Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Recommended Reading: Valerie Solanas Biography

“Its [the SCUM Manifesto’s] premise was that...women should take over the world.”

Cover reproduced with permission of the City University of New York Feminist Press

Breanne Fahs’ biography of enigmatic, self-described superfeminist, Valerie Solanas (1936-1988) lives up to its gripping preface. The opening paragraph of the book published in April by the Feminist Press at the City University of New York reveals that one interviewee refused to speak about the woman who famously shot Andy Warhol until her death certificate was produced, for fear of retribution from the paranoid schizophrenic. Between reluctant interviewees and a loyal mother who burned Solanas’ archival material when she died, the very existence of Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (And Shot Andy Warhol) is remarkable.

Exhaustively researched, the book is chock full of quotations whose length prevents statements from being taken out of context. Although this risk is always mitigated by conscientious academics, it is also something of a tribute to Solanas, who became incensed whenever she felt her writing had been misrepresented. With extensive research comes detail, but it may not always add to the tale. For instance, it seems superfluous that the couch an arts editor crossed over to in the Factory right before the shooting was in the art deco style. Ditto for Warhol’s wardrobe selection that day, though it is interesting that he was wearing his trademark silver wig when he was taken to hospital. Fahs’ writing style is also descriptive grammatically; a sentence comes to mind that contains seven adjectives in a row (1). It’s fitting, though, because Solanas was such a complex person that one adjective would not suffice to describe her. Plus, it mimics Solanas’ style; for example, Solanas wrote that fatherhood made females “male-dependent, passive, domestic, animalistic, nice, insecure, approval and security seekers, cowardly, humble, ‘respectful’ of authorities and men, closed, not fully responsive, half dead, trivial, dull, conventional, flattened out and thoroughly contemptible” (2).

That Solanas’ shooting of Warhol appears in parentheses in the title underscores the author’s intention to not dwell on this aspect of her life. Indeed, the near-fatal shooting of 1968 appears just before the half-way point in the book. As a result, extensive consideration is given to her contributions—welcome or not—to radical feminism from behind bars and how she fractured NOW (its members couldn’t agree on whether to support her as a mistreated and justifiably angry woman or distance themselves from her violence). There is a sense of restoring dignity to Solanas, indicative in sensitive comments like Fahs qualifying the behavior of an acquaintance of Solanas as deliberately cruel. Additionally, while it would be handy to have a timeline of her extensive criminal record, it would be at the cost of empathy because the facts would be presented apart from the context that helps the reader understand her plight.

For Solanas, writing became an outlet for her contemplation of gender, although ‘contemplation’ seems too gentle a term. She had a complicated life to say the least: she was an apparent child victim of incest betrayed by her father, a twice pregnant teenager, an adult prostitute in seedy settings like the Chelsea Hotel rooftop, and a green card wife. She embodied the ‘whatever’ quality of queerness that Sarah Liss writes about in last month’s issue of FLARE magazine (3), referring to herself as a lesbian, but choosing occasional male partners, at one point for a few years. At times she projected asexuality, but she could also be overtly sexual—for example, in exposing herself. This ambivalence came through in her manifesto for SCUM, the Society for Cutting Up Men. Its premise was that men were emotionally flawed and overall screw-ups, so they should be exterminated and women should take over the world. Although the scope of the book is within Solanas’ lifetime, the ripple effect is apparent in contemporary society—for example, in Pussy Riot singing, “Kill the Sexist!” and a Carrier of the Cross for the Orthodox church in which they performed a different song retorting, “If they want to live in a world without men, they should move to an island or the Amazon or something” (4).

Because Solanas spent time in mental institutions (more so than in jail), it has been documented that she had a higher than average IQ. Her radical ideas were intertwined with incredible insight. For instance, she predicted such developments as test tube babies and Viagra. She was a master wordsmith and a perfectionist editor. She demanded respect, but was hardly respectful of her colleagues (for example, comparing Simone de Beauvoir’s writing to comic books and calling the works of Ti-Grace Atkinson, her ally when she was incarcerated, “total shit” (5)). In contrast, Solanas considered the SCUM Manifesto to be “history’s greatest bargain” (6). In part, this was in reference to the fact that its initial sale price was $2 for men and $1 for women. French philosopher, Jacques Derrida declared the text ‘necessary’ while Atkinson called it the “most important statement written to date in the English language” (7).

Broadly speaking, it’s possible that for Solanas, Warhol represented the gender disparity of the art world. Before she met him, she lamented in the manifesto that men “define Great Art” (8). She saw her shooting of Warhol as a moral act that was about artists’ rights (namely writers’ rights) rather than about feminism, which complicated matters for the radical feminist movement. Specifically, she was upset because she felt Warhol had led her on about producing her play, Up Your Ass, and that he had appropriated her comments for his films—which she had reason to believe, since he welcomed a spontaneous cameo of Solanas in one of his films. Both situations must have felt like a blow since she had believed Warhol to be on her side, to the extent that she considered him to be head of the ‘men’s auxiliary’ of SCUM. Even after the shooting, she maintained contact with him, almost always baiting him. For instance when the original publisher of the manifesto, Olympia Press, went bankrupt and the publishing rights reverted to her, she posted an ad looking for distributors; in it, she wrote, “Andy Warhol, peddle it at all those hot shit parties you go to (9).” The challenge for the reader is that Solanas restated her feelings about Warhol and her contact at Olympia Press ad nauseam and there is a point at which reading her harassing letters and verbal slurs loses appeal. This element notwithstanding, Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (And Shot Andy Warhol) will be equally valuable as beach reading and as a scholarly source.

In a visit to the Andy Warhol Museum a week and a half ago, I was glad to see that this book was sold in the gift shop, since the timeline from his life posted on the gallery walls didn’t delve into Solanas’ motive.


(1) p. 47

(2) p. 63

(3) Liss, Sarah. “Love is Love,” FLARE, June 2014: 104-109. Print.

(4) Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. Dir. Mike Lerner, Roast Beef Productions Limited, 2014. Film.

(5) p. 307

(6) p. 307

(7) p. 177

(8) p. 63

(9) p. 297

Monday, July 14, 2014

In Defense of Yoko Ono

“…definitely not a SWUG.”

Leaving the North Midway Travel Plaza in Bedford, Pennsylvania on the week-end, I spotted a billboard featuring Yoko Ono, but didn’t get a chance to photograph it. It paired a recent portrait of her with an outdated charge in the form of the question, “Would you take energy advice from the woman who broke up the Beatles?” It was produced by the Big Green Radicals, a watchdog group that critiques the likes of Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. According to the BGR website, the campaign (which also includes similar billboards of Robert Redford and Lady Gaga) aims to emphasize the gap between the lifestyles of average Americans and celebrities.

My gut reaction was, “Yeah, probably” in response to the billboard’s question. The reason is that when I think of Ono and environmentalism, what comes to mind is Acorn Piece, a collaboration with John Lennon in 1969 that she repeated solo 40 years later. They planted acorns in easternly and westernly directions to symbolize the union of cultures, and mailed acorns to world leaders, asking them to plant them for world peace. At worst, this gesture would result in the absorption of carbon dioxide through the planting of trees; at best, people would come away inspired. Maybe, just maybe, if we had heeded her advice in Grapefruit (1964) to “Listen to the sound of the earth turning” (1) the earth wouldn’t be in such poor shape.

The billboard is a response to Ono’s anti-fracking efforts with a group she co-founded with her son, Sean Lennon, called Artists Against Fracking. Its placement in Pennsylvania is fitting, given that more natural gas is produced there than any other state on the prime Marcellus Shale stratum. Stephanie Malin interviewed small-scale farmers in Pennsylvania who were in a position to lease land for corporate fracking, and reported that they saw it as a force beyond their control. Additionally, she found that they either felt the environmental concerns were unfounded or that they were balanced by economic benefits. This type of media campaign could play a key role in normalizing fracking for a group that is vulnerable. (2)

Whether or not Ono had a hand in the demise of one of the greatest bands in history is a separate issue from her environmental politics. She is not Pete Seeger, nor is she Midnight Oil. The pairing is simply incongruous. Curiously, the BGR billboard says “broke up the Beatles,” which sounds definitive, yet in Ono’s activist profile on the BGR site (3) it says, “When she’s not helping to break up the Beatles…”. So, which one is it, BGR? If Ono said fracking causes earthquakes in one breath, and helps cause earthquakes in the next, undoubtedly she’d be attacked.

Ono is no stranger to poor reception: for example, in her native Japan, her shows have been advertised using the script reserved for foreign names, while her grasp of English has been mocked in the US, where she is based. (4) The BGR profile of Ono dismisses her experimental music as screeching and as (note the surly quotation marks) ‘performance’. It also describes her as being washed up. It’s unfortunate to see the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the high profile Venice Biennale so grossly misrepresented. On a more superficial note, when Vogue publishes a spread of a woman’s “amazing style history” (5), it means she is definitely not a SWUG.

Fortunately, it would seem that Ono has the last laugh. In attacking Ono with billboards, the Big Green Radicals are actually reinforcing her media savvy. Ono used billboards most famously with John Lennon to protest the Vietnam War, the contemporary version of which is “Imagine there’s no fracking” billboards produced by Artists Against Fracking. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Ono should feel vindicated. Her “brilliant use of mass media” (6) is evident not just in her billboards but in her banners, bags, stickers, postcards, flyers, postcards, and badges, all carrying on the tradition of multiples that emerged with Fluxus and made art more accessible to the 99%.


(1) Yoko Ono, Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions + Drawings, New York: Simon & Schuster, reprinted 2000, n.p.
(2) Edith Newhall, “A Long and Winding Road.” Art News, 99.9 (2000), 162.
(3) http://www.biggreenradicals.com/activist/yoko-ono/
(4) Jerry Hopkins, Yoko Ono. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1986, 191-192 and 251.
(5) http://imaginepeace.com/archives/17833
(6) Stephanie Malin, “There’s no Real Choice but to Sign: Neoliberalization and Normalization of Hydraulic Fracturing on Pennsylvania Farmland.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences (2014): 4:1, 17-27.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Zanele Muholi at Ryerson University

“My beat is about visual politics”—Zanele Muholi

Since graduating from Ryerson University in 2009 with an MFA in Documentary Media, South African artist Zanele Muholi has exhibited in such high profiles venues as dOCUMENTA and the Venice Biennale. During a return visit from Johannesburg for the opening of her show, Faces and Phases (May 1-June 1 and June 18-Aug. 24, University Gallery), she gave an artist talk last night at Ryerson.

When Muholi clarified that she would be giving an artist talk rather than a lecture, she wasn’t kidding. With thank-yous to myriad individuals interspersed between reflective statements about her work at both the beginning and end of the night, a Q & A in the middle, and a seemingly spontaneous demo of website images toward the end, the audience got a sense of her creative process. Evidently, she makes constant, rapid-fire connections between elements in what unfolds as a constellation. Interestingly, although it would appear that she is not a linear thinker (she admitted to never having had things in order as a student either), her black and white portraiture series of black lesbian women is sequential. Consisting of over 240 images taken during the past 8 years, it has far surpassed her original goal of 25. One of these works is a self-portrait, to underscore the fact that she speaks as an insider.

To return to the constellation metaphor, during her animated presentation, I found myself thinking back to an excerpt from a book I skimmed on the road trip to Toronto. In Art History in the Wake of the Global Turn (Clark Institute in the Visual Arts, 2014), the Raqs Media Collective writes, “Detach yourself, momentarily, from the mothership of art history. Step out for a spacewalk” (p. 4). Muholi invites us to take a spacewalk with her extensive intervention in visual culture. Referring to queer people, she observed, “It’s always challenging to have people like us. You go to museums and galleries and ask yourself, ‘Where am I in all this commotion?’” Later she noted, “Maybe there’s an assumption that galleries and museums aren’t for black people.” Thus, she aims to bring about or enhance black queer visibility. It’s a pressing need: a few weeks ago, a show featuring her art in the Dak’Art Biennale in Senegal was shut down because of pressure from Islamic extremists. Consequently, “being here is like winning the Nobel Prize.” She notes that “these [institutional] spaces sidelined us and we decided to become visible.”

She has facilitated this visibility through portraiture. Muholi introduced herself as a proud black lesbian, and she photographs other proud black lesbians in Faces and Phases. She avoids photographing black lesbians under the age of majority or those who haven’t come out. “I don’t want to be responsible for your closet,” she says. She has formed an organization, Inkyaniso, for the subjects—or ‘participants’ as she calls them, acknowledging the collaborative element—to share their stories (see http://inkanyiso.org).

“My beat is about visual politics” she says and considers her work to be more about visual activism than aesthetics, and herself to be a visual activist more so than an artist. Indicative of this stance is her statement that she doesn’t want to die young without rewriting history.

Rather than fall back on jargon like ‘the scopophilic gaze,’ she states that the series forces the audience to ask why they are asked to look at these faces at this point in history. South Africa is at a turning point historically. In 2006, same-sex marriage was legalized, and it is the first (and so far only) African country to make the transition. Muholi has photographed gay weddings, making arrangements like not charging for her services in exchange for being able to use selected images professionally. “It’s part of our history. It’s now,” she says. She has also documented lesbian funerals as a political act to expose queercide. 2012 was a particularly brutal year in this regard, with Amnesty International citing at least seven LGBTI murder victims.

Photographing the participants in Faces and Phases is painful, though it may not be apparent from the confidence the participants project. When an audience member asked about her editing process, she revealed that it usually involves tears and a trans-Atlantic call to her therapist. Still, Muholi says, “I decided I would rather suffer for something I believe in than die in silence.” Her work is rooted in love as much as it is in pain. She says that she doesn’t want to limit the struggle to pain because it can’t be moved forward without love. “When we think about black lesbian histories,” she urges, “let’s think about love.”

Faces and Phases, curated by Dr. Gaëlle Morel, is part of WorldPride 2014. If you’re in Toronto, please join me at the opening of The Sex Offensive: Emancipating Gender tomorrow night at the Propeller Centre for the Visual Arts, which is also part of the festival.

Image: Mpumi Moeti, Kwanele South, Katlehong, Johannesburg, 2012, gelatin silver print. Source: http://www.ryerson.ca/ric/exhibitions/ZaneleMuholi.html. Copyright: Zanele Muholi and Stevenson Cape Town/Johannesburg.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Woman, Revolt: Ghada Amer at Cheim & Reid

"...no bravado there."

A former gallery colleague once told me that meeting her husband (of several decades and counting) felt like stepping into a warm bath. For me, that characterizes the experience of viewing the works of Cairo-born, New York-based Ghada Amer. Years from now, I imagine it will still feel just right.

Her current exhibition of recent work at Cheim &Read (Chelsea, NYC), Rainbow Girls, closes on Saturday. It's well-rounded, featuring three floor sculptures (a new enterprise for Amer) and eight two-dimensional mixed media pieces in which thread is dominant. Since 1997, she has combined paint, which she considers to be male, with thread, which she considers to be female. Two of the eight works were made with her partner and long-time collaborator, Reza Farkhondeh, as denoted by the initialism, RFGA, in the works' titles. The Big Black Bang -- RFGA, (2013) is the largest work in the show. At 102 by 132 inches, it is a seeming response to connections drawn between Amer and Jackson Pollock. The size for Abstract Expressionist artists like Pollock was all about capturing the action of the body, but sewing is different. Occasionally, it requires a full range of motion, but often, it's a matter of teeny stitches for nimble fingers--no bravado there. This piece pulses with colour on a dark background, a tamed tangle of sperm-like threads flowing in the same direction and visually overtaking images of stitched, sexualized women underneath, to the extent that initially it appears wholly abstract. At the risk of flogging the Pollock comparison, I will say this: just as attempts to mimic his fractal-filled paintings have been likened to a plate of spaghetti, when I run out of Ziploc bags, my embroidery bag is a mess but has none of the spectacular qualities of this work.

Amer is an interesting counterpoint to the last artist whose work I reviewed, Sarah Lucas, because she is understated in comparison. In fact, in the catalogue for Rainbow Girls, Anne Creissels comments on Amer's ability to hide as much as she shares. A case in point is the egg-shaped, stainless steel filigree sculpture, Blue Bra Girls (2012), in which a female figure's thumbs meet in the negative space understood to be her groin. It seemed fitting that I was distracted by a boy dragging his skateboard around this piece (indifferent to its connotations of masturbation) or that kids were playing hide and seek around another sculpture, because there is a constant element of distraction in Amer's work. With the sculptures, you can't take in the information on the surface immediately facing you without filtering the information (presented backwards) on the opposite side of the sculpture. Similarly, distraction is inevitable in her two-dimensional works, which are a combination of overlaid threads, sexualized images, and feminist messages in Arabic and Roman letters. You cannot rest your gaze on the nipple thrust upward of a reclining female without also processing the text that says repeatedly, "I see my body as an instrument rather than an ornament." Whether this is a mantra or an unheard plea is up for discussion.

Sometimes the text is in block letters coloured in solidly in black or white paint, bold like Barbara Kruger's advertising-inspired photo montages. Sometimes they seem almost noncommittal, like sketches, traces, or perforations. Their repetition, however, shows absolute commitment. It's orderly, not frantic, so it harks back to a time of sewing samplers and a preference for rote learning over critical thinking. There's another association I can't shake, undoubtedly because of the title. In elementary school, I was one of three girls to fill lined notebooks with rainbow colour schemes, declaring our adoration through repeated text for TV stars, musicians, and if we were lucky, the boy next door. Why the celebration of schoolgirl crushes necessitated this behaviour, I have no idea, but I remember it feeling most purposeful. Even though I can't help but see Amer's strands of thread in portraits as tear-smeared mascara, even though I'm cognizant that the least optimistic phrases she uses like, "No woman can call herself free who does not control her own body" resonate in Canada where I'm writing from, I choose to see these works--with their personalized, Jenny Holzer-like truisms and quotations of the likes of Simone de Beauvoir and Amina Sboui--as celebratory.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Size Matters: Sarah Lucas at Gladstone Gallery

“…gruff but poetic.”

Nud Nob at Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea, New York is British artist Sarah Lucas’ first show in the US in almost ten years.

Featuring large sculpted phalluses and phallic-shaped vegetables as well as sexually suggestive photographs, the exhibition provoked extensive gawking through the gallery’s glass doors when I was there. Of the people who entered the gallery proper, the least flummoxed was a girl around age six. Her only concern was that she wanted clarification about what the woman in the six massive self-portraits wallpapering a room was eating (answer: a banana). Also overheard was a man repeating, “It’s beautiful” when looking at an oversized phallic sculpture. (Did I even need to specify that it was a man who said that?). In spite of the well established concept of penis envy, personally, I found myself thinking of the entry tags at the 1993 Whitney Biennial that said, “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white.” When contemplating why she chooses this subject matter, Lucas says, “because I don’t have one” but cites plenty of other reasons that invite diverse interpretations of her work: “appropriation…voodoo economics; totemism; they’re a convenient size for the lap; fetishism; compact power; Dad; why make the whole bloke?; gents; gnomey; because you don’t see them on display much; for religious reasons having to do with the spark” (Coles, p. 51).

Lucas’ work is blunt, in keeping with the way she speaks. It’s gruff but poetic. As J. J. Charlesworth writes of her work from the 1990s (which includes said banana works as well as Chicken Knickers, the photo in full view from West 24th Street that superimposes a raw chicken on a woman’s panty-covered crotch), its sophistication lies in its vulgarity. Blush and turn away, though, and you might miss it.

One of the nuances is the evidence of the artist’s hand, and I don’t mean that in a Sarah Lucas-double entendre kind of way. Rather, the artist’s hand is revealed through asymmetrical forms and pockmarked surfaces that make for imperfect phalluses. Displayed on cubes of crushed metal cars, there’s a bit of a thumbing of the nose at machismo. Also, the evidence of labour differentiates Lucas’ sculpture from, say, minimalist sculpture (which was also very macho) and emphasizes the kind of labour that isn’t automatically associated with art made by a woman.

What you can’t miss, even if you stick to the street view, is the size of the works. It seems proportional to the cultural value assigned to sex and functions as a reference to the notion that bigger is better—an absurd ode to penis enlargers, breast augmentation, and big numbers notched on bedposts. There’s an element of playful pop mockery with the scale quoting Jeff Koons and Claes Oldenburg, but there’s a sinister quality too: if you’ve seen the movie, A Clockwork Orange, it’s unlikely you’ve forgotten a large white phallic sculpture used in a lethal rape scene of a woman.

There are smaller works as well that Lucas showed in the Venice Biennale last year. The Nuds series began as stuffed nylons that stand in for human figures but look kind of like Gumby. Sometimes they appear with chairs, sometimes with toilets. Sometimes they are breasts, sometimes legs, sometimes intestines. The later versions in the show are bronze, like the large vegetables (which might be eggplant, zucchini, butternut squash; whatever they are, they bring to mind urban myths of self-pleasure leading to hospital visits). The shift to bronze gives them a refined quality that announces, “I am Sculpture.”

As a Young British Artist who is not really so young anymore, being in her 50s, and somewhat androgynous in appearance, Lucas is well positioned to make audiences rethink the conventions of sexual desire by disrupting the privileged male gaze that has dominated art history. You might say she’s carrying the torch for the late Louise Bourgeois. Even so, the extent of the feminist dialogue she encourages has been debated. As a librarian, I have noticed that some of her articles are indexed only with ‘feminist art’ while many are indexed with practically everything but that. Her work has also been called ‘trash-feminism’. Although I have yet to encounter this term as a noun, I assume it to refer to artists like VALIE EXPORT, who entered a Munich movie theatre in 1968 wearing crotchless pants and taunting audience members. Lucas, in turn, has cut a hole in her shirt to expose her nipple in response to Marcel Duchamp’s
catalogue cover of 1941 and she has certainly used base materials to comment on sexuality in the past, like tabloid publications, cigarette buts, and old mattresses. Regardless of whether she’s a feminist, I feel an affinity with her because of her stance that we construct our reality and therefore, we should reflect on that process.

The exhibition closes tomorrow.


Charlesworth, J. J. “Sarah Lucas Profile: From YBA to Classic Pervery—Making the Ordinary Extraordinary.” Art Review. Jan./Feb. 2013 http://artreview.com/features/sarah_lucas_profile/

Lucas, Sarah; Cook, Angus; and Fairhurst, Angus. Sarah Lucas: After 2005, Before 2012. Walther König, Köln.

Grayling, A. C. “An Uncooked Perspective on the Nature of Sex.” Tate Etc. Autumn 2005, issue 5.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Shary Boyle at York University: Inspiring without re-traumatizing

“…an ‘urge to connect’”

Tuesday’s Goldfarb Lecture in Visual Arts at York University by Shary Boyle was standing room only, further to “tweets in the thousands,” as Professor Barbara McGill Balfour noted.

Refreshingly down-to-earth, the featured Canadian artist in the most recent Venice Biennale closed the door herself when noise filtered in from the hallway, paused when latecomers arrived so they wouldn’t feel awkward, and—revealing what Murray Write called her “goofy repartee” in Canadian Art magazine (1)asked at one point, “How ‘bout that cave art?”

Boyles presentation was structured around her multi-media installation at the Biennale, providing a stylistic roadmap of sorts of how she got there. She began by sharing a film from the installation called Silent Dedication, in which an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter signs a poetic tribute to “heroes of silence.” She cites Charlie Chaplin as an influence, calling his silent films “heartening and inspiring for keeping spirits up about humanity.” Characteristics of silent film and sign language dovetail with her art because she’s “always straining to tell a story…through gesture.” In fact, she revealed that if she weren’t an artist, she would like to be an interpreter (and has several years of training in ASL to boot).

She maximized the opportunity of exhibiting in Venice, using it as a platform to give voice to the silenced, from missing women to Pakistani activist, Malala Yousafzai. Sheila Heti, in describing an earlier work by Boyle, captured its essence: “…we are not merely looking at the woman here—we are the woman.” (2) Boyle explained, “I can’t speak on behalf of anybody but I can share.” 

Her approach in the Biennale installation, Music for Silence, can be traced to her tendency as a child of “finding solace in drawing” and recognizing loneliness as “exquisitely beautiful.” From a young age, she never wanted to be an artist for the sake of being an artist. She simply wants to make life more meaningful through communication. “Language is so fraught,” she observed. “Isn’t art a language?”

How does an artist transition from working out of her living room without assistants to being courted by Louis Vuitton and jet-setting to Venice to prepare an installation seen by 250,000 people? There are several answers. First, inertia. Boyle spoke of constantly pushing beyond her comfort zone and habits to “places that are mysterious.” As a primarily self-taught ceramicist, she finds enjoyment in “testing the limits of yourself and materials.” She collaborates in unconventional ways, like visiting the homes of grey-haired hobbyists to learn more about ceramics. “There’s no scene; it’s not cool,” she admits. Second, an openness to exploding the categories of art. She’s known for live drawing performances with projections of fantastical images and vivid colours complementing music of the likes of Feist and Peaches. These undertakings are driven by her admiration for the immediate impact music has on general audiences and from an “urge to connect” with practitioners of a form of expression sharing much in common with visual art. “There’s something about cross-disciplinary practice that is super-enlivening,” she says. Third, love your work, but not in an egotistical way. It would be fair to say that Boyle bonds with her work. When working with life-size sculpture, for example, she says, “You’re making a relationship,” akin to interacting with an actual person. She works from memory rather than photographs, with an appreciation for the “tenderness” that results from imperfections. She also aims to “belligerently ignore” the bias against craft because she “enjoys making things with my [her] hands.” Ultimately, in the face of trends and expectations, she says you have to think about how you want to spend your time as an artist.

As a feminist, she has made bold moves. For example, she has used unambiguous titles, like Intersex. She shared that gender has always been of interest to her. Rather than buy into the binary perspective of male-female, she asks, “Aren’t we all a combination?” Also, she “brought the taboo subject of rape into the museum” through a series of ceramics featuring mythological figures like Persephone, commissioned by the Art Gallery of Ontario.” Her work, while progressive and transgressive, is never too hard-hitting. “You don’t want to re-traumatize people,” she cautions.

This post is dedicated to Paul Kipps (1948-2014), an unforgettable professor. To borrow Boyle’s characterization of Chaplin, he was heartening and inspiring for keeping spirits up about humanity.

(1) White, Murray. “The Mermaid’s Cave: Shary Boyle’s Path to the Venice Biennale.”  Canadian Art (2013 Aug. 2). http://www.canadianart.ca/features/2013/08/02/shary-boyle-mermaids-cave/
(2) Heti, Sheila. “No Walls.” In Boyle, Shary. Otherworld Uprising. Toronto: conundrum press, 2008, p. 68.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Affects of Site: Conference on Site-Specific Art

“Affect is undeniable.”—David LaRiviere, PAVED Arts

This past week-end, Affects of Site took place on Nipissing Territory in North Bay, Ontario. Although I was unable to attend Clarke Mackey’s key note address on Friday night, I caught the panel discussions on Saturday featuring Susan Cahill, Sarah Cook, Serena Kataoka, Lieann Koivukoski, David LaRiviere, Steve Loft, Gil McElroy, Gram Schmalz, Laura Smith, Danielle Tremblay, and Dermot Wilson. For profiles, see http://www.affectsofsiteconference.com/#!speakers/cfvg.

Coincidentally, I was reviewing notes from the conference in tandem with preparing a lecture on conceptual art for a class I’m teaching this semester. The parallels between today’s site-specific work and conceptual art a half-century earlier leapt off the page: the secondary status of the object, the active role of the spectator, the interest in semiotics, and the subversive tendency that is sometimes playful and other times utopian—all leading to questions about the relevance of the gallery system and the art market.

Site-specific art retains an element of dematerialization, often in spite of itself. For example, Sarah Cook recounted a work by Edouardo Kac she curated into a festival in Mexico City, consisting of a transgenic plant whose growth in a greenhouse was jeopardized by an earthquake. In a recent installation co-curated by Susan Cahill and Laura Peturson in North Bay, Jamie Latham’s water-filled jars featuring self-portraits were confiscated by police for chemical testing before anyone else saw them. One of Gil McElroy’s memory tables—angled picnic tables partially charred and inscribed with poetry—was only installed for an afternoon before it was stolen. Perhaps providing karmic balance is a visitor’s note scrawled on an LCBO bag pleading with passersby to not destroy a Toronto fort built over and over again with materials like rebar by Gram Schmalz and Laura Smith, dubbed the “end of the world crew” by locals (and known officially as the Physical Futures Initiative). Of course, some installations, like Ice Follies, are designed to be temporary. One morning, Dermot Wilson awoke with the vision that Lake Nipissing was like a blank canvas. Nine years later, the biennial on the frozen lake is in full swing. Lieann Koivukoski called it “North Bay’s best kept secret,” and visiting the installations between sessions made for the best conference break I’ve ever had, personally.

Image: Drowning and Drowned Out in situ, by Jaymie Lathem. Courtesy of Near North Arts

A question that resurfaced throughout the day was whom art is intended to affect. The democractic answer need not be stated, but it was interesting to see the nature of that democracy teased out. Site-specific art maximizes audience, connecting artists and curators to a public largely unexposed to art historical rhetoric, or as McElroy put it, people who haven’t lost their sense of adventure or been trained to avoid excitement. It’s a place to move beyond what performance artist Laurie Anderson calls ingrown situations, to stop preaching to the converted. Cahill envisions a shared communal space where spectators don’t feel like they have to know the answer, but they can have their perception change as they enter the site. The word ‘can’ is important: spectatorial agency means that individual response is unpredictable. Site-specific art tends to have unstructured moments, as Schmalz noted, and there’s a range of potential aesthetic-affective responses. There were many stories of children being delighted, but in an era where Pussy Riot members could be jailed for performing in a church, I, for one, appreciate that the conversation wasn’t restricted to affects of pleasure. Serena Kataoka, for example, recalled visiting a men’s shelter with musical performers called the Subatomic Monks and experiencing sexual harassment that morphed into a positive jamming experience. She also described a peaceful protest on Queen Street in Toronto called Free Parking Space, during which she wore a cardboard car while cycling; it lead to criminal charges, which were ultimately dropped. It’s no wonder she eschews documentation of collaborative interventions. Similarly, when the Near North Media Lab took its trailer to Huntsville during the G8 summit to make work, Koivukoski said the group was under constant surveillance and that she’d never been carded so much in her life. Wilson suggested that art’s purpose is to improve the health of society, but these examples demonstrate that there’s no way to know whether it will take or not.

An example of a site-specific festival that the community really took to is Nuit Blanche, Toronto’s all-night art extravaganza. Steve Loft commented that every city seems to want one, which reinforces Cook’s observation that there is a “privilege of play.” So what’s a small city to do? In Sudbury, La Galerie du Nouvel-Ontario hosts an alternative art fair every other year. Some 30,000 people have taken in their installations, many from the driver’s seat of a car. Danielle Tremblay recalled that when she co-founded GNO and became its general director, they didn’t have walls for work so they went out into the community and co-opted spaces like billboards. “We were like dogs marking our territory,” she said, laughing. David LaRiviere is also a proponent of billboards in his role as director at PAVED Arts, featuring such gems as Karen Elaine Spencer’s postcards to Stephen Harper in a collaborative project with AKA. He has also pushed against the “flat affect” of advertising by putting his own work in public in the form of movie posters installed at theatres. Smith pointed out that there is a place for intimate festivals even in a large city like Toronto. The Queen West Art Crawl and Art on the Danforth can be refreshing because they don’t tend to be congested or to be associated with partying. The trick with small festivals, Koivukoski said, is that they may have a huge impact on a small community but the figures can appear inconsequential to funders who are comparing the population to larger centres. Furthermore, Tremblay noted that it’s challenging to demonstrate quality over quantity in these situations. Fortunately, from the organizer’s perspective, as David LaRiviere said, “Affect is undeniable.”

On top of the seemingly endless cycle of applying for and reporting on project grants, curators must act as cultural ambassadors to convince governing bodies that it’s a good idea to put art where the masses can see it. Also on the topic of negotiations, audience member Duane Linklater stressed that there should be consideration of the use of Indigenous land for site-specific work. Thus, cultural producers would do well to follow Gil McElroy’s lead in remembering the Hippocratic Oath (first, do no harm, etc.) when approaching site-specific work. Sensitivity to the history of places is complicated by the fact that, as Cook noted, there are “cartels of curators” traveling the globe, without a connection to specific locations. They may not, in fact, be associated with a particular gallery at all, demonstrating a shift from the traditional definition of curator as custodian of a collection. This may be for the best, as Cahill suggested that galleries aren’t necessarily the most accessible space. Yet, as Tremblay said, they’re unlikely to disappear, so curators may as well be imaginative in their use of the white cube. Even the educational responsibilities of curators are shifting, evident in the comments of the Physical Futures Initiative: Schmalz enjoys having spectators teach each other and Smith says that she and Schmalz have “learned so much from the non-artists.” Perhaps, then, curators have become more facilitators of artistic exploration.