Meet me at the Curtain Call

A fellow arts writer has a bit of an obsession with a statement made by a curator several years ago, that she ‘doesn’t know what Art is’: the curator in question is unimpressive, while often praised, within the Canadian overtly academic trench, so depending where you stand, this frankness has several ramifications. There’s definitely an element of incompetence and politicization in Kitty Scott’s comment about ‘not knowing’: alternately, I like to interpret it in a manner reminiscent of how even a blind pig finds an acorn now and again. After all, anyone familiar with the history of art knows that – like history, like society – change is constant, and in an excellent anthology of art writing stretching back centuries, Jeremy Tanner points out that many art historians deny the relevance of works that have severe sociological implications, just as many sociologists are bereft of any knowledge of history, especially art history, which can be both subversive and direct. Tanner posits they are more alike in their blinkering than either would like to admit.

All of that is in response to art in gallery spaces. What happens when we’re engaging with public art, or art in the public sphere, as I like to term it? After all, when someone enters a gallery space, there’s a convention at play, regarding looking and engaging, that puts the onus, in many ways, on the ‘visitor.’ But when works emerge from that (too often) ‘white cube’, and occupy sites that intersect with many different communities, they (must) become something else. Several years ago, there was a kerfuffle regarding Keeley Haftner‘s Found Compressions. It was installed in a neighbourhood that had, on its own, engaged in an intense clean up and revitalization: placing a work made of ‘garbage’ without consulting residents or stakeholders within said area led to vitriol and vandalism.

However, other works have employed irony and challenge effectively: look at the number of installations that happened, that intelligently explored the historical narrative around the War of 1812 when Harper tried to direct public money to create monuments that favoured his simplistic and ideologically shuttered propaganda? Several across Canada looked at stories not already told, or ignored, or that Harpo neither intended nor wanted…

This brings us to the here and now, and downtown St. Catharines, where Lilly Otašević’s Curtain Call has just been raised on the side of the Performing Arts Centre (facing Carlisle Street, but easily seen as you walk up St. Paul, with NAC behind you to your left). Some background information, before we approach the multi-hued, massive work that ‘hangs’ a storey above the sidewalk: Curtain Call ‘was funded, in part, by a grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage’s Canada 150 program, through the Celebration of Nations/Célébration de nation project being led by the PAC…a portion of the PAC’s initial construction budget had been designated for a public art project, and this process has been ongoing for several years.” I’d inject that several cities across Canada often earmark financial (and construction) support for artworks to compliment their spaces. A notable one was in Saskatoon a few years ago, where the new police station, as part of its design and mandate, commissioned an installation out front as a reminder / warning regarding MMIWG (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls – do I have to explain that acronym, still? Oh, right, Andrew Scheer is making a run for PM, Kenney is back like a zombie parasite, so yes, yes, I do…). Connecting to this, Otašević’s “metal sculpture was created to look like a wampum belt, with colourful beads that follow a wavy shape along the wall” (an accompanying panel, and the full and final ‘setting’ of the piece should be completed, by the time you’re reading this). The shortlist from which Otašević was selected included five other finalists, by “a jury made up of local arts professionals and St. Catharines staff.”

You can see more of Otašević’s aesthetic and public works here at her site. Her practice is multi-faceted, and having been born and educated in Belgrade, she brings an interesting sensibility to public artworks (I may be extrapolating too much, but my interaction with the public artworks created by immigrants to Canada often display an awareness of history and its contested narratives that many here either deny or choose to ignore. Several artists I’ve worked with, or whose practice has helped shape my attitudes and expectations about art in the public space have been from Eastern Europe, and that’s a space that encapsulates ‘contested narratives’ like few others). Other public works: Crescendo can be seen in Burlington, Mobius in Toronto, and Unity is in Suzhou, Jiangsu, China.

Perhaps you remember Elizabeth Chitty’s OAAG Award Winning community art project at Rodman Hall that ‘grew’ a wampum belt on the fertile and lovely grounds there, working with both Indigenous groups here but also recent newcomers. Slightly before that, an exhibition – Reading the Talk, also at RHAC – featured a sardonic, and definitely caustic in its satire, ‘take’ on the wampum belt treaty by Vanessa Dion Fletcher. Too much ‘art in the public sphere’ is simply ‘plop art’ still: pieces ‘dropped’ into a public space that say nothing to, nor respect, nor help define or refine the history of those communities, whether local or national (we’ve all endured those horrid karaoke modernist blocks and shapes that seem to occupy a great deal of space, yet we can pass by daily and not remember ‘seeing’…).

Curtain Call is vibrant in colour, and I’ve already enjoyed it as the sun sets, and may make a point of viewing it as the sun rises and shimmers and reflects on the blues, oranges, yellows and indigo of the flowing, bending work: too often, public art is a horrid failure, where it’s not only lacking in aesthetic, but to steal a joke, actually is an anaesthetic to good taste. Otašević’s Curtain Call is both engaging visually and relevant in an historical, as well as contemporary, sense of place and space.

All images are courtesy City of St. Catharines, and copyright of the artist.

Some initial thoughts on Welland: nostalgia and rust

I spent part of my first morning in Welland, starting off the month long period I’ll be here connecting with artists and spaces in the Rose City, by visiting the Central Library and their local history section. Oftentimes I’ve been accused of talking too much about politics and history in my reviews and articles, but that kind of ignorance is really only worth mentioning for its foolishness, and to remind people of the intersecting spaces that art, history, politics and place all occupy.

A side project, while I’m in Welland, is to photograph and perhaps do a bit more research on the house that my maternal grandmother was born in, that my great grandfather (her father) built: this has been interesting already, as everyone knows that family histories are vague and volatile, and are a fine example of what Heather Hart talked about, with her Northern Oracle artwork, about how oral histories (especially important ones, like familial ones) are just as subject to editing and errors as written ones, and become just as ‘official’ – or ‘calcified’ – in the repetition, as others are in the reprinting.

There’s already been some confusion and errors, mixed up numbers and other family fog in play, on that front.

So, I found myself reading about the John Deere plant, the unexpected and brutal closures that kneecapped the community (under Harper‘s indifferent government of 2009 – when the current repackaged goods passing himself off as ‘moral’ was making over $100, 000 a year as “speaker”). I read about Atlas Steel, which, in a manner somewhat synchronous, was a site I photographed extensively when I last visited in December. Atlas, and its impact in the community, will inform an upcoming exhibition at the Welland Museum, they’re soliciting stories and remembrances from people in the community (two friends of mine, nearly half a century apart in age, both have family that worked there, I discovered recently. Both will be visiting me at AIH studios, and one, Sandy Fairbairn, has already offered some amazing information re: Welland, and how my family might intersect with that story).

When I last visited, I walked around a lot, as I like to acquaint myself with cities that way (I once almost got mugged in Kelowna, when I was there for an exhibition of my work, but discovering the Japanese Gardens balanced that out): in that respect I passed by not just the Atlas site, but many houses that struck me as solid, brick and firm bones, and yet abandoned, and I considered a line from Notes from Union Power: Solidarity and Struggle in Niagara (Carmelita Patrias and Larry Savage). The elimination of good, secure jobs – effects the community in various insidious ways. This acts as the inverse of the ‘trickledown’ mythology of privileging the wealthy to supposedly help those of us below (opposite, as well, as the former is proven, whereas even most economists – a group I’d compare to astrologists, but I have no wish to insult the latter – know the latter might be what Patrias and Savage described as a failure to lead economically or wilful mismanagement).

After all, I was still living in St. Catharines when Free Trade and then NAFTA took their toll, and the downtown was like the backdrop to a Springsteen video about how ‘those jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back.’ Anna Szaflarski’s ‘A Man’s Job‘ has been in my mind, too, of late, with my anticipation of a residency spent in Welland, but also with recently reading Craig Davidson’s Cataract City. Both of those references – Szaflarski and Davidson – offer a more edged interpretation than the more ideologically ‘pure’ labour narrative. But if you’re reading this, you’ve read other pieces of mine, and know that I appreciate, and insist upon, the importance of contested narratives.

With Welland’s more industrial grounding (I enjoyed the basement area of the Welland Musuem, which made the social historian in me see I’m just scratching the surface, in thinking of Atlas Steel) perhaps, Joel’s Allentown is more fitting (Out in Bethlehem / they’re killing time / filling out forms / standing in line).

But returning to speaking of visual arts: one of the main goals of today was to visit Rod Dowling’s works near the Canal. I’d written on his work for a larger project, Art in the Open, about works in the public sphere from cenotaphs to murals, civic memorials to public art projects. This not only piqued my curiosity regarding history, and the history of art in Niagara, but also about the specific histories that we might think we know, or assume we know (I’ve tormented several friends with how the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, from the War of 1812, was bloody, brutal and in a graveyard as darkness fell, so let’s not pretend that war isn’t always all hell, and somehow fought by Marquess of Queensberry Rules ). Rod Dowling was a figure who’s works I’d surely encountered while growing up here, but had no recollection of that: but to steal a line from Elizabeth Chitty, when we were speakinig of our histories in St. Catharines, we ‘both broke a leg in a rush to get out of Niagara.’ (And yes, now both of us are deeply engaged with culture here, which amuses us both, I think).

And in returning to Niagara, after time in other industrial spaces like Windsor / Detroit (oh Zug Island, and the abandoned urban wastelands, and the empty factories, all like indexical signs, remnants of past glory), and after my research and experiences on modernism, karaoke modernism™ and the faith, fraud and formalism (as I bluntly titled this piece) of such utopic ideas on the Prairies, Dowling‘s sculptures intrigued me. In some ways, they offered a challenge to some formal modernist thought; alternately, living outside the gallery space, they become part of a wider, less academic, conversation.

The three works (Listeners, The Aqueduct and The Knot) seemed to be extensions of the city, today (the oft repeated descriptor is that they ‘reference the industrial and shipping history of Welland’, in superficial formality, with nautical allusions and such): in the cold blowing snow and -15 temperatures this week, in a landscape of grey metal skeletons of stairwells, barriers and other infrastructure canalside, these tall slim installations seem less ‘art’ than abandoned relics of production, now still and inert. Perhaps they’re also raw sprouted appendages of Welland – bursting from the earth under the city, pushing shoving forcing upwards, like memories surfacing or truths rising to be visible. Do I push this analogy even further, and talk about how many people I know who’ve worked in industrial spaces and now suffer from illnesses that appeared later, coming to the surface long after the jobs are done? My Saskatchewan must show, for a moment and I’ll mention that the debate about who cleans up oil wells and pipelines is just another chapter in the conversation that sees Uranium City sit empty and dangerous in Saskatchewan, or about who cleans up the old GM site in St. Catharines? Sometimes the detritus of economic progress is fallow ground (the article I linked out to re: Modernism cites the hope and controversy, the legacies both positive and negative, of nuclear power, and perhaps a day trip to Niagara Falls to revisit that history is also in order….)

I’ve had several conversations with people in the Welland cultural community as to whether its a wasteland or simply needs to be excavated more compassionately, and of course, the opiate crisis has hit this city more harshly than other places. I walk by pawnbrokers and rub – and – tugs, and wonder if I’m seeing St. Catharines’ past, or its future, or just one aspect of a city, with others to share.

Stepping back to the shale sky and Dowling’s interventions: they’re vaguely industrial (unlike other pieces by Dowling that are brightly coloured, suggesting malleable children’s twist toys, oversized playthings with a hint of Oldenburg’s absurdity), with twists that are pipe like, or forms that imply a utilitarian focus, or shines, still on some pieces hinting at well maintained tools. Other parts rust and have lost their finish. I’m reminded of cheap used pipes from an emergency plumbing job that is all you can afford, but hinting back to better times….

In past cities I’ve lived in, public art works have been rotated from location to location: I wonder how Knot or The Listeners would work, in the empty field further down East Main Street, among the weeds and trash and detritus that was once intrinsic to a process, a place and a city, and now most can’t even name what it is – or was, to be exact.

To return to my comments re: Modernism, there is a sentiment in that ideology, in the hopeful manifestions of that progressive ideology post WWII, that promised ‘never before’ and saw only a rich incline in human welfare and work and Welland (as manifest in the Deere plant, for example), as an archetype of many similar cities in Canada and further.

That failed, as all utopias do, and now these fragments are shored against the ruins, to bastardize Eliot: perhaps I should avoid rereading The Wasteland and Other Poems, while I’m here.

All images shot by the writer (the scenes of the Atlas site are from December 2018), and these works by Rod Dowling can be seen along the Welland Canal, just past the Community Wellness Complex. Many more of his works can be seen across Niagara, and a visit to Art in the Open will offer a good beginning in exploring his work. Your intrepid #artcriticfromhell does offer the disclaimer that I may have been listening to Dido’s ‘White Flag’ on repeat while walking the city.