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Robert Enright: ARTery Essay

The following is the catalogue essay for the ARTery exhibition, written by Robert Enright.  The Art Gallery of Grande Prairie was pleased present ARTery, curated by Ed Bader, in January 2008.  The ARTery catalogue will soon be available.

Robert Enright is the senior Contributing Editor to Border Crossings magazine and the University Research Chair in Art Theory and Criticism in the School of Fine Art and Music at the University of Guelph.

Edward Bader is a graduate of the University of Lethbridge, B.F.A. (1979) and holds a M.F.A. from the University of Calgary (1993) and a MA in Popular Cuture from Brock University (2007). He has taught at the University of Lethbridge, the University of Calgary, the Alberta College of Art and Design, and Grande Prairie Regional College.

Cover of the ARTery catalogue.

Cover of the ARTery catalogue.


Channeling Body, Space and Culture

by Robert Enright

   I have been musing on the idea of the artery. The pastime is understandable in thinking about an art exhibition named ARTery, organized in Grande Prairie, Alberta, a city which is a central point of passage from the South to the North and on a street that, if you follow it for 130 km, will lead you to Dawson Creek, Mile Zero on the Alaska Highway. The notion here is one of transport and communication, the highway as an artery connecting one place to another, a channel through which goods and ideas can be disseminated. 

   The artery also has corporeal importance; it is a muscular blood vessel that carries oxygenated blood away from the heart to the rest of the body. Arteries have thick, elastic walls and they can withstand eight times more pressure then veins. The artery, then, is the resilient transporter of the body’s lifeblood. As it is with our physical selves, so it goes with our aesthetic selves: ARTery is conceived by Ed Bader, the Guest Curator of the exhibition, as a functional way to circulate art, in his estimation a thing necessary to our physical and psychic health. “The core idea of the project,” he says, “is how art and creative forces can assist in revitalizing the heart of the city during the bleakest, coldest months of winter.” The warm heart in the centre of the frigid environment; you can appreciate the rich line of investigation contained in this oppositional nature. 

   Taken together, the two meanings of the word Bader nominates in the name of his exhibition (the highway and the blood vessel) combine external and internal dimensions; they operate both on the inside and the outside. Bader chose eight artists whose work he presented in the windows of local businesses, playing along the line where inside spaces open up to outside perceptions. You could see images or sequences from the videos included in ARTery as you drove along 100 Avenue, the one-way street that runs east to west through the centre of Grande Prairie, but to fully appreciate them, you would either have to stop moving, or get out of your vehicle and stand on the street. That decision, in the January heart of a Northern Alberta winter, would not be without consequences. Bader is fully aware of this and, in one sense, has acted like a benign contrarian. He takes the coldest month of the year and picks a number of exhibition locations stretched along the city’s main thoroughfare as a way of showing video, an art form best comprehended over time and from a fixed vantage point.

   To be sure, there are a number of ways in which the installation of ARTery resists the habitual and reverses the expectant. Bader places the videos – and one text piece – in storefronts, but their presence is neither about advertising nor sales. This is an especially interesting choice because Grande Prairie is the location of a number of big box stores and functions as a service centre for a wide area, including northeastern British Columbia. On weekends the streets of the city are packed with cars bearing license plates from other provinces and territories, and thousands of visitors will drive to Grande Prairie to shop.

   In that environment showing The Burning Canoe, a video by Michael Campbell in the window of Urban Home, a local furniture store, is a subtle intervention. Campbell’s video, which was initially conceived as part of a larger mixed media installation called, I want to know who you’d be in the best of all possible worlds (2001), shows an empty canoe drifting on the placid surface of Lake Muskoka. The drama comes not from where the boat is but from what is happening to it. For the entire length of the short video (it is 2:52 seconds long) the canoe is on fire. 

    What does it mean to set a canoe, a symbol of our agreeably tamed wilderness, on fire? The canoe belonging to Pierre Elliott Trudeau was recently on exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum, a tribute to a public hero and his private passion, and the unexplained death of Tom Thomson continues to attract the attention of Canadian curators and artists, who worry it like an old wound. So the canoe is a potent object, a container for the drama of political, economic and cultural nation-building. But by drifting aimlessly on the lake, Campbell’s canoe obliges us to ask a series of perplexing questions: what is the boat doing there; why is there no one in it; was there someone in it; where are they now; why is it on fire; who set it on fire? And so it goes. It’s problematic enough to have these questions asked about an object so freighted with historical significance. But to leave those questions unanswered, and to further complicate the mystery, is to frustrate the arterial flow of information, commerce and recreation that is the canoe’s natural legacy.

    At one point the camera moves in quite close, so much so that the bow and stern are out of frame. Suddenly, it’s as if Peter Doig had been brought in as cinematographer, and the resulting narrative implications are not reassuring. In some of his most famous paintings, Doig has conflated the canoe and horror, and Campbell’s mysteriously empty vessel begins to assume some of that same tone. We are even practically uneasy; you hear the crisp crackle of the fire in the centre of the canoe and wonder why, given all that noise and combustion, the boat doesn’t burn and sink? In its meandering journey across the lake, it seems indestructible, and vaguely diabolical.

   Another of the videos in ARTery messes with the flow of orderly circulation that is the exhibition’s point of departure. David Hoffos focuses on unraveling our dependence on modes of transportation and communication. He simply puts more fuel and raises the temperature on the kind of fire Michael Campbell has already lit. Hoffos’s wonderfully amusing three-minute long video, Disaster (2000), is assembled from footage taken for a larger installation called “Catastrophe”, in which a model town is subjected to the kind of destruction, from wild nature and failed technology, that characterized disaster films in the 1970s. The town has stately homes, children’s rides and an interior lake, all of which gets thoroughly toppled, flipped or blown apart. Disaster is Airport meets Earthquake in the land of Fisher-Price. It’s playtime in a nursery where the kids have a wicked, dark and destructive sense of humour. (Ed Bader shared some of that mischief in his choice for the location of the Hoffos video. It was in the window of Wonderland Toy and Hobby). “Mommy, mommy, how much is that plane crash in the window?”

   There is something wonderful about watching Disaster. It is a making of the making sequence, where we see how the artist and his crew stage the  tricks that will supply the content for the installation. The fact that the filming of the overall catastrophe includes a minor disaster (one of the crew is hit by a fragment from an exploding bus and as a result throws her meteorite further into the set than was planned) is an accident fortunate for the film, if not for the crew member. But near the end of the video, Hoffos cuts from the raw footage of the filming to a short sequence of the film itself and any goofiness and awkwardness evaporates. The change is transfixing. The comic, post-apocalyptic landscape suddenly takes on a more ominous look; the toys are menacing and disaster gears down and gets back on track. One of the ironies, not lost on the population of Grande Prairie or the gallery staff, is that Hoffos’s piece was a reminder of the main reason why ARTery took the form of a series of street interventions and not a gallery exhibition. In March of last year the roof of the Art Gallery of Grande Prairie collapsed, causing severe damage, and necessitated a new strategy on the part of the art institution if it was going to sustain its traditional audience and attract a new one. Since the audience had lost the location for seeing art, the gallery would take the art to the audience. Director Robert Steven decided to hit the streets; in a manner of speaking, he made the determination to traffic in art.

   Another pair of artists use the road as the artery through which they can inquire into very different kinds of human measurement and movement. John Will’s India Moves (1992) and C. Wells’s 41*53’N12*30’E / 41*58’N82*30’W (White Roma/White Pelee), 2006 both deal with the idea of transcultural journeying. The former is a literal transit; the latter a conceptual one.

   John Will, one of Alberta’s senior artists, has been working for over 40 years in a variety of media, including painting, printmaking, photography and performance. His video in ARTery came out of a trip to India where he was the camera operator for a film being made on Ganesh, the elephant god. India Moves was shot independently around two connected events: the Kumbh Mela Festival in 1991 and a concert in Puna featuring Bismillah Kahn, a musician regarded as an Indian national treasure. Will shifts our perspective as he moves from the concert performance to the energized  street life as crowds of pilgrims on their way to the Festival pass by the window of his car. The difference between the colour, the feeling of heat and the human density in India is in stark contrast to what we find in Canada. India Moves was shown in the dead of winter, in a window that looked onto a comparatively thinly populated street. Will shot the majority of his video from the window of his car; anyone watching what he brought back from India 15 years ago will see it, as they quickly pass by, from the window of their car.

   The structure of the video is simple; we see either images from the concert, from the street, or framed sequences from the concert superimposed over a portion of the street scenes. The opening gives you a sense of the video’s visual rhythm; we see Kahn playing his shehnai in a wide shot, he is quietly captivating as he smiles at the percussionist to his left, and then the camera pushes in on his solo. He picks up the tempo and we see – and hear – how expressive a player he is. Then the camera pulls back on the ensemble and that image stays in a rectangular box at the top of the screen, at which point the video cuts to shots of people in the street, and the two lines of video run concurrently. The movement is deceptive because what looks like an increase in the scale of the rectangular frame is really the camera moving in on a musician on stage. He becomes larger but the space available to the concert footage, of which he is a part, remains constant. It turns out the movement in the title of the video isn’t just the migration of crowds of people but the migration of our perception. 

   John Will is on a cultural journey from which he documents actual events. C. Wells sets himself on a combined pragmatic and conceptual journey that is less found than constructed. The pragmatic side is concerned with actually painting the line markers on the highway near Point Pelee National Park, the most southern point in Canada. It is the most recent performance in the “Line Marker Project”, which he began in 1996. Line markers are part of a highway code which Wells uses to make connections between spatial organization, social convention and painterly practice. In this instance, he wanted to codify the relationship between Point Pelee and Rome, based on their shared latitude. He finds a 15 minute long sequence in Fellini’s 1972 masterpiece, Roma (he edits it down to 2 minutes) in which the motorcyclists roar through Rome, ending up at the Colosseum in the course of passing by the same ladder line schematic that Wells is painting in Point Pelee. Wells had line marker paint shipped in from Rome so that the “whiteness” in both places named in his performance would be synchronic. The poetic idea that buttresses the conceptual detailing of Wells’s piece is that if he kept painting the lines from Point Pelee, it would eventually take him to Rome. There is in this conceit a radical leveling out, a kind of willed democratization: if all roads lead to Rome, then it follows that all roads lead equally to Point Pelee. The centre, to re-apply Northrop Frye, is where you are.

   Anne Troake, a choreographer and filmmaker from Newfoundland, and Karina Aguilera Skvirsky, a photographer, video artist and curator from New York, find their respective centres in narrative. Troake’s The Sinking: Stories of Cold Water (1997), is a re-adaptation of her choreogrphy combined with narratives told by her grandmother about a culture that for hundreds of years “has been eking life out of a sense of death”, and for whom the sea is both sustaining and treacherous. The Sinking employs various kinds of footage, still images of a shipwreck (an etching from Troake’s own kitchen), an actual rusted ship and marine paraphernalia that ends up as flotsam and jetsam scattered along the shoreline, and an underwater dance sequence, performed in a diving tank in which Troake herself plays a major role. What you never lose sight of is that the social dance we observe takes place underwater and that regardless of how convincing is the costuming, or how impressive their breath control, the actor/dancer/swimmers have to get to the surface or they’ll drown. It adds a certain edge to watching the performance. In this instance, art is well advised not to imitate life. The story in The Sinking is circuitous – it seems more like a number of incidents that are tonally rather than logically connected – but Troake has a fine instinct for the lyric. Lace doilies are suspended like jelly fish, or sea anemone, and a larger lace shawl undulates through the water like a delicate sting ray. Even amongst all this transforming beauty, the story told in The Sinking is, inescapably, a cautionary one. The last sequence is a man seen underwater; from this vantage point his head is invisible, so that he seems to be without one. This image reverses the graphic stills from the beginning of the video, in which all we could see were the heads of drowning seamen just before their bodies pulled them below the ocean’s surface. But Troake is essentially an optimist. “There’s not a family that hasn’t lost someone to the North Atlantic,” she says. “It’s so much a part of who we are. The essence of what I was looking for was to assimilate that loss with generosity and grace and dignity.”

   In Margaret (2003), Karina Aguilera Skvirsky’s three and a half minute long video of Kenyan Margaret Okayo’s victory run in the 2001 New York City Marathon, grace and dignity are everywhere in evidence. Skvirsky, a runner herself, crafts the run from 60 seconds of video footage taken from television. She literally pieces the run together, at one point the Kenyan was so far ahead of the field that she and the spectators were the only figures in the frame. Skvirsky selected Okayo out, frame by frame, and artfully blurred the background. “It took six months but I did change what was there in this painstaking way.” 

    If Troake’s story took on the shine of a deeply felt local pride, Skvirsky’s visual narrative is coloured by gender and race. “I’m playing with politics”, she says, “I’m making her the woman who conquered Manhattan.” Skvirsky has a South African woman actor read from the writings of Adriaen van der Donck, a 17th century Dutch explorer. In the video, condescension and racism are built into his comments about the aboriginal population he finds in Manhattan. We hear that “the natives are broad across the shoulders  and well-adapted to travel on foot in dragging heavy burdens.” What we see pointedly contradicts his observations : a lithe, exquisitely conditioned woman assuming physical and metaphoric control of Manhattan. If Paul Klee defines drawing as taking a line for a walk, then she takes a video line for a run, but her passage is mediated by the disquieting content of the Dutchman’s descriptions; what is most disturbing is we know we are hearing the voice of power in these opinions and judgments, all of which sound ridiculous today. We see her in Skvirsky’s altered video, at times radiant with light, and hear the narrator reading the Dutchman’s words, “Both men and women are utterly unchaste and shamelessly promiscuous, which is the cause of the men changing their wives and women changing husbands.” Since she herself comes from a rich mix of cultural backgrounds, Skvirsky is sensitive to the traps of history. With a mother from Ecuador and a Jewish father, she knows about control and how it can be misapplied. “It doesn’t matter where you come from or what your race or background is, if you end up with the power, you get to write the history.” Skvirsky is in the process of becoming an artful historian.

   In his text-based collaboration with the Calgary poet Christian Bök, Toronto artist Micah Lexier took advantage of the double set of windows at the Tim Horton offices on 100 Avenue. The piece, called Two Equal Texts (2007), is an anagram in which Bök redeploys Lexier’s generating text. Lexier regarded the side by side windows as the pages of an open book. “THIS TEXT AND THE ONE BESIDE IT ARE EQUAL”, is the first line of his original, and Bök responds with, “MICAH LEXIER REQUESTED IN ADVANCE THAT I REINVENT HIS TEXT.” The point of an anagram is to use exactly the same letters and punctuation marks, which Bök (whose name is appositely pronounced “book”) is able to do. His message is different from Lexier’s but the components of language he has at his disposal are identical. There is something uncanny about the doubling; in only three sentences Bök not only replies in a manner consistent with Lexier’s request, but he also introduces and sustains a sewing metaphor –  “I UNKNOTTED IT AND REKNITTED IT INTO THIS VERY FORM” and “HIS MESSAGE HAD ALREADY RESEWN” – that neatly weaves one text into the other. When Bök records in his concluding line that, “HIS EERIE TEXT WAS MINE”, our acceptance of the eeriness of the achievement is unquestionable. In Two Equal Texts, Lexier and Bök explore the channels of communication and take the viewer/reader on a journey through language and its anagrammatic possibilities. They show us change without change, or put another way, they re-arrange our understanding of the same things differently.

   All arteries are connecting points in a journey or process. Bill Viola’s videotape called Angel’s Gate (1989) traces the inexplicable transition from one state of existence to another. In a tape that lasts just under five minutes, he is able to present the entire eschatological spectrum (from life to death) through a series of images and incidents that focus on “mortality, decay and disintegration”; a building being demolished, an extinguished candle, a flayed animal, a piece of fruit falling from the branch of a tree. There are moments of untrammeled beauty in the video, the underwater scenes are especially compelling (Viola regards the overwater-underwater state as “one of the primary dualities”) and the scream of a Red-Tailed Hawk tied to a rock (you think of the animal as some form of feathery Prometheus) is startling in its speed and intense intensity. That sound is paralleled by the first cry of a child being born. The birth comes at a pivotal point in the  trajectory of the video; from this juncture it moves in the direction of what amounts to a bodily dematerialization (Viola describes his intention as “lighting the dim border between memory and oblivion with a sort of universal light”). The location is the loading dock at what was once the San Pedro Naval Base and is now a being used for other purposes. We experience the camera’s movement, and therefore the shift in our own perception, towards a light that intensifies to the point where it is blinding and fills the entire frame. Viola encapsulates this final shot as being about “pure light and the lack of any kind of materiality”.  It puts you in mind of Emily Dickinson’s description of death as the “White Exploit”. Her recognition that, rather than being a dark traversing, the passage into death involves overwhelming whiteness, was especially prescient for someone living in the 19th century. Viola takes us to the threshold of the most profound point of transit we undergo. Whether viewed as a transition from life to death, or as a move from one state of consciousness to another, he insists it is the passage that matters. In Dickinson’s poem the White Exploit, once achieved, “annuls the power/ Once to communicate”. For Viola the corridor leading to his bright whiteness is less an annulment, than the opening up of an urgent line of communication. It is the artery that connects experience to the imagination.

Robert Enright is the senior Contributing Editor to Border Crossings magazine and the University Research Chair in Art Theory and Criticism in the School of Fine Art and Music at the University of Guelph.