Memory and Place: At an Intersection of Nations

but they had their being once
and left a place to stand on.
Al Purdy, Roblin’s Mills

Its fitting that the first exhibition to open, and the first event of Celebration of Nations, was Awakening of the Spirit in the VISA Gallery, curated by Samuel Thomas. This became clear at the last event I attended (the curatorial talk on the Sunday following the Thursday opening reception), when Samuel spoke of his selections for this show. He began with the works of Daphne Odjig; one of her pieces (In Touch With Her Spirit) was also the main media image for the show, and (a testament to the quality of her work) seemed to become a defacto visual signifier for the several days worth of events that comprised Celebration

Its also appropriate as Odjig’s activism (and artwork) opened doors – sometimes forcing them open, sometimes knocking them down – for many Indigenous visual artists, and by extension, many people. Awakening the Spirit, to paraphrase Thomas, was built around three images specifically, as the basis for whats in the gallery. The first of these was Odjig’s aforementioned Spirit, then Norval Morrisseau’s Virgin Mary and then Carl Beam’s Apache Spirit Dancer (he also commented that the overall title of the exhibition takes its impetus from the spiritual focus of the three “foundation” works). This isn’t to say these are the only notable pieces, whether talking about aesthetic quality or historical relevance: Joshim Kakegamic, Roy Thomas, Leland Bell, Simon Brascoupe, Bruce King and Christi Belcourt round out the wall works, and Vince Bomberry and Carl Simeon have sculptural works here, as well. Its a strong, quality exhibition, with the possibility of connections and challenges between many of the images and objects on display.

In Touch With Her Spirit, Daphne Odjig

Samuel Thomas joked that he didn’t want to present “something that looked like a yard sale” and he’s done a fine job here in what he’s shepherded into the gallery. Unsurprising, really, as he’s an artist and activist (and a past recipient of the OAC’s Aboriginal Arts Award) and his manner was one that echoed his words of wanting to share the vision of Suzanne Rochon – Burnett, and her collection.

There are several important intersecting narratives that converge in the gallery. I’ve said before that art history is a form of history, and the legacies of Odjig, Morrisseau and Beam are very much the notion of having been the shoulders upon which others stood and are still standing.

One of the last exhibitions I saw in Saskatchewan was at the MacKenzie Art Gallery. This was 7: Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. and was an exploration of what’s colloquially called the “Indian Group of Seven.” (I might interject a line Thomas cited in his VISA talk, of Odjig asking why her work was described relative to Picasso, and why Picasso isn’t compared to her, as she was (is) more relevant her. This might be a bit of misspoken recollection, by Thomas – or me, hah – as Morrisseau, not Odjig, was often labelled the “Picasso of the North”, but the more relevant question of who / where is the arbiter of quality still stands).

The large room that is the VISA can be walked / read counter clockwise (this is how Thomas toured the works, and it’s an effective approach). The artists’ works aren’t interspersed, so it can be read like chapters, which helped Thomas to build the story around his choices.

Morrisseau and Odjig were also teachers (of Thomas and Bell, according to Samuel Thomas) and the creation and support of Indigenised institutions is ongoing and still important. Thomas spoke of the Manitoulin School (this could refer to formal groups or more organic ones within the Woodlands tradition) and these community centred initiatives are still promoting and preparing Indigenous artists (the current Brock Chancellor, Shirley Cheechoo, is a contemporary chapter in this with the Weengushk Film Institute).

There is a diversity of style: Simon Brascoupe’s works are more like petroglyphs, with the acrylic looking more like stains within stencils, and Bruce King’s works are more thickly and richly painted, with the acrylic juicy and gooey. Morrisseau and Odjig are more “flat” in the use of colour. Morrisseau is arguably the best known example of the Woodlands School, and immediately recognisable. (Another personal interjection, which I do less as a marker of subjectivity, but of the importance of these artists: one of the first artists I ever encountered as a boy, who made me want to be part of that world, was Morrisseau. His illustrations for Legends of my People, The Great Ojibway, introduced me to the strength and power of his work.)

The space is full, but not crammed. The bright colours and strong flowing lines of Odjig and Morrisseau compliment each other, with exceptions: four more earthy and sensual images by Odjig have more formally in common with Carl Beam’s works, diagonally across the room. Beam’s large paper works (sometimes silkscreen, sometimes emulsion and ink) are more restrained in tone and hue, but this gives power to his appropriated images, often political in nature (several of his works are scattered around the Marilyn I. Walker School, on display year round). Beam was well known for his desire to be known as an “Indian who makes Art”, not an “Indian Artist.” An important distinction, when many spaces (half a century ago, and yes, still now) employ tokenism or ghetto mentalities in labelling Indigenous artists (for example, a University Art Acquisitions committee member – at an anonymous place, in Saskatoon, ahem – once barked they had money for “real” artists and “other” money for “Indian artists”…and many artist run centres are just as segregated, though their lip service to “indigenisation” is as loud as it is hollow). At this moment, allow me to employ the soapbox I seem to have found myself standing upon to praise the PAC (Performing Arts Centre) as the locus point for Celebration of Nations. I’d add that it was announced that Annie Wilson is now in the employ of the PAC, and that should please anyone who knows her work with In the Soil.  

Returning to VISA: Beam’s works are subtle, sometimes darkly dense and requiring a focused attention to parse the images, and other times they’re like decoding a puzzle, with his sampled images being presented in a manner that requires us to read them like a visual sentence. Albert in the Blue Zone, Chief, Spirit of the Eagle: all are strong pieces, and you can understand the curator’s desire to not mix & match the artists here, but allow their singular voices to speak. Beam builds on Joshim Kakegamic (also a printmaker, and one of the founders / facilitators of the Triple K Co – operative Press that helped disseminate Morrisseu’s images to so many places where so many of us encountered them) and then Thomas adds another voice to the story, and so on, and we go further in this visual history of Indigenous / Canadian Art.

Thomas ended with Christi Belcourt (as regards wall works) and this offers not so much a “conclusion” as an updating to contemporary dialogue, as Belcourt’s Untitled acts as a marker of her own ongoing advocacy. Untitled, though acrylic on canvas, has aspects of patterning that are also seen in the pieces by Roy Thomas, and Belcourt’s role as a Metis artist / activist is a good image to take with you as you visit NAC (Niagara Artists Centre) to see We Aspire: an exhibit of work by Métis artists in Niagara (but we’ll get there, in a moment).

As Odjig passed in 2016, this also offers a sense of continuity, and of a new generation acting on the example of the old…(the quote I began this piece with is an acknowledgement that many of the artists in Spirit have passed, and their artworks are a foundation for those of us who are here now).

But it’s worth noting that the politics that suffuse the room are not suffocating, nor do they act as justifications for poor work, as we see too often in contemporary Canadian “art.” When Thomas talked about Bruce King’s acrylic works, he directly stated that he enjoyed them greatly, and wished to share King’s fine paintings with others. The works are political, but also aesthetically engaging, and may – as I experienced – also remind viewers of the first time they saw an Odjig or Morrisseau, and were struck by its beauty.

The almost minimalist use of paint by Brascoupe (simple and sparse, more about symbols and edges that are very clean but then fade like dust, in 6 Roosters or Birds – Tree of Life) plays well off the glotty, textural surfaces of Bruce King. Two Crows or Sioux Country become abstracted and gooey as you stand in front of them, colour like paste and putty, but stepping back allows the scenes to coalesce and become small scenes that transcend their medium.

This show is a taste of what’s to come, curator Samuel Thomas promised, and in conversation he indicated that the breadth and depth of the Suzanne Rochon- Burnett Collection was almost intimidating. Many works needed to be framed for this show, and many were relocated from pride of place in living spaces where, to paraphrase Rochon -Burnett’s daughter, they eat breakfast or do day to day work “with” them. I won’t attempt to encapsulate Rochon – Burnett’s life and contributions to culture, as its done far better here. The quality of the work presented, and how Thomas indicated that each of these artists was a personal friend, and how their works and their larger historical roles also played out in Rochon – Burnett’s own life, offers an inspired intersection of art and life.

Conversely, it was a bit difficult to endure several of the speeches the night the exhibition opened (your intrepid #artcriticfromhell considered heckling them, but my mouth was often full of bison, ahem). Hearing the chair of Brock’s Board of Directors so heartily congratulate Brock on its support of cultural communities was galling hypocrisy, considering their incompetence / ignorance / arguably malevolence (edit as you like), with Martin Van Zon / Interkom and the AGN cabal, with Rodman Hall. At a wonderful symposium at the Mendel Art Gallery years ago, Dr. Len Findlay pointed out that universities are often willing and able manufacturers of alibis for the ideological state apparatus, as in governments and politicians; the latter, or variant nameless Brock administrators (like the ones who arbitrarily and anonymously cancelled the hiring of a new Rodman Director), are better at mimicking ethics, but still as poor (or uninterested) at actualizing them.

I mention this not to remount my soapbox, but to step outside the gallery, and to temper the hopefulness of the several days of Celebration of Nations with the reality of a stuttering, sputtering Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women. I know many who will say “residential schools weren’t so bad” despite never knowing anyone who went to one. I’ve offered to introduce some of this very sure, if very ignorant, throng to friends and acquaintances I met in my time out west that would offer first person accounts that not only challenge that assertion, but bulldoze it fully….sometimes they even say “yes” to this and change their minds. 

Leaving Awakening The Spirit (this is in the VISA until the end of September), there are two exhibitions at NAC (Niagara Artist Centre) that intersect with Spirit, and that further the dialogue from Celebration of Nations. We Aspire (An exhibit of work by Métis artists in Niagara) is in the Dennis Tourbin Members Gallery and features the works of Brian Kon, Sterling Kon, Amanda Pont-Shanks, and Julia Simone. This is only briefly on display, until the 22nd of September, and was supported by the Niagara Region Métis Council, as well as the PAC.

The statement: “Honouring the tradition of Métis dot art and bead work, We Aspire features work by four Métis visual artists living in Niagara. The custom of bead patterning was traditionally used by the Métis to adorn their clothes, equipment and animals.” Mixing the traditional with the contemporary, the words of Brian Kon are succinct: “The Métis were known as the ‘flower bead people’, my art is intended to honour the skills and artistry of my ancestors by using traditional and historic bead patterns as the inspiration for my work.”

NAC’s Dennis Tourbin space is a responsive one, often in (positive) flux, with many local artists using it as both an experimental arena, but it also, with its short exhibition spans and the excellent engagement with local artists and communities by NAC, offers immediate representations of Niagara.

There is a similarity of form in these works, but individual characteristics of the artists manifest here and there. The titles offer a personal touch: Brian Kon’s Grandmother’s Garden evokes a sense of family, with its not quite mirrored floral design; Amanda Pont-Shanks Rocks, delicately painted make you want to pick them up and hold them in your hand, and have a connection to those who held them before, and will hold them after; Sterling Kron’s After Batoche names a site – and a chapter – of Canadian history that, depending if you learned it in school or not, illustrates the contested histories of what was / what is / what might yet be Canada. Untitled, also by Kron is equally yet subtly political, as it offers a vibrant blue and white rendering of the Métis symbol that you may recognize from flags and other insignia of these peoples whom are too often ignored or forgotten when we talk about the Nations of Canada. Its the first work on the left gallery wall, and if you enter through that door, it will be what greets you as you begin looking at We Aspire. If you come from the other side, it will be the last work that you see as you leave NAC and step outside. Both of these are fitting for experiencing this show, and the history and ideas the artists encapsulate in their works.

But before you leave NAC, the back Showroom Gallery beckons you to visit the first programmed exhibition of Fall 2017 at the centre. You can read my preview of Where the Weather Happens, curated by Amy Malbeuf and Jessie Short, with works by Jason Baerg, Jaime Koebel and Sheri Nault arranged around the large gallery space, here. The two shows on display at NAC are, to use that metaphor again, chapters: Weather is the result of the curators’ research into “the diversity and skill of Métis artists working across Canada…Through this exhibition, the artists’ works are placed in conversation with each other, exploring the human relationship with the natural world. Each artist explores these relationships as an individual informed by their worldview as a Métis person.”

Baerg and Nault “face” each other, with a sculptural work by Nault suspended in the middle of the space. Koebel has works at the “front” and “back” of the gallery. Similar to how Awakening the Spirit presented the individual works of the many artists there as “wholes”, Weather also allows Baerg’s Ayaniskach Pimâcihowin / Time Journey (acrylic on laser cut canvas) to occupy the entire left wall. There’s pieces both fat and slim, solid and shredded, to create a “landscape” of symbols that might be eclipses or planets, like celestial calendar markings on a white wall.

Nault’s Entangled Bodies (3) is directly behind you, in the middle of the space, as you face the middle “segment” of Baerg’s Ayaniskach Pimâcihowin (he employs the natural breaks in the wall to “frame” his work). Bodies (3) – like Entangled Bodies (2) and Entangled Bodies (4) – is comprised of a mixture of organic materials, including wood (bark or log, depending on the piece), wax or beeswax, human hair and rope, though the last seems more as part of the installation of these objects, which hang either freely in space or just out from the right hand wall. But the shadows cast front and back, when combined with the gentle swaying of the delicate exposed roots of Bodies (3) give the work a span beyond its physical self, with the silhouettes stretching out into the room. Though smaller in size, Entangled Bodies (4), with pale waxen fingers either emerging like blooms from the tree bark, may be the strongest of Nault’s contributions to Where the Weather Happens. In the accompanying text from Malbeuf and Short, this work is alluded to with Nault “not claiming the place she now lives but letting it claim her.”

Before I go much further, here’s more from the curatorial text: “The troposphere is a layer of the earth’s atmosphere in which human beings exist, connecting the land to the perceived sky. It is the place where nearly all of the weather on earth happens. The works of Jason Baerg, Jaime Koebel and Sheri Nault activate the land and sky, and all that is within, through their intimate and delicate expression of deep connection to this space of energetic flux. Where The Weather Happens is an expression of the relationship and interactions between the land and sky as beings who live within this space.” (This hangs on the wall, in the gallery proper, ephemeral and soft, positioned so you might see it last, after walking in and among the art.)

The same language could be applied to the works of Norval Morrisseau or Daphne Odjig in Awakening The Spirit, and the often meditative yet ornate pieces in We Aspire. The materials in use by the three artists in Weather, however, are more demonstrative of the sentiments expressed, as with Koebel’s deer skin for her many drums that cover a wall in Awasisisoniyas: Family Allowance. Made from 2013 to 2017, they seem to await hands to retrieve them and begin to play them, to fully articulate them as they’re intended.

It was a hectic weekend, when all of these shows opened (I’ve not mentioned any of the talks, seminars or performances, or even the screenings, to hold my focus and your attention), and although two of the three are only up for brief periods, it serves all three well to be experienced in tandem. Whether that’s done in the manner I’ve chosen here, which might be described as chronological as to when they opened, or chronological in terms of the histories they present (Spirit’s artists are older, and several are deceased, while the artists in We Aspire are much younger, and the curators / artists in Weather are between) is entirely flexible, and a point on which I have no preference or suggestion. I remember an exhibition of work by Micah Lexier and a show he curated of influences upon his practice, at the College Gallery. His work was upstairs, not quite directly above the pieces by people like Eric Cameron, alluding to a sense of growth and change that, while not overt, had a subtle power in understanding both shows.

Awakening of the Spirit (Select Works from the Suzanne Rochon – Burnett Collection) is on display until September 30th in the VISA Gallery at the MIWSFPA, and We Aspire: (An exhibit of work by Métis artists in Niagara) can be seen at the Niagara Artist Centre (354 St. Paul, in downtown St. Catharines). That closes on the 22nd of September, but Where the Weather Happens will be on view until December of 2017.


There was a request to not photograph at events or in gallery spaces during Celebration of Nations, and the lack of images in this post reflects my respecting that. However, the Odjig image is from the PAC website, and in this article I attempted to have a wide variety of links regarding the artists. If you’re on FB, there is also an excellent panoramic view of the VISA space, with Awakening The Spirit here

 

Public Art / # MAIMBY/ Found Compressions

Around the same time that the initial “outrage” and predominantly immature dialogue (I’m looking at you, MSM) around Keeley Haftner’s Found Compressions 1 & 2, part of a number of temporary installations through the city of Saskatoon’s Public Art Placemaker Program was happening, I heard an interesting discussion on Q, on the CBC.

Apparently, someone had thought it an important idea to poll a number of MPs in the House of Commons and ask “What does an MP do?” This led to a variety of opinions, some enlightened, some encrusted, some entitled. I found myself listening to this, and thinking that I know exactly what MPs do.

They collect a substantial and often unwarranted salary. They will collect a pension few of us can ever hope to aspire to enjoy. They do very little for all of this, and some – such as our “silent 13” in Saskatchewan, seem to try to do as little as possible (such as even making appearances at debates, or serving their constituents over their immediate overseers).

Now, I mention this not just to colour this debate in terms of how Luke Coupal is not the only person who can lay claim to the position of “irate taxpayer” (perhaps someone should inform the CRA that according to vandals like Coupal I don’t have to pay taxes, since I’m in the cultural industries). I also mention this to do a rare thing in this inflammatory debate: to speak a few facts.

Firstly, all the money for Miss Haftner’s project came from the parking meters in the city. So, let’s not have any more ignorant talk about how this is “tax money” that should be spent on roads, or on schools, or on anything else that happens to be the personal focus of the person complaining.

Secondly, let’s play a game: for every person who declares they have no wish to have “their tax dollars” go to public art (such as our City Councillor Randy Donhauer, who seems to have no issue with his party – the denizens of Harperland – spending tax dollars on a recent ad for the tar sands in the New Yorker), allow me to say I fully and completely agree with their assertion of the primacy of their individual “rights” over the whole.

So, in light of that, I want none of my tax money going to roads: after all, I don’t drive. I’d also like none of my tax dollars going to children, as I have none, and the majority of my friends have also chosen to forgo this. Frankly, I am very bothered by the government using my tax dollars to support individuals engaged in a lifestyle I don’t condone, and especially when a lack of birth control knowledge leads to a major financial drain on society.

While we’re engaged in this pathetic and self serving Balkanization of society, let’s screw the old, the infirm, and anyone who doesn’t fit within my narrow definitions of self serving greed.

Let’s run that hyperbole to its conclusion, and pretty soon we won’t have a society at all. And that’s a fact that is rarely spoken of, by those whom don the mantle of “irate taxpayer”.

Another fact to consider: Tonya Hart’s work in the Public Art program was also stolen and damaged, even though it was on the U of S campus, a site that might be considered more respectful. My interactions and experience of individuals there has taught me (and many others) the opposite.

This is a “school” where a tenured faculty member considered it acceptable to assault an MFA’s student work during their thesis defense….and since we all like sources, here’s the direct quote from the bullied student, Lissa Robinson, on this shameful behaviour: ” …she literally kicked one of my sculptures along with a comment or question about the works being “too pretty.” On another piece, she then started picking away at the fabric paint with her fingernails. Her gestures were disturbing enough to provoke one of the other faculty to ask the group if they could all agree not to touch my art work while we were talking about it. I thought it was very unprofessional that an art professor would engage in these acts of physical (albeit subtle) aggression towards the work”.

So I won’t be privileging academics as being more or less considered than the person who defaced Haftner’s work, and this means there have been two works in this program damaged.

Let’s add another fact, courtesy of my conversation with Alejandro Romero, the head of the city’s program: there have been no complaints about any pieces others than Haftner’s.

I mentioned talking to Romero, and gathering information and facts over crude insults and blather: apparently, the idea of doing research on this was anathema to sites such as the CBC online “news” reporting (frankly, the quality of coverage of both this story and others of late has made me want to see my, ahem, tax dollars go to CBC radio, and allow the propagandists for the government and others at the web site go elsewhere…). The numbers bandied around were incorrect and thrown around with a flippancy worthy of a tabloid.

After all, we all know artists have closets full of money: and unlike politicians, such as Duffy, Wallin or others of that ilk, most of us have experiences making and keeping to budgets. (Anyone who’s ever applied for an SAB grant knows your budget needs to balance, and you need to provide receipts and such in your final report).

If you’ve picked up a copy of Megan Morman’s Sask art activity book, you’ll see that I’m a clue in a cross word puzzle, described as an “antagonist to Modernism”. So, it’s no surprise that I find the littered rusted metal trash “sculpture” around the city as offensive as Coupal found Haftner’s work. However, I’ve never vandalized them, nor tarped them, despite the temptation. But I bet that if I did, I’d be up on charges, or at the very least would be paid a visit, friendly, perhaps, by the Saskatoon Police Service.

So shall we presume that self declaring as an “irate taxpayer” is like a “get out of jail free card”? And at what point does an act like Mr. Coupal’s turn into an act like that which damaged Tonya Hart’s work? Is it there already?

Perhaps when I got my visit from the police for my post modernist intervention of Bentham’s blights, I could ask where the investigation into the damage and theft of Hart’s work is…after all, we, ahem, irate taxpayers paid for this, and it can’t be “too expensive” and then financially inconsequential. That’s doubleplusgood doublethink.

It’s interesting, in light of this, that the conversation has rarely been about the work. It’s been described as ugly, an eyesore, etc., and I can’t help but feel I’m having another example of how we (artists, curators, regular people, idiots – and that last has substantial representation from the preceding three, for sure) are incapable of talking intelligently about art.

Haftner’s work is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the regional modernism of Bentham: it’s made from many hands, not just one “expert” artist. It plays upon materials that are cast off, not prized or eternal like bronze. It is not designed to be archival, or to last, and it grew mold and morphed during its time on the street.

We spoke about her work on my radio show, and that can be listened to here. She also has significant information about the work and the ideas behind it here.

I don’t know if the placement of the work was as considered as it could be: there are a number of sites in this city that are not often thought of, or when thought of are dismissed as “trash” or dangerous spaces, in need of “recycling”, you might say. Sadly, this is often manifest in solely economic terms, as gentrification is the god for many in Saskatoon. I’ll pick up that notion of site later on, in this diatribe…

Bizarrely, and with little reason of late, I’m an optimist about most viewers: the reactions from most people to Sans Façon’s interventions on Betham’s work was almost child like wonder, and seemed to improve the visibility and public profile of the pieces. This is where I’d mention again that the only complaints were about Haftner’s works: and this manifestation of the Placemaker Program was “dangerous” enough to incorporate a massive sign in Cree on the side of the Persephone. This seems to rename this city, or perhaps return it back to what it was called before….so let’s not pretend that Haftner’s work is the most controversial in this spate of temporary placements and projects.

But let’s return to that poverty of conversation: aka artist run – Tarin Hughes, now known as Tarin Dehod, the director there, was the true motivator for this – “hosted”, along with the TwoTwenty on 20th Street, a panel and discussion regarding public art, that had a catchy phrase comparing some art to dogshit. The original panelists, as announced, were exciting: it included Joi Arcand, whose billboard work on 20th Street was engaging and smart (I had spoken to Joi a few weeks before about her exhibition at the Mendel, and her forays into public art). She’s also the artisitic editor of the zine kimiwan. As well, David Hutton, who was the main force behind Saskatoon Speaks, an online and print initiative at the Star Phoenix a few years ago that explored ideas of what the city can, should and shouldn’t be, brings an intelligence and consideration to debates about the public sphere.

However, the conversations that did result at the #MAIMBY panel (More Art In My Back Yard) were disappointing, and the conversations that didn’t happen left me, to echo another attendee, wondering why I didn’t just leave.

Arcand and Hutton cancelled. And though those who replaced them did their best, they couldn’t bring the same experience and history to this debate. And the “introduction” set a rather pathetic tone….

Marcus Miller, aka board member and custodian of the 2nd rate gallery (Gordon Snelgrove) at the  2nd rate Art Department at the University of Saskatchewan, began the evening, and a nadir was his use of LinkedIn to read the participants (sometimes incorrect) bios, and of course, forgetting to introduce one of them. Rarely, except for our last civic election with our esteemed mayor, have I heard someone talk for half an hour and say so little, and found what they said to be so ignorant.

Let me illustrate: Ellen Moffat, who steered the aneco project of a few years ago, and also was a main force in both incarnations of the SPASM public art projects, was in attendance. So was Joan Borsa, who led a reading group nearly a decade ago that focused on public artwork as well, that was done in conjunction with the city, and featured guest speakers from across North America (this was a wide and wide ranging group, and the debates re: politics and community are still markers for me).

Keeley, of course, was there, and even J.S. Gauthier, who, with the more established artists Adrian Stimson and Hap Grove, is working on a piece that somewhat hijacks Harperland’s intentions with 1812 “memorial” sculptures. All of these individuals could have spoken with more nuance and consideration.

Before the street became gentrified, Lee Henderson did an artist residency of exchanging cigarrettes with local residents in exchange for a story. Clark Ferguson produced a billboard, titled Boom Town, concurrent to the aneco project, that engaged respective neighbourhoods in Saskatoon, asking about their dreams and desires for their areas (and notably, Clark told me in conversation, with the framework of not denigrating other sites, but attempting to improve your own…)

Instead of referring to any of these projects, or any sense of a history of public art in this place, we were treated to a display of Miller’s blissful unawareness of both art history and the rich and conflicting history of “publics” in Western Art (one might consider that the Reformation and Baroque movements, and the history of the pilgrimage churches, speaks a lot about publics both sanctified and dangerous…or consider the Twentieth Century’s various totalitarian states’ experiments with Socialist Realism, where the artists might even be nameless, as the narrative that serves the “public” is all that matters… ).

There’s a point to be made about the academic’s lack of knowledge or awareness of public(s), whether artistic or just outside of the ivory tower. And that’s where this began to go wrong…as public art is by definition a conversation, and unlike when one steps into a gallery, the artists are stepping into the space of others, and those others can often be as disparate as imaginable.

This is not to say there weren’t high points. I can always count on Linda Duvall, who likes to describe her artistic practice as being a “rogue sociologist” to problematize the debate by asking why we focus upon objects, sculptures, things that are still detritus, and not the experiences that often define our experiences of art, both public and private. Her exhibition / project Where Were The Mothers? is necessary for any who cite “community” too much.

Alex MacPherson, on the panel along with Jeremy Warren from the SP, and Curtis Olson from the TwoTwenty, made what may be my favourite point, that public art can make you rethink and reconsider what HERE is, or perhaps, is not.

David LaRiviere, the artistic director at PAVED and someone whose work has made interesting forays into the public sphere, both in Street Meet last summer but also in terms of the Mendel’s Beneath a Petroliferous Moon, raised the issue of who owns public spaces, as we’re inundated constantly by advertisements and media, and this is either considered “normal” or sadly, is seen as a form of “progress”….

In reference to David’s points, its also worth noting that Dana Claxton’s billboard work wasn’t spoken of, at #MAIMBY. You can read a bit about it here, and consider that Claxton’s ideas are about re enforcing positive images, instead of negative stereotypes of Aboriginals in this site, and the larger national theatre.

This latter point is a good place at which to speak to how this conversation took place on 20th street, a site that has gone from being “bad” in that wonderfully naïve “West Side” designation, to now being “good”, as its gentrified. I would have been very grateful to have had Marcel Petit at this debate, to raise the issue of how public spaces are NOT free spaces, and that though we may be vague about who owns this space, we are not usually willing to argue with the hegemonic apparatus that indicates very clearly who doesn’t own these spaces….like the displaced on 20th, or those whom are often the targets of the Partnership downtown, as though one is not a citizen, unless you’re a consumer…

The word “community” was bandied around, like the word “education.” I’ve now decided that the former is the new “c – word”, and found its prevalence funny as the group was predominantly white, predominantly artists (or people who think they are), and a small sliver of a larger public. I’d paraphrase one of the many conversations I had after MAIMBY wherein it was suggested that there needs to be less representation of “artists” on public art panels, and I’d echo Alex’s wonderful assertion of “slamming” different people, of different backgrounds, together, to force a degree of change. After all, hegemony really doesn’t foster change: it fosters stagnation and irrelevance, or a bad Doug Bentham piece like the ones that litter the downtown…

I’d also inject that the assertion of a need for “education” of the public is fine art world snobbery or misdirection: while I was maintaining my work in the first SPASM festival, I encountered many engaged, intelligent “viewers”. Most wouldn’t enter an art gallery or an academic space at the point of a gun, mainly for the implicit dismissal of their ideas or experiences. Besides, in light of the recent trials of the U of S, and those of us whom are very aware of the implicit bullying in many sites of that University, “conversation” and “education” seem to be exercises of power and assertions of “superiority”….

Let’s end with my previous assertion: public art needs to be a conversation between the artist(s) and the public(s). A conversation is not a “teachable moment”, nor is it a lecture. It need not be “pretty”, nor need it not be bothersome (the karaoke modernists were offended by Sans Façon’s interventions on their works, but that was a necessary and smart and funny conversation. I’m sure others were offended by Tony Stallard presenting what could be seen as the future of Saskatoon signage, where the dominant language is not English, but Cree).

Several years ago, Rachael Seupersad spoke in the city about public art, bringing her experience from being intimately involved with Calgary’s public art program: she defined public art as being moments of unexpected joy, implying that people would encounter them as they go about their day. I like that definition, and that “joy” can be many things – sometimes a confrontational joy, like with Stallard’s signage in Cree, or something that, as MacPherson has pointed out, makes you reconsider what ‘here” is, in all of its facets.

 

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.

BFA.Hon.TransformUs.

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…