent Canadian Art) has severed his relationship with A + AH, due to their “handling” of an accusation of systematic racism / academic bullying…

But let’s speak of positive things: and the works in Taken are a necessary and poignant bridge. There’s also a video in the corner, with participants (Elders and the artists). The aforementioned debate in the NP was marked by pre-existing rigid assertions, and how Taken is more one of communication, and ensuring that history is honoured, unpleasant truths intact. Too often institutions – especially “educational” ones – are willing manufacturers of ideological excuses. But many institutions (and individuals) in as the rest of the country are being dragged, sometimes kicking and screaming, towards an acknowledgement that one must go forward, before you can move ahead…

 

A Word / Spring 2014 Relaunch and Redesign

As some of you may have (hopefully) noticed, the blog and the site have been done for a little while, while I did some maintenance and transfer, and also used the opportunity to decide what the blog should, could and can be, as regards fostering debate about art in Saskatoon. So, in light of that I’ve “retconned” the blog to be from 2014 onwards and will be looking to explore a few more topics and ideas that intersect with Saskatoon’s “site of contested narratives”. Hence there is now a category specifically labeled “Politics”, so that should be interesting, in light of this place and my own, and its own, histories….

There are several people to thank: Troy Gronsdahl, who is to credit or blame for the original incarnation of the A Word, and supplying support both technical and moral. It is funny to remember the conversation at Alexanders years ago that led to all this…

Enjoy. And suggestions, input and other ideas are always welcome.