From the Toolbox of a Serving Library, Speaking Difference

Canadian Curated Moment

Sam Durant’s “You Are On Indian Land Show Some Respect,” 2008

Week four, that of the Pointer tool, is being led by Anthony Huberman, a curator and writer based in New York, where he is the director of The Artist’s Institute. Huberman began by asking us to recount a resonant group exhibition, to try and articulate why its curatorial frame worked. It is easy to criticize a show that fails to let work live. It is harder to understand how shows that move us are able to do so. In this latter case, an elucidation of curatorial strategies does not amount to the magic of being moved, but there are certain approaches that seem more productive than others. Huberman attempted a broad distinction between methodologies: that of the thematic shows as an explanation machine, opposed to that of the curatorial lens as an engine for finding (not selecting) works that complicate an initial consideration or curiosity. The distance between these approaches seems slight in the abstract, but the difference is a distinction between inward looking (gathering works that exemplify an idea) and outward looking (following the lines of flight that works bring to bear on points of departure).

In the spirit of Huberman’s question, and Toronto-based writer and curator Gabby Moser’s archive of Canadian curated moments, this exhibition comes to mind (the comments below are inspired by a conversation between Amy Lynn Kazymerchyk, curator at VIVO Media Arts and director of DIM Cinema, and Sabine Bitter, chief curator at the Audain):

First Nations / Second Nature

Curated by Candice Hopkins

Featuring Rebecca Belmore, Matthew Buckingham, Greg Curnoe, Sam Durant, Jimmie Durham, Pia Fuchs, Andrea Geyer, Brian Jungen and Cheryl L’Hirondelle + Andrew Lee

Audain Gallery at SFU Woodward’s, Vancouver BC

06 February-20 March 2010

One of Vancouver’s newer galleries, the Audain’s opening coincided with the city’s hosting of the 2010 Olympic Winter games. In many different respects, the Audain occupies contested space: within the Woodward’s building, a historic department store turned organized squat turned cultural centre; located in the Downtown Eastside, what has been known as Canada’s poorest postal code, but whose future has undoubtedly shifted with SFU Woodward’s new era of gentrification; and built on unceded Coast Salish territory, or less euphemistically, stolen native land. It is fitting that First Nations / Second Nature, the gallery’s inaugural exhibition, featured works that “mediate the politics of site and the shifting conceptions of territory.” Curated by Candice Hopkins, the exhibition served as a counterpoint to the rampant nationalism that characterized a city overtaken by a globalized sporting event. First Nations / Second Nature acknowledged the entwined histories of so many different cohabiting traditions while critiquing a reckless demarcation of difference.

The window façade of the gallery faces Hastings Street, a major east-west thoroughfare for vehicles and pedestrians that is often identified by name when locating the Downtown Eastside cartographically. Facing out of these considerable windows was a large-scale photographic work by Rebecca Belmore. sister depicts a person from behind in a pose reminiscent of crucifixion or flight, a reading that resonates with the austere lack of context within the image itself. And yet, the specificity of the work’s location embeds another reading, which stems from the possibility of her being frisked, which leads to a consideration of institutionalized brutality, murdered and missing women, and cultural stereotypes. She faces away from the street, the consumer and the audience, becoming an anonymous monument inverting the power of not being represented.

The Audain gallery has two entrances, one on Hastings Street, the other accessed through a courtyard on the opposite side of the building. Sam Durant’s light box You Are On Indian Land Show Some Respect, a faithful reproduction of a protest sign from the Native American civil rights movement in the United States, was placed in a direct line of sight from the street entrance. However, on every visit I made to the gallery, the street entrance was locked. I am not sure what motivated the gallery (or building managers) to close this entrance down, but the fact that the courtyard entrance was faithfully patrolled by security lends itself to a cynical interpretation of wanting to keep the street life out of the pristine new building. It is unclear to me if Hopkins was aware the front door would not be functional, because Durant’s work commands attention. Considering the relationships between the works, the gallery, the community and the spectacle outside, Durant’s illuminated message wanted to be the first thing a gallery visitor saw. Nonetheless, the piece was also visible on the gallery walls through the same window as Belmore’s work, and so was able to speak directly to passers-by (the local community and international visitors), whether they came around back to enter the show or not.

Pia Fuchs’s Untitled (Pan-National Flag) is a standard issue flag in its dimensions and material, upon which all the flags of every state recognized by the United Nations has been traced. The resulting visual cacophony reveals something about the standardization of design with its substantially messier centre zone and darkened diagonal cross lines. There are also brief moments of clarity, where the idiosyncratic emblems of some countries stand out. While this work speaks clearly to the absurdity of nationalism, its inclusion was an astute juxtaposition on Hopkins’s behalf, prefiguring the strange ritual of wearing Canadian flags as capes that became increasingly hysterical as the Canadian hockey team advanced toward winning Olympic gold.

Cheryl L’Hirondelle, in collaboration with Andrew Lee, took the antiquated formulation of property law, “everything up to the sky and down to the center of the earth,” and literally turned it on its side. Their work comprises a group of plexiglass tubes full of organic material that was collected within the city block that the Woodward’s complex occupies. Gradations of gravel, bark, shells and other organic material resemble core earth samples, which have been re-orientated horizontally and transformed again into a landscape. However, the cleanliness and meticulous arrangement of the material bears little relationship to nature. Invoking a rational impulse to understand through clinical dissection, the result is alienation. Were those shells really found within the city block’s radius? The real experience of the land resists being subsumed into social paradigms, be it as an object of science or as property.

Greg Curnoe draws out the ridiculousness of the idea of land ownership through his works Deeds/Nations and Deeds/Abstracts: The History of a London Lot, which can summarized by the idea that, effectively, the land owns itself and we are all guests on it. The pair of works attempt an impossible feat: to record every person who ever occupied or owned the land Curnoe’s London, Ontario home and art studio sat on. What rose up out of this endeavour was a documentation of a shift in the conception of land ownership that denied First Nations land rights and made it possible for European settlers to annex property. Although research is often the engine of aesthetic production, this case muddles the distance between the intended art work and the spin-off. What affirms what? What began for Curnoe as a bibliography transformed into a set of paintings memorializing the names of the people who had preceded him on the land he found himself.

Matthew Buckingham’s installation The Six Grandfathers, Paha Sapa, in the Year 502,002 C.E. reverses the direction of research through a hypothesis about of the effects of the  indifferent passage of time on an American national monument, Mount Rushmore. Long the subject of treaty claims and bureaucratic double-crossing, the land has become a symbolic site of the discrepancy between America’s idealized and actual histories. In a kind of colonial manifest destiny, the faces of American presidents have literally been carved into the mountainside (by a man who was an active member of the Ku Klux Klan). Yet, this very land was guaranteed to the Lakota Sioux in 1868, and quoting from Buckingham’s extensive history of the location, which snaked around the gallery walls, “[In 1980] the supreme court rules in favour of the Lakota, acknowledging that the Black Hills were illegally taken but that the court has also declared that the passage of time makes the return impossible and orders a $120 million reparation payment. The Lakota refuse the money.” Geologists estimate that it will take 500,000 years for the presidential faces to be eroded and for the mountainside to return to nature once again, and Buckingham has simulated this erasure with a large-scale digitally manipulated photograph. When all is said and done, there will be no evidence of the carving, but what is the spiritual significance of the history? How is the memory held in the land?

Jimmie Durham’s contribution to the exhibition was a site-specific extension of his Pole to Mark the Center of the World series. Staking a claim by way of a large industrial pipe, he mimics the act of claiming territory that is central to colonialism. But contrarily, Durham’s display does not rename, erase or displace. He draws attention to the import of such declarations, thereby re-appropriating the colonial act and reconfiguring it to suggest, perhaps, stewardship. Durham also contributed a small mirror, which, strategically situated, reflected much of the exhibition inside it. I understand this small accessory to be a metaphorical reflection of the exhibition’s relationship to life outside the gallery: a modest but considered attempt to show the world to itself.

Andrea Geyer’s Spiral Lands / Chapter 2 was situated inside a classroom-like compartment within the gallery where an unmanned, incessant slideshow and disembodied female voice-over played on. The address constantly shifts perspective (scientific, emotional) and tone (imperative, persuasive), digressing into a chain of footnotes that would be impossible to follow if not for the accompanying brochure that documents them. Broadly addressing the idea of landscape, Geyer “point[s] to the fact that visualization is and has always been a sophisticated ideological device, revealing as much of what stands behind the camera as what is found in front.” Deconstructing easy ways of thinking about history, Geyer collages competing and oppositional stories, laying the job of reconciliation on her audience. When navigating the myriad perspectives represented, the prescriptive structure of the relay of information is revealed—history is not concrete, but a process of negotiation.

Lastly, the show takes its title from some early illustrations by Brian Jungen, a gently humourous yet slightly cynical set of cartoons.

Though First Nations / Second Nature was ostensibly a show about contemporary North American colonial encounters, not all the artists were of Aboriginal heritage. In this sense, Hopkins’s lens turned from a rudimentary identity politics to a broader proposition of what can be accomplished in alliance. Though the slogan of “nothing about us without us” is a rich point of consideration, art should be able to speak about political and social issues, not as a counterpoint but as the standard. When art is great, it has something at stake; it is politically and socially formed, and at the same time, formative.

First Nations / Second Nature is a cogent example of Huberman’s charge that great shows challenge their audience’s existing understanding by taking it elsewhere. Hopkins moves differentiated Aboriginal histories into History; she weaved together these perspectives without flattening them out. In a space of contestation and a time of protest, this exhibition stood out as an expression of hope.


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