Writing Landscape in Always Vessels

“Maps are official, legitimating documents. They, like modernist museums, have the authority of the official, the authenticated. They, like museums, are not neutral, may be inaccurate, may bear little relationship to territory – the concrete that they supposedly accurately reflect. Maps and museums both bring the world into an apparent single, rational framework, with unified, ordered, and assigned relationships between nature, the arts, and cultures. Museums, like maps, construct relationships, propose hierarchies, define territories, and present a view. Through those things that are made visible and those things that are left invisible, views and values are created. These values relate to spaces, objects and identities.” (Eilean Hooper-Greenhill)

Always Vessels is an exhibition of diverse and very different aesthetics: an exhibition that offers various interpretations of the initial curatorial premise, and where the works stand alone, conceptually and formally, as successful – perhaps more so – than when they interrelate. I’ll offer an excerpt from the curatorial statement by Alexandra Kahsenni:io Nahwegahbow, who originated this exhibition for the Carleton University Art Gallery.

Vessels “features nine contemporary Anishinaabek and Haudenosaunee artists who draw from multiple forms of training, and whose media and subjects range widely – from glass beads to photography, and from language to land. Yet their processes remain primarily informed by the contemporary translation of traditional knowledge as material and embodied practice. Their works offer insights into the tremendous range of skills and techniques unique to the Anishinaabek and the Haudenosaunee and the ways that knowledge, in its tangible and intangible forms, can at once embody, carry and hold meaning.

As Native people, when we think about our belongings—things made by our hands, minds and voices—whether they are found in an exhibition, a book, in museum storage, out on the land or in a family member’s living room, we’re never really just thinking about them as things. They are, rather, meaningful objects, songs and stories that have the ability to carry, hold and transmit memory across time and space. Metaphorically, they are always vessels.”

Several artists in this are hopefully familiar to you if you’ve visited Rodman Hall, or the VISA gallery in MIWSFPA, over the past two years. These are Barry Ace, Carrie Hill, Nadya Kwandibens, Jean Marshall, Pinock Smith, Natasha Smoke Santiago, Samuel Thomas, Olivia Whetung and the work that stands out the most, for me, by Vanessa Dion Fletcher. Its to your left, as you enter the back gallery descending the short steps, and is Writing Landscape, created in 2012.

A look backwards before engaging fully with Landscape: Dion Fletcher had the strongest, in my opinion, contribution to Reading The Talk, and hopefully you had a chance to see that show at Rodman Hall.

Writing Landscape could be a singular work, or could be understood as a triptych. It’s time based (and I don’t mean that in terms of how one component is a video loop of a performance, like the first or last word in the sentence she has installed on the wall).

From left to right: Dion Fletcher has monochromatic intaglio prints, then the two “copper plates” from which these prints were made, and then a large monitor documenting the artist wearing said plates as shoes, walking in various landscapes. Ambient sound of the performance is both subtle and a bit savage, as her (bare except for the copper) feet in some scenes (the camera is stationary, as she moves towards or away from it) show the damage and pain of her performative endeavour.

In this respect, as you move from print to plate to performance, you understand that Landscape can also be read “backwards.” The “order of creation” is performance, to the whorls and dents and “scars” in the copper plates, and then the prints made as indexical [foot]prints of Dion Fletcher’s experience. Just as some languages are read left to right, or right to left, or how other writers (ee cummings, bpNichol) modify the form of language / writing to better serve content, Dion Fletcher offers a work that echoes – and thus personalizes – her own focus on language and identity.

The strength in this piece is how differing ideas and streams of narrative intersect and augment each other, offering consideration but not overwriting each other. Dion Fletcher is “writing the lands” or the land is “writing her.” The plates (“shoes”) are an immediate form of ‘mapmaking’, conceptually recording the landscape, and the wear and tear and pain in her feet is another form of experiential landscape). The intaglio prints are the first you see as you approach the work, but the final work chronologically, and despite the use of “distancing” technology with the video, is the most “remote” and removed “landscape” presented.

This expands in an interpretation of land as less didactic geography (James Sakai Henderson has pointed out that the basis of contracts about land is more about ownership, as a commodity to profit from, and not to experience, which is a more oral tradition) but as a place of memory, understanding and knowledge. Dion Fletcher has made a “record” of the land, and the land has made “marks” on her.

Language and Mapping (note the capitals) intertwine and challenge and transform each other in Dion Fletcher’s work. There’s a ubiquitous nature to these concepts (as in her previous work that used that insidious “equalizer” of money), as there’s an understated – even denied – assertion of veracity in maps, museums and naming.

It makes sense to end with the artist’s words: “This work began in my mouth with my voice and moved down to my feet, and the earth. My art practice explores themes of communication, identity and the body. My current trajectory is rooted in language, (mis)communications and failures to communicate. This work to the form of parabolas investigating shape, as an internment for communication both formally and conceptually. More recently I have been focusing on ideas of fluency and understanding in the context of my Potawatomi and Lenape ancestry. Having no direct access to my ancestral Aboriginal languages has inspired me to explore the notion of communication without words.”

Always Vessels runs until the 11th of March, 2018 at Rodman Hall Art Centre.

Loss and Memory / Brendan Fernandes’ Philia pulses within the walls of Rodman Hall Art Centre

There’s few artworks as powerful as those which speak directly, even personally, to you. Much is ascribed to “Art”, especially in the “Trumpian” era where (too) many presume artists are magical unicorns and saviours. Frequently, that’s aggrandizing bullshit from charlatans. Rarely, it’s so true that it leaves you silent and almost shocked at how the artist managed to reach into your heart and place it on the wall; even, as with Brendan FernandesPhilia, to evoke people and times you’ve forgotten, and leave you wondering how you mislaid that history, manifest in friends and family, that was / is so important. There’s power in artworks “where the past could pull you backward.” (Piccirilli)

Philia is part of the first installment of Emma German’s year-long Rodman Hall curatorial project Up Close and In Motion. I’ll be sitting down with Emma to talk more about it, and the ideas behind it, in future issues, as it changes and as local artists respond visually. This current chapter in this visual history of RHAC (and the reflected larger community) has three works, in the Hansen Gallery. Don’t mistake my singular focus on Philia as dismissing Genevieve Cadieux’s Séquence no. 7 or Michel Daigneault’s Tremor #1. They both deserve your time and repeated visits.

Fernandes’s piece was part of his exhibition Brendan Fernandes: They, at RHAC in 2014. Philia was part of “Encomium, a performance work based on a series of written scores that were inspired by Plato’s Symposium, a classical text in which love is examined through speeches of praise. Performed at Rodman Hall… Encomium consisted of two male dancers tenuously counter-balancing before separating.”

Philia sits above one of the offwhite marble fireplaces, in the left hand room as you enter the Hansen space. Neon and plexiglass (from an edition of three), the letters flash in pink then red, spelling out EROS and SOS, respectively. The font is decorative. The room pulses. Fernandes’ art is often shaped by his training in classical / modern dance, and Philia is “a repetitive dance that communicates conflicting messages of love and caution” (from the didactics by German).

However, its the following that elevated Philia: “In alluding to SOS, a universal signal of distress, Fernandes makes reference to the ongoing HIV/AIDS pandemic, and the effects of pain and loss felt when love is severed.” And I was suddenly reminded of the blind spot in Canadian art history regarding the (too) many artists lost to HIV/AIDS, and the many works that are truthful and tragic mementos of that time. Among the best is General Idea’s One Year of AZT (a room filled with giant pills, of a drug that was one of many hopeful / hopeless failing treatments. I recommend the fine movie Dallas Buyers Club to revisit that crisis). G.I.’s reworking / updating of Robert Indiana’s LOVE series (blissful psychedelia executed in the 1960s) into AIDS (remember when Maggie Thatcher floated the idea of HIV camps? Memory is dangerous and necessary, and Art — note the capital — a landmark for uncomfortable remembering).

Only one member of General Idea remains: the deathbed portrait of Felix Partz (Felix, June 5, 1994) by AA Bronson is horrifyingly intimate. There’s an oft cited (and misunderstood) line from Adorno: “To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Some interpreted that as a moratorium: others understand that its necessary to speak “barbarically”, not to ignore (like lurid neon, enticing with a throbbing pink pulse, a bit raw. Or a deathbed portrait of Partz succumbing to an epidemic that was too often “invisible”).

Fernandes work’s a bit gaudy: too bright, too loud, too flowery; somewhat brittle and facile, like an overtly false smile, hiding sadness, and the delicate frailty of the neon almost openly alludes to hollowness (a memento mori in inappropriately vibrant drag). There’s ides of “performative masculinity” that suggests you can’t be weak, you can’t be vulnerable, you can’t be unsure or sad or weeping or soft. The emphatic, neon urgency of Philia eschews that.

Fernandes’ artwork is often performative: so its unsurprising that Philia is an “active” work with its “heartbeat”, but how it plays on the domestic Hansen gallery enhances this. The room seems so empty, like something / someone is absent, and the “words” over the mantle are indexical spurs to recollection (Amy Friend’s exhibition Assorted Boxes of Ordinary Life used the fireplace in a similar manner, with familial “heirlooms” installed above it, as repositories of memory. RHAC again employs its “domestic” space well).

I’m old enough to have lost a number of friends to HIV/AIDS. I remember Day Without Art, when, bluntly, it mattered. On my repeated visits to RHAC, the words of Ursula K.Le Guin resonate: “There are always areas of vast silence in any culture, and part of an artist’s job is to go into those areas and come back from the silence with something to say.”

Up Close and In Motion will evolve over the next year: several artists will be installing visual responses to differing incarnations, as curated by Emma German. A curator’s talk (and talk with The Sound) is upcoming.