Holding A Space For The Work Yet To Do

Maria Hupfield's "Present—Absence," 2013.

Maria Hupfield’s “Present—Absence,” 2013.

The silhouette of a woman crouching down, one hand on her hip, the other holding a crown, chin raised, a posture of supplication and insistence. Etched permanently on the glass doors of SBC Gallery, its material conditions reflect the aura of the piece: rooted. Commissioned as part of the exhibition Stage Set Stage, curated by Barbara Clausen (30 November 2013-22 February 2014), this work of Maria Hupfield’s, entitled Present—Absence (2013), sits within A Problem So Big It Needs Other People as an instance of institutional negotiation, a marker of what it means to encounter history head on. Although the work was not made for A Problem…, I have chosen to include it as part of the exhibition because, well, literally, it’s a part of it. Meeting the work with integrity, in the spirit of a exhibition that positions itself as a consideration of sovereignty through negotiation, it is only appropriate to acknowledge Hupfield’s figure and spirit in a way that writes upon my own project at SBC, give and take.

The title of Hupfield’s etching, Present—Absence, is descriptive, but I choose to interpret it further as an injunction to register both my knowing (that which is present) and not-knowing (that which is absent) in encountering her work. In this way, it is a reminder to bring this register to all of the works in the exhibition, and to my ways of looking more generally. Hupfield has said of the title that it “[draws] parallels with the temporal paradox of living indians expected to play dead and how, by extension, nations based on unresolved histories of domination and force affect us all fundamentally in the present.” Hupfield’s etching carries a living electricity and it is marked in one small way through a position on a map that visitors can carry with them through the gallery space. She is here amongst us and she is not. There’s not really a way to reconcile it further.

It’s strange company, but it reminds me of Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous declaration that “… there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

Missing from this taxonomy (as others have pointed out), is the unknown knowns. Prejudice is an expression of this sort, and so are cultural norms and unconscious dispositions, those things of which we are unaware and yet structure our reality, the “disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values.” [1] Hupfield’s etching traces a shape around these unknown knowns. It’s a little bit uncomfortable and if we care to invest in the encounter, it means we’ve work to do: how do we resolve the paradox? Not just reconciling Hupfield’s vitality with stultifying myths related to Indigenous peoples or female artists, but our living on this land with Canada’s and the US’s on-going colonial policies, among countless others situations where expressions of power are masked by invisibility in order to maintain the status-quo.

In a different tone entirely, the poet Anne Carson describes the work of charting one’s own not-knowing: “A thinking mind is not swallowed up by what it comes to know. It reaches out to grasp something related to itself and to its present knowledge (and so knowable in some degree) but also separate from itself and from its present knowledge (not identical with these). In any act of thinking, the mind must reach across this space between known and unknown, linking one to the other but also keeping visible to difference. It is an erotic space.” [2] Importantly, not-knowing is not undone through the act of reaching. Distance and difference remain.

I would like to propose a tactic for investment: holding a space. Holding a space for the not-knowing. Holding a space a not filling it. Being uncomfortable. The complexities and contradictions of our collective being-in-the-world are not going to resolve themselves neatly. The least I can do is form the part of identity that’s up for negotiation though meeting each of you as another, knowing there are other ways to see and be, whether or not I can meaningfully access them. Institutionally, what is the reciprocal obligation of SBC in response to Hupfield’s form forever on the gallery doors? A mark on a map is one way, her name on the gallery wall another, but for myself, I work to avoid further re-inscription of an absent presence through the practice of territorial acknowledgement. Hupfield has noted that the etching’s name references a term defined by Kate Shanley: “In that Native peoples are a permanent ‘present absence’ in the U.S. colonial imagination, an ‘absence’ that reinforces at every turn the conviction that Native peoples are indeed vanishing and that the conquest of Native lands is justified.” It’s simple, but focusing attention on the on-going history of the land the gallery occupies implicates the present moment. It’s probably the least we can do, as in actually the least the we can do. And in doing so, Hupfield’s absent presence in the gallery space is a charge taken up, not resolved but acknowledged. Complexity and contradiction are embraced through the resonance of different voices: there is work yet to do.

[1] Žižek, Slavoj. “What Rumsfeld Doesn’t Know That He Knows About Abu Ghraib,” In These Times, 21 May 2004.

[2] Carson, Anne. Eros: The Bittersweet (USA: Dalkey Archive Press, 1995), 171.


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