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 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 from Ottawa

ANDREW WRIGHT in Ottawa 06/21/11

Layoffs & Caravaggio at the National Gallery | Body Tracks at Gallery 101

posted by Andrew Wright - June 21st, 2011.

There’s been a lot happening at the National Gallery of late. Some good and some not-so-good. Let’s start with the not-so-good. Earlier this month it was announced that the NGC will lay off five of its curators. Despite some claiming that this was a result of the Harper majority and its austerity budget, these cuts had been in the works for a while and there had been much anxiety at the Gallery about them. One CBC report states that the gallery has eliminated twenty-seven positions since 2009. Until now, these cuts seemed to be only in the various visitors’ services including seven highly experienced guides and four positions in programming and education, not to mention the parking lot attendants who were recently replaced by machines. Apparently the cuts are to address a shortfall due to declining attendance. Layoffs, attrition, along with what is now the apparent subsuming of the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography seem to be part of some larger master plan that is yet to be revealed.

On June 15, gallery workers and members of PSAC (Public Service Alliance of Canada) staged their own performance art in the form of an “information picket line” to draw attention to the fact that they have been without a contract for almost a year and that they are concerned about job security (no kidding) and the gallery’s “refusal to negotiate”. Add to this the ongoing dispute with CARFAC over copyright and licensing fees (which makes the gallery’s online collection Cybermuse utterly useless since the vast majority of works are unseen) and the NGC has a lot of things to sort out.

Caravaggio, David and Goliath, 1600

The tried and true way to generate revenue has always been the blockbuster summer exhibition and they opened their latest, Caravaggio and his followers in Rome, last Thursday. The show has all the right ingredients: a delicious back story (of a tortured artist who killed a man, had a tumultuous and violent life on the run, rich patrons who protected him, a price on his head, an attempt at redemption, a tragic death…) seasoned with lots of blood and gore courtesy of old testament narratives, a dash of homoerotic subtext, a healthy helping of the distance of time that allows even the most staid of gallery-goers to digest the shocking, and (to strain this analogy even further) it is all topped of with near impossible, yet luscious representational paintings. Much is made of Caravaggio’s “game-changing” approach to painting: his use of light, his dispensing with the preparatory sketch, and his eschewing of idealizing visions, preferring instead to paint from life. The paintings do seem incredibly contemporary. At times I felt like I was looking at photographic portraits by Sam Taylor-Wood: one fallen angel looks remarkably like a young Roger Daltry, in another Vincent Gallo seems to have modeled as David with the head of Goliath. The realism is surprising.

There are, of course, many other works and exhibitions also on at the NGC. Notable are the recent acquisitions of Terrance Houle and Sarah Sze, along with the small tribute exhibition to Louise Bourgeois. The National has one of the best collections of Bourgeois’ oeuvre, which one would expect given the presence of her colossal sculpture Maman at the front door.

Upon leaving the Caravaggio exhibition, I ran into Josée Drouin-Brisebois, curator of the Canadian Pavillion, just back from Venice.  She was pleased with the more quiet presentation of Steven Shearer’s works and the counterpoint it offers to the spectacle that is the Biennial. She reminded me that it was way back in 1982 that Canada last presented a painter at the Giardini: Paterson Ewen.

Ana Mendiata, Untitled aka Body Tracks (Blood Sign #2), 1974

In Ottawa, if the National Gallery is Goliath, then artist-run centres such as Gallery 101 are David. The difficulty of competing for attention and funds in the shadow of a national institution is obvious, but this doesn’t stop them from presenting thoughtful exhibitions deserving of attention. Two Ottawa artist-run centres (Gallery 101 and SAW Video) have teamed up to present Body Tracks, a group exhibition examining the art and life of Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta. Curated by Christine Redfern and Mireille Bourgeois, the exhibition includes video works by Canadians Jude Norris, Anna Peak, and Philomène Longpré alongside a film by Mendiata herself and original ink drawings from the newly published graphic novella on Mendiata’s life by Caro Caron: Who is Ana Mendieta? Mendiata’s life was as tumultuous and as tragic as Caravaggio’s.

Philomène Longpré, Xia, 2011

The novella and the video installation by Longpré are stand-outs in the show. Her subtly interactive video has us confront a charcoaled raw canvas with the superimposed image of a draped woman writhing, sleeping, stretching. Not unlike a Caravaggio painting, the three-dimensional effect is astonishing. Where Caravaggio would have young half-clad boys cast as biblical figures, Longpré’s single female figure is a moving allegory of both victimhood and feminist emancipation. It reminds me of a painting in the Caravaggio show by Artemisia Gentileschi - Judith Beheading Holofernes. The blood-soaked sheets beneath the near-beheaded head of her quarry are richly and gently rendered, and are so palpably real I felt as though my retinas themselves were stained. A painted testament to female power if ever there was one.

Andrew Wright is an artist and assistant professor of visual art at the University of Ottawa. Recently he won the inaugural BMW Exhibition Prize during the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival for his series titled 'Coronae'.

The National Gallery of Canada:
Caravaggio and his followers in Rome continues until September 11.
Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) continues until March 18.

Gallery 101:
Body Tracks continues until July 9.

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