Punctured Landscape: Reflections from the Curator
What do you remember from History class? When do events in our social consciousness pass from news to something that will be taught to future generations of students? Who decides what merits remembrance? What factors must be present for issues to be indoctrinated? What role has trauma played in shaping Canada’s history? What we learn and the way we learn are not mutually exclusive. We need different ways to talk about our histories; we need more voices, more discussion and interpretation, and if art can be a foil to prompt these conversations, then we need more art, too.
Audiences encountering contemporary art in any given exhibition may expect to learn about the pieces on display. However Punctured Landscape presents an abridged history lesson. Living memory and place are the common denominators linking these artworks, more so than ideas of categorization, canonization, or even the fact that they are all from the collection of the Canada Council Art Bank. As such, this is not meant as a comprehensive overview of struggles experienced by Canadians, nor of milestones in the last 60 years; it is a subjective approach to discourse. The artworks in this exhibit are incorporated as punctures in the larger national historical narrative – something that memory leaks through if it is not addressed explicitly. To reposition history as a sieve, through which the dominant narrative is filtered, allows for the conversation of memory to gain another kind of traction. It asks us to reconsider what we think we know, so that we may question how we learn, and so we may adjust our perceptions towards an understanding of experiences.
Can an artist’s rendition of a prairie dust storm evoke the hardship felt by David Milgaard who was wrongfully convicted of murder and served nearly 30 years for a crime he did not commit? What about the image of a tornado looming large on the horizon as a metaphor for the AIDS pandemic ravaging a community? When does a house cease to represent a home and instead become a signal of confinement? How can the trauma and shame of abuse in organized sport (or other socially sanctioned aspects of life) be represented as anything other than loneliness? The largest mass murder in recorded Canadian history is considered to be the Air India bombing; Can that be represented with a dizzying array of model aircrafts? Is there such a thing as an apolitical landscape?
When looking at an artwork, we are subsumed with the idea of passing knowledge from the artist’s hand through the medium to our brain. But what happens when those works are considered as stand-ins for other ideas? Within this selection exists direct references to cultural milestones, such as the October Crisis and the Meech Lake Accord. However, more often than not the exhibition presents curatorial liberties that have been taken so that we may further contemplate social inequities or cultural uprisings, such as the passing of Bill C-150 or the turbulent histories concerning Japanese Canadian Internment or the horrendous treatment by the city of Halifax towards the citizens of Africville.
Whether it is land claims, marginalization, or systemic racism and abuse, the reality of colonization as faced by Canada’s Indigenous people plays a significant role in this exhibition. Five works in particular are brought together to spur dialogue concerning the Oka Crisis, the legacy of residential schools, and the racism faced by First Nations and Indigenous people that resulted in them being the final group of citizens given the right to vote as late as 1969 and which cultivated a culture where Indigenous men and women are, respectively, seven and four times more likely to experience violent deaths.
An image of a woman alone in an institutional setting, with her back turned to the viewer, might stand in for misogyny and its fallout throughout history. To be certain, the punctures outlined in this research suggest larger social inequities and some successes as understood in our cultural landscape. There are, however, also personal stories within these struggles, including the more recently publicized accounts of childhood sexual abuse in sport. Alternately, there is the representation of a daydream of what “Canada” could mean to a newcomer, depicting a paper route as the average after school activity for every kid. Punctured Landscape begins with a single image – a map of Canada. This is both an accurate representation of the land and a metaphoric “adjustment” meant to signal political and social lines with far-reaching implications.
Punctured Landscape was on view in Âjagemô, the Canada Council for the Arts’ art space, located at 150 Elgin Street in Ottawa from May 12 to October 2, 2016. From April 27 to July 30, 2017 it will be on view at the Art Museum of the Americas in Washington D.C.