Sakahàn at the National Gallery of Canada -- Akimblog

(apologies for redundant postings)

Sakahàn, currently on view at the National Gallery of Canada is comprised of works by over seventy-five international indigenous artists. It is the largest exhibition of its kind mounted anywhere, ever. And it not only occupies much of the NGC, but in one instance it literally covers it (in addition to also involving other venues around Ottawa). If there was ever a case for long, slow, and repeated visits, followed by careful and ongoing reflection, this is it. I've been twice and am still astounded by, and still looking for ways to cope with, its breadth and depth.

So, allow me to indulge in an anecdote as a coping strategy. In 1995 I had the unexpected privilege of being a guest of the University of Auckland's Maori Studies degree program at the religious, administrative, and social centre of the campus' indigenous population: the Marae. The one-room building was warm and dark, ornately decorated, and the periphery lined with solemnly seated and elaborately dressed people. I was seated among them. Our task, I quickly found out, was to greet the incoming first-year students by performing the 'Hongi' with each and every one. You say, 'tena koe' (literally, 'here you are'), lean towards one another, gently and firmly press nose, bridge, and forehead together and linger for a moment in a gesture that welcomes and simultaneously acknowledges exchange and personhood. It took a long time. Once each person's face had touched every other, various rituals and rites took place (all in Maori) and then, as I recall, Marae business was conducted.

Long, slow, deliberate, monotone speeches were made. I passed the time looking around the sanctuary, soaking in the intricacies of the carving and the other art on display. I assumed that many people had fallen asleep when every so often someone would offer a close-eyed rejoinder, having been intently following all along. The experience demanded sustained, thoughtful engagement and was both utterly foreign and richly surprising.

And so it is with Sakahàn. It is not only big; it is complex, sprawling, varied, and replete with overt and latent political and aesthetic content.

Brett Graham & Rachel Rakena,  Aniwaniwa , 2007

Brett Graham & Rachel Rakena, Aniwaniwa, 2007

Brett Graham and Rachel Rakena's Aniwaniwa, which represented New Zealand in the 52nd Venice Biennial in 2007, encourages people to lounge on their backs. Overhead are large round oculi or screens housed in giant tire-like forms that variably read as fungi. Moving images appear of Maori underwater, dressed in period clothing and performing domestic or perfunctory tasks. At times they simply move through the water, apparently unaffected by the inability to breathe nor the impediment to mobility. The temptation to drift off to sleep oneself is strong and the soporific effect both opens the possibility for half-conscious insights and argues for modes of thinking that are perhaps less strictly rational, less Western. The work references the deliberate flooding of a New Zealand town in order to create a hydroelectric dam and emphasizes the all too familiar history of Western exploitation of natural resources that many global indigenous populations continue to share.

Jimmie Durham,  Encore tranquillité (Calm Again) , 2008, fibreglass stone and airplane (photo: Roman März)

Jimmie Durham, Encore tranquillité (Calm Again), 2008, fibreglass stone and airplane (photo: Roman März)

Perhaps the most overt gesture of resistance is expressed by Jimmie Durham's full-sized single-person airplane crushed by a massive fallen boulder Encore Tranquilité. The event long since having happened, the work is silent now. The loud shock that would have woken us exists only in our imaginations, particularly when you realize that the boulder is now replaced by a fiberglass replica that clings desperately to any notions of verisimilitude. We are left with an irreparably damaged, permanently grounded, and inauthentic symbol of the triumph of Western ingenuity and invention.

Sakahàn is meant to be the first of three large-scale surveys of international indigenous art that will occur every five years at the National Gallery (and an opportunity to expand our art vocabulary: quinquennial). This is a commitment that is grand and auspicious, and makes much progress towards reifying indigenous culture as present, relevant, and contingent, as opposed to exclusively historical and ethnographic.

National Gallery of Canada:
Sakahàn continues until September 2.

Andrew Wright is an artist and an assistant professor of visual art at the University of Ottawa. His mid-career survey exhibition Penumbra is currently on view at the University of Toronto Art Centre until June 29 as a primary exhibition of the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival. He is Akimblog's Ottawa correspondent and can be followed @AndrewWrightArt on Twitter.


Akimblog Jan 29, 2013: Cheryl Pagurek @ Patrick Mikhail Gallery

Cheryl Pagurek has been photographing water for a long time. It is a typical and perhaps clichéd photographic subject that can manifest as almost anything from sweeping images of seascapes to macro views of condensing droplets. But Pagurek uses water in a way that is far less ordinary, far less pedantic, and far from predictable. Her exhibition State of Flux at Patrick Mikhail Gallery offers a suite of large prints of surprisingly varied, colourful, tight, and oblique views of the surfaces of flowing water. Culled from numerous trips in and around waterways from across the country, the images represent an assembling of pictures from three bodies of work: State of Flux, River Suite, and Wave Patterns

Cheryl Pagurek, Wave Patterns (still), 2012. HD video loop

Pagurek is a deliberate and careful image-maker and thinker. Honed from thousands of images of water at the more placid end of the scale, the works collected at PMG are the end point of a considered process of observation and selection. The results are, at times, strangely unfamiliar. The super-saturated reflections available when Pagurek prefers to shoot (at twilight) would seem to have only a tenuous relationship to observable reality. We happily suspend our disbelief when we recognize the highly morphed and abstracted elements of the mirrored world out of frame.

There is also a video, titled Wave Patterns, which plays with the opposition of the chaotic nature of fluidity and the strictly regimented structure of the grid. Twelve videos fade in and out to create new potential and fleeting compositions through their adjacency. But there is far more than compositional play at work here: the accompanying audio track consists of sounds of construction, tools grinding, hammers pounding, and the inevitable advancement of building development. Pagurek stops short of proclaiming some sort of indirect argument for environmental causes, and the exhibition remains concerned with the building of pictures of unstable states. In her words: "the video creates a dynamic choreography of change over time, simultaneously exploring both fragmentation and unity." The same can be said of the exhibition as a whole.

Patrick Mikhail Gallery:

Cheryl Pagurek: State of Flux continues until February 9.

Andrew Wright is an artist who has exhibited widely, both nationally and internationally, with exhibitions at Presentation House, UC Berkeley, Oakville Galleries, Photo Miami, and ARCO Madrid, to name a few. He is the recipient of numerous grants and awards. Nominated six times for the Sobey Art Award he was a semi-finalist in 2007. In 2011 he won the inaugural BMW Exhibition Award at Contact Photography Festival in Toronto. He is an Assistant Professor at the University of Ottawa and Akimblog's Ottawa correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewWrightArt


Akimblog Critic's Picks 2012: Top 3 Ottawa

1. The Vatican goes Reality TV in Christian Jankowski's Casting Jesus (at the National Gallery) whereby Italian priests and art critics scrutinize hopeful "Messiahs" as they put them through various scenarios designed to reveal which Jesus will be crowned (with thorns?) as the best and be cast in a never-to-be-produced show. Variously hilarious, earnest, absurd, and mesmerizing, this brilliant work is ultimately far more revelatory of the culture within which it had its birth.

2. The first Nuit Blanche Ottawa was met with much praise. As yet, entirely run at a grass-roots level, it remains to be seen whether or not it will grow into something larger and hopefully less reliant on the sheer will and determination of the artists themselves. It does seem strange that it took so long for Nuit Blanche to arrive in our national capital, but perhaps it isn't so surprising in a city that is practically beset with festivals and events already.

Allan Mackay displays a work he later destroyed on Parliament Hill

Allan Mackay displays a work he later destroyed on Parliament Hill

3. Artist Allan Harding Mackay jumped onto the national stage again this year with an impassioned protest against what he called Stephen Harper's systematic abuse of power and contraventions of Veterans' and First Nations' rights. On May 10, Mackay destroyed three works on Parliament Hill with national media looking on. His protest was drowned out almost entirely by a gathering of thousands of anti-abortion protesters occupying the Hill at the same time. Loudspeakers blasting unpleasant, tearful, and inappropriately gruesome testimonials from would-be mothers became the setting for an equally heartfelt but decidedly more heady protest by Mackay and provided for me the most surreal moment of 2012. Mackay's point is made far more clearly and effectively when he did the same thing on live national television on CBC's Power and Politics a few days before. Evan Solomon's shock seemed legitimate and made for some of the best real "reality TV" I've ever seen. To see the interview, click here.

Andrew Wright is an artist based in Ottawa and the Interim Chair of the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Ottawa. He has exhibited widely and is the recipient of numerous awards. He was recently elected a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. He is Akimblog's Ottawa correspondent and can be followed @AndrewWrightArt on Twitter.

Builders @ the National Gallery: My latest Akimblog post

Among the over forty artists and at least twice as many works from  Builders currently on view at the  National Gallery of Canada as part of the second installment* of the Canadian Biennial, there is a photograph from Max Dean's recent Objects Waiting series called  Exit (Brick Wall). It depicts torn, imbricated layers of colourful photographic backdrop paper—the kind of ubiquitous photo-prop that would establish a world without context but most often reveals the very thing it attempts to hide: the studio. It is within the site of this creative workplace that Dean sought to interrogate various objects (a chair, a ladder, rope, a bucket of water, etc.) in a personal sense. He explores what meaning can be derived from them by staging a series of actions that pit artist and potentially symbolic items against the detached coolness of this "nowhere-place"; its grey walls only a few shades away from the neutrality of the equally ubiquitous and conventional white cube.

Dean has torn through the artifice of the seamless paper only to come up against a brick wall—itself another layer of deceptively real brick-patterned paper. This "exit strategy" could be futile, except for the presence of a ladder that leads out of frame, and except for the fact the photograph is more than satisfying aesthetically.

Max Dean, Bucket Head, 2010, printed 2011, Dye Coupler print, 52.3 x 41.8 cm; image 50.9 x 40.6 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

The Objects Waiting suite is full of references to previous works by Dean and, according to the artist himself, reveal a set of personal narratives that had been, until now, camouflaged in his practice. The NGC first collected his work in 1977 and owns major pieces by him including The Robotic ChairAs Yet Untitled, and now, Objects Waiting. The inclusion of recent works by Dean and others like Michael SnowVicky AlexanderRobert Fones, and Lynne Cohen within Builders attests to the show's premise of recognizing not only singular, watershed works but also long-standing and important contributions to Canadian art at large.

*This is apparently the second installment of the Biennial. No one seems to be counting the Canadian Biennial of Contemporary Art that occurred at the National Gallery in 1989 (artists aren't supposed to be good at math, but a lapse of more than twenty years is a little tough to reconcile). That show was curated by Diana Nemiroff, then Associate Curator of Contemporary Art. Interestingly, one artist was featured in both the '89 biennial and Builders:Will Gorlitz.

National Gallery of Canada:
Builders: Canadian Biennial 2012 continues until January 20.

Andrew Wright is an artist based in Ottawa and the Interim Chair of the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Ottawa. He has exhibited widely and is the recipient of numerous awards. He was recently elected a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. He is Akimblog's Ottawa correspondent.

My latest Akimblog post: Expeditions @ OAG

There are few words in Canada that, when paired, are heavier than "Canadian" and "landscape". Perhaps "national" and "pastime" is another pair that is equally fraught... 

Instead of taking up the idea of landscape itself, Expeditions attempts to establish as its subject the awkward relationships artists can have when foraying into spaces that are, for lack of a better term, "landscape-like". While denying any overt references to nationalism, common artistic concerns, or zeitgeist, curator Ola Wlusek has nonetheless assembled a group of artists who have had "encounters with places they experienced between the Canadian coasts", and offers a democratic smattering representative of emerging and established categories.

As usual, the ghost of Tom Thomson is ever-present. Peter Michael Wilson isolated himself in a cabin in Algonquin Park in a deliberate attempt to conjure Thomson's spirit. The folly is the idea is superseded by the success of his glass plate positives that reflect the arduousness of his self-imposed wilderness experience. Their hand-made and belaboured quality and the directness of their placement on the wall heighten their reading as artifacts of both his experience and analog photography itself.

Thomson is summoned again in a cryptic yet eerily evocative video by Stockholm-based artist Celicia Nygren that moves back and forth between scenes of an androgynous figure paddling a canoe in Banff and shots of white and red horizontal bands—which turn out to be a squash court. The artist is shown occasionally peering through that little window into the court, possibly as a nod to the tight framing of the limited views of vast space we are offered. Ironically, its position in a hallway display case makes it easy to overlook.

Katie Bethune-Leaman's makeshift foam iceberg sculpture works far better as a photograph, where we see her wearing it as both a costume and protection against the cold in situ on Fogo Island, off the coast of Newfoundland. The title Iceberg for Fogo Island When There Are None masks a heartfelt yet futile gesture that is nonetheless powerful in its simplicity. It's no wonder, then, that this image gets taken up as the frontispiece of the exhibition. It also establishes expectations for the show that are difficultly met.

Katie Bethune-Leaman, Iceberg for Fogo Island When There are None

Penny McCann's Crashing Skies is a remarkably straightforward and engaging rumination on the use of inverted (negative) video. Southwestern Ontario's farmland bucolics are thoroughly turned upside-down. Daniel Young and Christian Giroux's monumental sculpture Mr. Smith is undeniably both impressive and satisfying, but it dominates the exhibition to the point where it appears as its own show. Except for the fact that it is vaguely reminiscent of a pair of icebergs, it too fits awkwardly into another stated premise of the show: "a musing on potential gaps in the current representations of the Canadian wilderness."

Ottawa Art Gallery:
Expeditions continues until January 13.

Andrew Wright is an artist based in Ottawa and the Interim Chair of the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Ottawa. He has exhibited widely and is the recipient of numerous awards. He was recently elected a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. He is Akimblog's Ottawa correspondent.