Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Looking Again - A visit to the AGO

I took 20th Century Canadian Art History taught by Sally McKay in which we had to visit the Canadian collections at the Art Gallery of Ontario and write a critical review.

Rising to the Occasion (1987-1991) is strategically placed in the centre of the small gallery. Part installation / part artifact, Rebecca Belmore wore the original dress for 12 Angry Crinolines, a protest performance during the Prince of Wales’ visit to Canada in 1988. Belmore explains in a video interview in the gallery that she remade the dress upon the Art Gallery of Ontario’s (AGO) request. Softly lit on a low pedestal in the centre of the gallery, Rising to the Occasion is a Victorian-style velvet dress with pink padded shoulders with a small floral print, which leads down to a dark blue bodice, decorated with patch-worked flowers, brown leather fringe and feathers. Two tea saucers attached to the bodice face outwards like two perfectly round breasts. The saucers’ delicate pink rose design makes one think of older British ladies sipping tea. Suspended above the dress is a headdress made of a simple metal band wrapped in ribbons and cloth with a photograph of Queen Elizabeth above the left eye and a large shard of a flowered saucer above the right. Two cloth braids with a feather attached to the left end extend upwards from the headdress. The long pink skirt with a white front panel ends in a blue ruffle. This however is no ordinary Victorian dress. The blue ruffle extends around the back of the dress to encompass twigs of wood piled into a bustle-shaped beaver dam. All manner of trinkets can be seen nestled in the dam: cups, silver spoons, newspaper clippings about the Royal family, bells and a mirror.

The beaver is iconic in Canada’s history as an animal that was hunted and traded by both natives and newcomers from Europe and is thereby an excellent reference for the discussion that the AGO wishes to raise here. The stated overarching theme of this room is “Is seeing always innocent?” Along one half of the room are works of Euro-Canadian artists, such as Emily Carr, Edward Curtis, Paul Kane and Cornelius Krieghoff. If the viewer is unfamiliar with these specific works, they are likely familiar with the forms of representation of Aboriginal people and Canadian landscape as throughout history, Europeans have produced images of the peoples over whom they wish to extend their power (Moray 3). The long-standing supposed neutrality, or to paraphrase the AGO, the innocence of the representation of First Nation peoples is questioned and a dialogue is created by placing in direct opposition representations of Euro-Canadians done by Aboriginal artists.

By placing Rising to the Occasion in the centre, the opposition between the two perspectives is challenged and expanded into a more contemporary discourse that contact was in fact more complex and reciprocity greater than usually represented (Hill 201). Belmore discusses how she feels the common view that natives “sold themselves” for shiny trinkets is erroneous and serves to reinforce power relations. She feels that natives simply incorporated the new items into their lives. The fact that this artwork was made by a native woman who clearly has managed to make a place for herself in an environment that has been dominated by Euro-Canadians supports this discourse of exchange and adaptation. Closer examination of the surrounding works further reinforces this. Robert Clow Todd’s Northwestern Portrait (1855) of what may be a native but could just as easily be a white man dressed in native clothes with a teepee in the background suggests interaction while the Haida sailor sculpture Sea Captain (1840), with its individualized white face, denotes interest and trade in goods.

The notion of looking through the lens of otherness is compounded and broadened in several manners. A sub-theme of the male gaze is present in the gallery as Rising to the Occasion, an empathetically feminine work, is surrounded and gazed upon by work that, apart from two paintings, is done by male artists. The question of high art versus low art, with its connotations of class, gender, ethnicity and authenticity, is also highlighted by installing painting, traditionally considered high art, opposite small scale objects, considered low art or craft due to their use in daily life or as commercial goods or simply because of who made them (Phillips 46). This discourse is then highlighted by the hybrid nature of Belmore’s dress with its floral prints, feathers, fringe and trinkets suggestive of the blending of aboriginal and western cultures as well as women’s domestic art all placed in a high art setting.

The curatorial intent of using this non-traditional work as mediator within the room’s installation is its strength as well as its weakness. For viewers who prefer traditional landscape and portraiture painting, this work and therefore the nuances of the installation may not be accessible. The gallery’s location as the final room before the elevators also means that some viewers pass through quickly. However, much like Rebecca Belmore is known for her unapologetic attitude, the Art Gallery of Ontario should continue to confront their viewers with long overdue curatorial installations that question complex themes such as European versus Aboriginal, colonizer versus colonized, masculine versus feminine and high art versus low art.

Rising to the Occasion by Rebecca Belmore at Art Gallery of Ontario
Photo by Alexandra Majerus

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