Writing Landscape in Always Vessels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading The Talk: Wampum, Covenants and History

It’s not that Vanessa Dion Fletcher’s Relationship or Transaction is the “best” work in Reading The Talk, at Rodman Hall Art Gallery: but it encapsulates succinctly — and sharply — many ideas that suffuse the entire show.

Talk is curated by Lisa Myers and Rachelle Dickenson, but it’s more a “collaborative” exhibition. The artists communicated back and forth in the time leading up to installation (it’s a touring show, and has been installed differently in different venues, like a living, shifting thing – like language, perhaps), and considering the calibre of the artists (Michael Belmore, but also Hannah Claus, Patricia Deadman, Keesic Douglas and Melissa General), Talk is more about multiple voices acting in tandem than in an hierarchical, prescribed manner. This is appropriate as “Talk brings together work by contemporary First Nations artists who critically examine relationships to land, region and territory. Through a variety of practices […these] artists consider distinct indigenous perspectives on the history of treaties in the land now referred to as Canada.”

More from Myers and Dickenson: “Inspired by the historical Dish with One Spoon Treaty […] each artist [was invited] to consider the effects of this specific treaty as well as the function of wampum beads as mnemonic devices [techniques a person can use to improve their ability to remember] used by leaders to “read the talk” of agreements between nations […] Talk raises questions of land use and value, and elucidates the continuing role of both treaties and the wampum for Indigenous peoples.”

Transaction is installed in a manner that enhances, in a lower bracketed alcove, and the nature of the sculptural assemblage (screenprints, jute twine, but primarily five dollar notes, all blue and shiny and bluntly enticing) will entice. Made in 2014, Transaction “reconfigures the 1764 Covenant Chain wampum, used to establish a key agreement between Indigenous [Anishinaabe, Mississaugas and Haudenosaunee] and British nations. Dion Fletcher weaves together a combination of printed bills on paper signifying the quahog and whelk shells customarily used for wampum belts. The paper currency also references treaty annuities still paid each year to members of treaty regions and highlights the exploitive values placed on treaty land.”

It’s a wide floor work: the imagery of the “belt” may elude you until you stand further back, and see the “1764” and the two figures clasping hands defined by the blue and white pattern. This formal dichotomy enhances the work: many will only see the money, the five dollar bills (or may show up with a pair of scissors to steal it), and not see the whole “belt” as a commentary on the Covenant Chain wampum’s history, its successes and failures. All the debate about the recent changes to “Oh Canada” remind me of how many Indigenous artists I know sing it as “our home ON Native Land…” Meanwhile, the terra nullius in A Painters’ Country, in another room at Rodman, presents fertile, abundant landscapes that were all “empty” and “unclaimed.”

After seeing Transaction, walk Elizabeth Chitty’s The Grass is Still Green on Rodman’s front lawn. But more on that in a later issue. Though I use it here to insert Chitty’s observations about how in the colonial tradition “what is usable is primarily [what is] saleable.” So, is it a relationship, or a transaction? And how is the text of the wampum belt to be read?

Reading the Talk runs until the end of August, 2016, at Rodman Hall, but originated at the RMG.