Discarded Beauty: Steve deBruyn

There are some unexpected contradictions in the “installation of painted wooden sculptures” currently at NAC. Or, if I defer to his description of Pile On, the singular work, as Steve deBruyn intends the free standing and precariously balanced “pillars”, along with the wall works partly inspired by Kurt Schwitters’ assemblages, as a singular whole; an inclusive installation that envelops the visitor.

Many of the components were fashioned by deBruyn, with NAC volunteers, in the week leading up to the show opening, which adds to this interpretation. A singular artist, perhaps, but many hands in the making of the installation.

Many of the pieces have a ragged quality, a roughness, and may give you a splinter if you handle them (deBruyn wasn’t precious, at the reception, and both handled the works himself and encouraged visitors to do the same). But then you’ll notice delicate and exacting evidence of the artist’s hand (the colours and patterns and textures that unite all the components, subtle yet significant, or the cleanliness and perfection of some edges and lines, harshly contrasted to the ramshackle detritus within the same piece. One set of sculptures, flowing and bending with wainscoting, making them look like escaped, “wilder” house works, on the right side of the gallery, are delightful in this lively, almost jolly, manner. The repetition of the pink purple blue black crisscross pattern pieces in the wall works, the random – perhaps added after, perhaps already a part of the slat or chunk added to the works – splotches of paint that further make the pieces connect across and around the room).

The works presented here are very much “worker’s” art (like George Sawchuck): the materials from which they’re constructed, how they’re installed and the recognizable components (pressboard), have a proletarian – almost plebian, or common –  aspect. Its funny how some artworks inspire you to leave any heavier theory at the door, while other works invoke the same (often remote, often academic or irrelevant) ideas into a real, and lived space. It’s impossible for me to separate these works from my conversation with Steve in which he talked about working “at a lumber yard—and busy constructing a backyard deck when called to discuss his upcoming exhibit—deBruyn’s work responds to the common discarded construction materials he refuses to build his sculptures, echoes of the skateboard culture he was once very much a part of, and his own sensibilities about the narrowness of our perceptions of what is beautiful in our living spaces and built surroundings.”

There’s an interesting contradiction, if you’re familiar with Kurt Schwitters’ Construction for Noble Ladies (1919) and the almost overtly masculine (yet not as the pillars tilt and the pressboard looks cheap like an overtly macho poser) pieces from deBruyn. He pointed out how some of the works, with mouldings and finishing you’d expect in any good suburban bathroom had gouges and breaks in their making, a hand less concerned with making a “perfect” object than exposing the ludicrous nature of it all (like Schwitters’ mocking of “noble ladies”….)

The back gallery at NAC is installed in a manner that spaces the wall works out at regular intervals – all are relatively similar in size, and all share not just colours, but also are constructed from shared pieces of wood (evidence of repurposing) that further unify them, as a perimeter around the room, defining the space. Fragments are arranged in an orderly manner to form the whole: whether this is “modernist” or more about crafting a seamless suburban renovation is debatable. All property is theft, comrade, and maybe I’m talking about the wealthy, ignorant suburbanites or how I hope that some of the source materials were “liberated and secured” for these alternately bright, or blighted, wall works.

The pillars lean in a way that suggest they’ll be coming down soon, and you might not want to be under them when that happens. They’re painted in the same colours that unite many of the works – there’s the small painting card sample, near the comment book: Peach Brick, Lotus Petal, Copper Trail, Green Grey Mist and Northern Landscape (I still wish I’d somehow gotten a job naming paints, but I’m sure I would have lost it, in the beige, impotent spaces. I’d go slowly crazy, calling things Arterial Spray Red or Leprosy Grey or Gangrene Green…this might seem like an indulgent tangent, but deBruyn and I also talked about work and trying to do what you want while having to pay for what you need…). All of these scream inoffensive interior design, and all – on their own, if you painted a room and not a work of art made from cast offs and crap that sat in your backyard for months – would suit any bourgeois bathroom.

The six columns are generally one solid paint chip colour, whereas the wall pieces have flat shapes in variable samples from this selection, often arching up from the bottom of the “plane”, in geometric shapes (trapezoids and pyramids – once again, a reference to building or construction, perhaps?).

To return to the statement for the show: “[H]is objective is only to have audiences reconsider the environments that we spend our lives in and possibilities for greater aesthetic pleasure from them.” In that respect, deBruyn succeeds: these pieces are fragments, discarded or torn, it seems, from the houses and rooms that we build – or have others build – for “us.” With current debates regarding houses, whether the cost or who gets to own, and who never will, I see these as something that my generation and those after us might consider as future (or current) housing.

Its not coincidental that as I wrote about this work, I spoke with a friend who does street photography and he mentioned a squat under one of the bridges that had been burned out in the past week. There is a stronger conceptual connection between that now discarded, abandoned space and deBruyn’s backyard, where some of the elements of these works in Pile On were subjected to the elements, than the suburban spaces the colours and finer details allude to, obliquely. 

 Steve deBruyn’s exhibition Pile On is on display until Saturday 22 July. 

Denouement (the outcome of a complex series of events) / Rodman Hall

Camille Paglia once very caustically (and astutely) observed that many “still regard abstract painting with suspicion, as if it were a hoax or fraud. Given this lingering skepticism, it might be wise to admit that there is more bad than good abstract art, which has been compromised over the decades by a host of inept imitations.” The same can be said of artworks in the realm of new media, whether moving or still: in fact, sometimes these can be even worse, as they combine a navel gazing discourse that is more about “how” something was made, rather than why, and much new media work has also bartered aesthetics for ideology, being so focused upon “personalism” that it becomes more of a soliloquy – or narcolepsy inducing lecture – than anything else.

But all that means is that any gallery visitor needs to be discerning: and sometimes gems can be found in unexpected places. It’s always difficult to gage what to expect from a BFA graduating show, just like with an MFA show: these days, with institutional cronyism and ponzi schemes giving us “visual arts PhDs” in Canada, it’s only likely to muddy the waters – or more exactly, add more urine in the artistic pool. But there are interesting ways in which this can be challenged. I’ve always felt that having Brock BFA grads exhibit their works in Rodman Hall upped the ante, presented a real challenge to the students, and gave them a true first step into what a considered – and qualitative – practice must be, post university.

The current slate of graduates, showing in Denouement at Rodman Hall, is an eclectic mix. Several works are quite good, several others fall short. The intricate detail of Taylor Umer’s monochromatic pieces, the “landscapes” of Robin Nisbet that fracture space and time but still offer enough “ground” for the viewer, or the exploration of memory in a personal motif as in the works of Becca Marshall are diverse in concept and execution.

The work that I’ve been back to see several times, and spent the most time with, is that of Kylie Mitchell. Multiple interlocking works, with simple titles like something, august 12, doll or burn it which belie their evocative suggestion of an intense story we must hear…It is also the work that personifies the title of the show the best; not in terms of finishing a degree or this exhibition as an “end point” but in the “complex events” she hints at, or the stories she alludes to, obliquely and directly.

There’s several reasons why this is the work I’ve chosen to highlight, to spend time with and try to articulate its attraction, that intersect with each other: the installation benefits from being in a separate room, allowing the projections, images and monitors to converse with each other, without interference from other work, and thus invites our contemplation as we stand within the environment. Perhaps it’s also that Gunilla Josephson’s works were recently here, too, and my mind is on how video can be a space, not simply a wall work. But perhaps it’s the way in which one of the works (august 12) both embraces the machinery that defines it, and yet also offers a very personal and immediate bridge across what can be distancing technology.

As you enter her space, along the left hand side of the wall are three monitors, all at the same level, seemingly identical in size and form. Each loops: words are typed, corrected, brief statements that are as terse as they are uncomfortably personal, and then an invisible hand “backspaces” it all, unwriting unmaking unsaying it all. Only to do so again, and erase again, and type again, for ever and ever. Charged phrases: I should have said something, or she’s dead, or equally cutting snippets of conversations that are painfully real. Small bites of speech that are hard to swallow, and perhaps we sick back up, and then swallow again. Another loop, like trauma in memory (“Do you really think there is a real point where then stops and now begins?” Maggie had asked him. “Don’t you know that down deep the things that happen to you never really stop happening to you?” (Peter Straub, KOKO)).

Mitchell’s words: “The premise of this series of work is based on three students from Brock, who agreed to meet with me and discuss moments in their lives that have deeply shaped them today.” She went on to shape and mold these, but I’m loathe to add more than that. There’s a gravity to the room, and the images and objects within it, that facilitates personal interpretation and projection of one’s own moments and histories where everything changed, and was never the same again. Something that might be awkward is incisive: and the universal nature of stories that might be despairing, regretful or that simply remind us that we are unified by that which we have experienced transcends form and technology to be about communication, that often failed and failing attempt to know another person, and their life. 

Denouement, the Brock University Department of Visual Arts Honours Exhibition, runs until April 30th at Rodman Hall Arts Centre.

The image above is a video still from Kylie MItchell’s bracelet, 2017.

Also [Art ] Also [Play] Also [Absurd]: Donna Akrey at Rodman Hall

Donna Akrey’s aesthetic – I hesitate to even use that word, as it’s so loaded, too heavy, for the works at Rodman Hall that Donna invites us to (genuinely) play with, or that might hold us up (a shaped cushion attached to the wall, easing my lower back pain as I lean against it) – is an awareness and an immersion in the moment, unreservedly.

I’m reminded of Salman Rushdie’s assertion – from the mouth of one of his narrators, a photographer – that “realism isn’t a set of rules, it’s an intention.” A directness that eschews rhetoric or hesitation is demanded when you engage with Also Also; the front three rooms are Akrey’s, and their domestic history helps to suggest an ease, and accessibility, with the works. There’s even a station for “collaborating” with the artist, blurring lines between Akrey and ourselves further.

Akrey’s art seems to eschew academic language or prohibitive discourses about interactivity and access and expectations with “art” and the “gallery” that are deterrents – prophylactics, really – to immediacy – to the very ideas of interactivity, even – for the individual viewer (…just like that last sentence, hah, may demonstrate. Sorry, but not really).

Marcie Bronson, the curator of this exhibition (again, perhaps too formal a word: let’s say collaborator. That’s also a nod to Bronson’s ability, as she’s mid wifed the works of Amy Friend and Gunilla Josephson previously) suggested this contradiction. She and Akrey toured visitors through the show and Bronson offered that Akrey’s solo exhibition Also Also is about what we see, how we see and what do we expect to see, in the two rooms (and more, and more on that in a moment) at Rodman.

Another amusing comment; when Akrey said that there’s the idea that she might be “doing this art thing wrong.” I’d proffer that her work is about fun, both facile and deeper, and the enjoyment of the visitor, in a way that relies on their good intentions, “interacting without malice” (quoting Bronson, again). There’s a refusal to be “serious” in many of the works Akrey presents, refusing to have their squareness forced into a round hole of some external theoretical or academic dryness.

The curatorial / artistic / communal statement elaborates further on this desire to evoke a freshness in gallery behaviour: “Akrey is interested in how habit shapes the way we experience and engage with the world around us. Rooted in her astute observation of patterns of communication and consumption, her work humorously intervenes to raise discussion about social and environmental issues, often responding directly to a particular site or community.” She further sums up her approach: “I imagine the absurd as real, because sometimes the real is so absurd.”

When Akrey spoke of the ideas that inspire Middle Ground, with reflected light, mirrors and an activity as soothing as its mindless, she reminisced of walking around rooms as a child with a mirror propped under her chin, traipsing about in a manner absurd and untroubled by what “walking” and “looking” is “expected” to be….

There’s a power in enchanting details: the shiny silver elbows of the softish sculpture in the front room, like a person’s bent arm, fabric wrinkling like a sleeve. The brief Fireplace Videos are odd vignettes. Unrelated, non narrative and non committal, they’re moments in time that are being shared with you, looping, and undemanding of any conceptually rigorous looking. They’re similar to those burning yule log X – Mas channels (the first Fireplace video is white sleetsnow spatterflying across a flat aquamarine field, beautifully hypnotic. Another is of the same plant sitting on the fireplace below the flatscreen, more enticing on screen than in life).

As you sit and watch these, you begin to feel like the plants in the work behind you (Plant Life), ebbing and slowly moving (breathing?), one plant to one blocky television. All nine perch on plinths, near the window, like “real” plants might be placed in any homey space. Relaxing, perhaps vegetating (you and the plants), if you will.

Pieces here extend back 15 years, but there’s newer works (one piece is a bit lesser, or a bit different, now, that the Levine Flexhaug show is gone, as it was responsive to that. But as it’s titled ⅓ ⅓ ⅓ , we can just say ⅓ has shifted). Her collaborators include artists like Margaret Flood (with Eclipse), preparateur Matthew Tegel (the previously cited ) and hopefully us, too. A workstation with tools and supplies is provided, with an encouraging tag (listing the workstation and shelves displaying works as by “Akrey and gallery visitors”).

There’s also a site-specific outdoor installation that relies on the cooperation of neighbourhood residents in Rodman’s immediate area. This series of pieces can be best experienced at night: as I left Rodman, the evening of the talk / tour, the soft glows of the tiny box works placed at several houses on St. Paul Crescent were unexpected moments of joy and light. Guideposts without a map, or destination, just a marker to be enjoyed for its simple being.  

In Jorge Luis Borges’s The Book of Imaginary Beasts, he cites the rareness of a child’s first visit to a zoo: how these animals are exotic and unknown wonders, unmediated by any expectations. Later, the child might run to see the majestic lions, and habitual, mediated expectation replaces wonder and awe. There’s an element of that in Also Also: go rub your face against the works in Prop, let the soft bulges massage your back, and consider a gallery that might be a comfortable, welcoming space where there is no misbehaving, just enjoyment. Donna Akrey’s Also Also is at Rodman until April 30th.

All images here are courtesy, and copyright, of the artist.

Bananas, banality and Beuys at NAC

Its entertaining to rigourously examine what merits attention, as art, or “Art.” I have absolutely no idea why the bananas – the plethoras of banana peels, I should say, to be accurate, both freshly cast aside and others that we can almost smell the rot emanating from in the photographs in the space at NAC – fascinate me so. The installation is banal: its collaborative (more than one artist, though one person acts as the instigator, or gatherer, of images, both literally from other contributors, but also in how these are peels “found” while out, and captured in these snaps). Some images are silly, while repetition both elaborates and bores.

It could all be blamed on Joseph Beuys, whose destruction of the notion of art school has continued long after his death (may the good be buried with him, as the evil lives after, so let it be with Caesar). If we live in an age where anyone can self designate as an artist, where anyone can be an artist (and consequently, to invert Beuys, no one is an “Artist” – note the capital), then by extension anything can be designated as “Art,” by nothing more than that self referential act.

Let me cite from Alice Gregory’s review of Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks: “Such retroactive and remote anointing is far more difficult in the context of contemporary art, which for the past century has often been the product of speech acts. I am an artist because I say I am an artist. This is art because I say it is.”
Now, this can, as with everything, offer possibility and putridity. But the playfulness of what’s presented here is so unpretentious, and so direct that I do enjoy it.

If you think I’ve had a momentary (or ongoing) loss of my art critic acumen, allow me to contrast and elaborate.

Some of the worst “art” I’ve ever been subjected to could be considered abject – there’s a joke there, I’ll come to in a moment – abuses of that ego. One of the last exhibitions I saw on the Prairies – Abject Abstract – displayed two vomitous examples of this elbows out, self aggrandaizing artcrime. What makes them notable is that they sinned in a manner like flip sides of a coin: both coming to the same horrid place, but via parallel paths.

Jon Vaughn mixed spray paint, scrappy prints and paper into pieces that attested to a lack of compositional talent or skill, and hinted at colour blindness (actually, that’s unfair. I’ve known artist who were / are colour blind who demonstrated a finer, qualified hand). There was an assertion of “primitivism” or “rawness” to these things: but if forced, I would say that if we speak of these as “untrained” works, they have more in common with a lack of toilet training and the resultant feces….
Amazingly, in the same show, were the works of Allysha Larsen: whereas Vaughn was a blocked and excessive suppository, Larsen had a few strokes and blots that bastardized the measured considerations of Gottleib, or Kline. These were just as boorishly amateur, as unpleasant as Vaughn, but they fairly vibrated with “artistic” self importance.

Both postured: both failed, and both polluted – and sadly, continue to do so, I’m sure – the artistic waters. Look out, someone has urinated in the pool.
Now, what does this have to do with bananas, or the exhibition at NAC?

To quote a (regretful) former mentor, I make “pretty words as I say ugly things.” Perhaps I am just, like my most favourite protagonist from Richler, Barney Panofsky, “a voracious reader, but you would be mistaken if you took that as evidence of my quality…[a]t bottom, I am obliged to acknowledge…the baseness of my soul. My ugly competitive nature”.

Perhaps – to return to that egregiousness of posture and pretension – this is why I enjoy the banana peels.

Bananganza (it took a few tries to say that without bursting into laughter) “is an exhibit of banana peel photos collected in collaboration since 2014. Inspiration commenced one evening upon visiting a movie theatre. In the parking spot next to mine, it appeared as if all four passengers of the now – gone car had woofed down a banana each, leaving the peels by their respective car doors. The decomposed peels looked like…strange creatures: bats, geese, turtles, birds…I was compelled to snap a photo.” Those are the words of Kristin Stahlman, who has images here, but has a primary role as the accumulator of these images: the person to credit (or blame) for, Bananganza.

Further guiding words from Kristin: “Being an avid walker, I began noticing banana peels nearly everywhere and stopped to snap a photo of each….I posted the small collection on social media, where my friends joined in. Soon the random tossed banana peel photo collection expanded to include peel photos sent from all over – the furthest sent from Venice, Italy.”
There’s humour: Lynie Clifford (Tonawanda, NY) has Poor Froggy, all black and rigid and amphibian shaped. Stahlman has The Bird: also dark and stiff.
But, as is so often with humour, there’s a less jocular underbelly. A personal favourite is the larger Dance, by Dan Hogan, purple and almost like an organ, suggesting a morbidity and almost murder scene tableaux (or, if I may be a bit tasteless – sorry – it almost evokes a severed member, if you follow my meaning). Full Deck, by Lee Jacob (unknown location) shows the fresh, almost pretty bright yellows with mottles of brown and tan, of what must be an easy dozen peels on a wooden deck. Someone gluttonously, ravenously, sated their appetite here, and left the indexical signifier of their own personal bananaganza for an unsuspecting witness. Louise Hominuk (Southampton, ON) has snapped Beach Banana: but the splashes of yellow exposed from the gravel and stones suggest a poorly buried body more than a discovered treasure. Some images are less remote, and are from our own downtown: Stahlman’s Graffiti Peel is a wonderful take on how many photos are shot in front of the multi storey graffiti mura just off St. Paul, down from the PAC. Sydney Kripp’s Muck Tryst offers us a peel almost as dark a brown as the mud and foul water it floats within. The puddle reflects a street light in a shimmery manner: the label with ruined bar code is clearly visible.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure of my position: I’ve been habitually, and obsessively, photographing shopping carts I encounter as I walk the streets of St.Catharines. Some are simple, some are more complicated, but all are found, and I solely document, with no modification, movement or interference.
This has simply been enjoyable to do, and to post on social media, and with a quote or words of my own, sometimes relating to the scene, sometimes grafted onto it with less immediate relation to the scene. Others have told me about being infected by my “seeing” and “noticing”, sometimes in a relaxed, comic manner, and sometimes in a manner that activates their environment in a new way. In some ways, I am a uniquely qualified – and very interested and receptive – audience, to this endeavour.
Of late, I’ve been thinking of my documentation of these as my latest research into late capitalist modernism / late modernist capitalism. Evidence of how the only freedom that matters is the freedom to consume, but also, with how they’re always empty, suggesting a Lacanian desire that is never to be sated, but that permeates and demands and suffuses our world…
The banana peels can be like that: discards of consumption, indexical evidence of consuming, and with the current debate and concern about food prices, this can take on a sinister tone. I spoke recently with a professor from Brock about water, for the recent World Water Day: he asserted that all those futurist warnings about how water will be the new oil, and we’ll see wars and imperialistic forays for water as we’ve seen in Iraq or Afghanistan is unlikely. What he did assert is that at a domestic level we will see shortages and the resultant societal strains and fractures that may take us to the same violence in a different manner.
I think about that with food, when I look at some of these banana peels, these discards: as Atwood said in Year of the Flood, “hunger is a powerful reorganizer of the conscience.”

Bananganza is on display at NAC until the first of April.

A Word 09.10.2015 Anna Szaflarski and A Man’s Job

This week’s episode of the A Word is, on the surface, a very specific one to St. Catharines, while being a conversation between two people whom have connections to “here” but yet also are not from “here”…

First, let us all enjoy that I’m the NAC Member of the Moment for October, and you can read about that at the preceding link. Much praise to the community here, which has been exceptionally warm and welcoming. Many thanks to NAC and many others here who have made me feel very much at home.

Something else to consider in terms of your visual arts world in STC this Thanksgiving weekend are the plethora of events and exhibitions coming up at Rodman Hall. Here’s some information about Spare Parts,  which Stuart Reid talked about on the show a few week ago, and Donna Szőke’s exhibition which opens this weekend. I’ll be doing some follow up in the next few days to see about having her come on the A Word.

If you pick up this month’s edition of The Sound, you can also see some thoughts of mine on her upcoming show, Bill Burns’ exhibition which opens later this month, and some impressions of Shifting Perspectives. It’s not yet online, so you’ll need to pick up a print copy. When its up, I’ll share them.

But let’s return to Anna Szaflarski’s trio of installation / intervention works being presented through NAC that open this Thanksgiving weekend (a fitting analogy, perhaps, that fits in with the latter part of our conversation about “family” ) titled A Man’s Job. They’re located at NAC (354 St. Paul Street), the NAC Flea Market Gallery (46 Turner Crescent) and at the Golden Pheasant (244 Ontario Street).

Let me steal the words of the gallery :

At each newsbox location poster editions of A Man’s Job by Anna will be available for pick-up. The poster is comprised of a chronological collection of newspaper headlines tracking the relationship between the employees and the auto industry in Niagara that spans over sixty years (1940-2011). As Anna explains,

“I was researching in the library archives for another project, but quickly noticed the frequency of headlines pertaining to GM; unions, lay-offs, which rotated from hopeful to pessimistic with regularity like the wheels of a mill…Together the fluid back and forth begins to lose all meaning; an eventual entropic disintegration.”

You can listen to us here. An image of the poster is below linked to a larger version.

There is also a further piece of writing, that Szaflarski presents as part of her Letters to the Editor series where her writings are paired with another person’s response to the same subject. You can either pick up this at the news boxes too, or read her – and Stephen Remus’ essay – here.

This was very much the basis of many of the points in our talk, and I really enjoyed Stephen’s excellent contribution here, and if you have a sense of the history of this place and its relationship with manufacturing (especially in a familial or more personal way), you will, as well.

You may find me at the Golden Pheasant later on doing research on public reaction to this very interesting example of art in the public realm.

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BABELTECH™ and the power of language at NAC

And then one day he realised that of course he was always staring at his hand when he wrote, was always watching the pen as it moved along, gripped by his fingers, his fingers floating there in front of his eyes just above the words, above that single white sheet, just above these words i’m writing now, his fingers between him and all that, like another person, a third person, when all along you thot it was just the two of you talking and he suddenly realized it was the three of them, handling it on from one to the other, his hand translating itself, his words slipping thru his fingers into the written world. You. – bpNichol

Language is a virus. Laurie Anderson warned us. We weren’t listening. Like most warnings from the mid to late twentieth century made by artisitic prognosticators, she’s been ignored. (I can’t help but inject that other female contemporaries like Jenny Holzer, or Barbara Kruger, have seen their formal aesthetics appropriated, while the ideas that so challenged their – and our – worlds were not quite so popular…).

Now, Anderson is cited ad nauseum, but this is a dissapointing facile failure. Its repeated, but misunderstood. We don’t fear language like a virus as we should, like a drug resistant TB that might sweep across our city, leaving us without breathe to communicate.

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I’ll admit that these dark thoughts came to me while standing in front of two of the works in Eric Schmaltz’ exhibition BABELTECH INDUSTRIES™ presents…
THE ASSEMBLY LINE OF BABEL at Niagara Artists Centre: FUTURE and NOTHING, respectively, hung on the back wall as an apocryphal pairing, separated from the majority of works presented in the space which run along one wall.

Formally, they all employ a common template, with recurring sections and words: Assembly Instructions / Components / Tools Required / Product Detail all are contained in grey institutional boxes that move down the right side. Pride of space is given to a larger square captioned Exploded View. Like any good guide / map / instructional display, trademarks and disclaimers and warnings proliferate.

There’s something about their construction that references the impenetrable hopelessness of an IKEA catalogue but also the generic and overtly genuine and eager public health warnings (how to use that anti bacterial wash to avoid spreading the flu that will weaken our immune systems for future pestilences, perhaps).

Each image bears the disclaimer running along the bottom of the image, in its own thin grey box: USE PRODUCT AT OWN RISK. BABELTECH™ IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY BREAKDOWN IN COMMUNICATION OR MALFUNCTION: after all, tools – like language – can be dangerous in the wrong hands, and just as everything looks like a hammer to a nail, language has NEVER been a clear medium through which meaning travels from one to the other without some form of corruption, correction, critique…or code, perhaps.

Perhaps the “Old Stock Canadians” reading this will nod in agreement….or our once and future king, Stephen Harper, will enlighten us at a later date. The King’s speech, or the King’s English, if you will.

Schmaltz is described as a “language artist, writer, & researcher” and that first term is the one that my enjoyment of this show hinges upon, as it can incorporate so much, and so many incongruous threads….BABELTECH™ are both works in words but also in image, and this offers a multiplicities of readings and ways in which to interact with the pieces. How might these works be spoken? In describing them, I find this to be a liberation, not a challenge….its is appropriate here to the reference of “Babel”, but I’ll evoke a number of those later, too, as they are multiple, and can mean many things to many people.

This is a good point to admit that I’m a fan of the late bpNichol, whose works were self described as borderblur, whether his graphic Selected Organs: Part of an Autobiography or more challenging Martyrology Books. I encountered his works when I was 13 (ABC: The Aleph Beth Book, which is usually listed under his “visual” works), and since then my expectations of poetry have never dropped. Kaie Kellough’s performance, the same evening as Schmaltz’s exhibition, is worthy of mention in this lineage, but more on that in a moment….boundaries are there to be broken, not to constrain, like a living, growing map that’s more about the intangibles than about the clear, hard edged marks. Was bpNichol drawing or writing? Visual or literary? Speaking or sketching?

Let’s delve into some art theory (sorry, only time this review I’ll do this to you) for a moment, and consider the notions of signs. Some are indexical, that provide physical evidence of an object, such as a shoe print, or referential, like others that are made to look like what they resemble (the simple drawing of a tree, or the gender symbols on washrooms).

But what matters here is the more abstracted sign, that has no clear, immediate or obvious relation to that which it “represents” and we’ve simply – as a society, a community, or within even more intimate spaces of communication – agreed that “this” means “that.”

Amusingly, Letraset (I’ve had numerous moments of nostalgia for the 90s since my return to Southern Ontario, and this is / is not one of them) is ideal for this. It’s all components, parts and assemblages, literally breaking apart words and symbols to make new ones, literally cutting and sticking components together to make something new, newish or disturbingly familiar…

For example, on one level the seven pieces could be a fragment word poem. Read them as a sentence, traditionally Western, from left to right: CAPITAL INTELLIGENCE DESIRE AUTOMATION SINGULARITY DATA TECHNOMICS ENNUI LANGUAGE MACHINE SIMULATION THANATROPIC SUBJECTIVATION FUTURE NOTHING. They could be switched around to form different relations to the word that proceeds or follows them, sentences or associations that build or destroy, like blocks or bricks of language.

I’d be curious to have had someone track my interaction the first time I saw them: to track my viewing, or the viewing of others…CAPITAL to DESIRE back to CAPITAL…FUTURE NOTHING FUTURE NOTHING THANATROPIC MACHINE MACHINE…our veiwing constructs the “sentence” and our attentions defines what is the verb and what is the noun. THANATROPIC DESIRE THANATROPIC DESIRE…or perhaps if I was in more of a Marxist mood, CAPITAL DESIRE AUTOMATION ENNUI ENNUI CAPITAL DESIRE and repeat as compelled…

But each work / each word in itself is an individual poem, a unique work of art: whether deconstructed in Components down to its “bones”, or reconfigured in a new way in Product Detail (which may, or may not, be seen as having a relation to the “word” itself, like any “finished product” image in a set of assembly instructions) that are simple images that could stand on their own aesthetics. THANATROPIC’s is almost like a mystic sigil, with an eye, perhaps. SUBJECTIVATION alternately resembles a plant, or foraging locust. FUTURE is more architectural, suggesting an arch or monument. NOTHING resembles a weathervane, a compass gone awry. ENNUI seems to hang in space, a hook with no loop…while DATA is dense and solid and pointing, with a purpose. LANGUAGE combines loops and points, both rounded and pointed, contradictory…

I could look for “definitions” of THANATROPIC or SUBJECTIVATION: or I could accept the ones provided by Schmaltz that don’t presume or preclude other interpretations, or the nuance of communications (though no responsibility is taken for miscommunication or malfunction…deliberate critically at your own risk. No slavery to preset meanings here, and no “freedom” in submission to someone else’s definitions).

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But let’s return to Babel as the titled point of reference: the story of the ill fated Tower is from Genesis 10 – 11, after the Flood, in which humanity, speaking a single language came together to construct this architectural wonder (I was often told as a child that the premise was to build it “to heaven”, an act of unbelievable hubris) but “God confounded their speech so that they could no longer understand each other and scattered them around the world.”

A typical “Sunday school” story to “explain” different languages, with a vengeful, prideful God “punishing” humanity with a multiplicity of language .

Ironic, when you think about the Judeo – Christian focus on the Ten Commandments and “so it shall be written, so it shall be done” mantra of the film of the same mythology…(my art historian is more of a fan of the Golden Legends that incorporate the flowering of Joseph’s staff, or the eroticizing of the ear of the Virgin Mary as the site of the Angel’s announcement of her impregnatoin).

But if we’re going to step into that realm, I’d rather mention Borges The Library of Babel, with its books that are alternately infinite and limited (read it. My description shall but pale in comparison). Or the babel fish of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or the notions of memetics and (mis) communication from Richard Dawkins might also be worthy of consideration here. William S. Burroughs The Ticket That Exploded may be of use in choosing a place to stand and which word you might wish to assemble. All of these are relevant when considering the BABELTECH™.

Less theoretically, BABELTECH™ is an ode to the formal possibilities of Letraset: I say that without irony or smugness, but considering the “prefab” nature of the words and language therein, they can again be seen as either constricting or liberating, and what Schmaltz has done here is entertaining and unique. While depending on the medium of Letraset, he also transcends it, and makes it so much more than it usually is…

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My affinity for concrete poetry was something that made me appreciate Kaie Kellough’s reading, especially the initial performance of RAIL that was as much musical as visceral. Kellough worked the components of spoken language in a way that reminded me of early painted abstraction. It was dangerous and honest in breaking language down to noise / sound / speech, like how past Modernist painters broke their practice down to geometrics, “pure” colours, monochromes and a refusal to tolerate any pretty pretense of “picture box space.”

rr rll rail ll rr rll rr r rail became an intoxicating chant. This in itself was hypnotic and seductive and reminded me of what good spoken word concrete poetics can be.

And then things went to another level. But first let me say it was an excellent pairing at NAC as this fluidity of speaking, this breaking down of the Components, this irreverence of Assembly, and an exposure of the banality of the usual use of language by Kai Kellough only enhanced your experience of BABELTECH™ on the walls when Kellough was done. His voice filled the room and interacted with the works, especially FUTURE or DESIRE or CAPITAL.

That other level: from an exercise that could be deemed formal, Kellough moved to a piece about the current immigration crisis that was able to cut through the calcified cynicism of the media narratives, election rhetoric, posturing and the essential egotism of the debate here in the first world. I offer nothing more in terms of description than my high praise, my appreciative amazement at his ability to move everyone in the room, and that if the opportunity presents itself to hear this artist speak, you must take it.

BABELTECH INDUSTRIES™ presents…THE ASSEMBLY LINE OF BABEL, an exhibit by Eric Schmaltz at Niagara Artists Centre, was regrettably only on display for a week. Perhaps, like language, its just fleeting…

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Happy Valentine’s Day…

…and, as I’ve said on Twitter, I won’t be going to see Fifty Shades of Grey but will re read Georges Bataille’s L’histoire de l’oeil. I like my smut to be really pervery (it’s a word).

Amazingly enough, I may be doing it alone, but I am open to a reading date, ahem. But I have a tradition of making and sending Valentine’s cards every year. A friend talks about it here. So, in light of that, here’s this year’s version. Feel free to share and share alike and the image links to a larger version.

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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 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.

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…