Research – National Gallery of Canada Visit

This weekend was a Canadian long weekend (Thanksgiving), so I was fortunate to be able to travel to Ottawa, Ontario, where my family is from to spend the holiday with them. This also meant I was traveling to one of the larger cities, with more opportunities to see art in person. Unfortunately, the Ottawa art gallery and SAW Gallery, an artist-run-centre were under construction, and have been closed for a while, with only pop-up exhibition which I was not able to visit this trip. I could visit the National Gallery of Canada though.

There I could visit the contemporary galleries (Canadian and Indigenous Art: 1968 to Present) and the much anticipated newly curated Canadian Galleries (Canadian and Indigenous Art: From Time Immemorial to 1967), which underwent a year long update in anticipation of the Canada 150+ celebrations. Unfortunately, the Biennial of their recent acquisitions did not open until next weekend, but it is always an exhibition I am very curious and highly critical of. In the last two years’ changes of government, I am curious to see the representation included in the purchases – but I will have to wait until the December break.

While many of the Canada 150+ events were a more than a bit controversial, or large theatrical productions seemingly put on for tourists, I found the new Canadian and Indigenous art galleries a nice break from some of the wacky festivals (Calgary Giant Snakes and Ladders, Chalk Art Festivals…). Since its opening almost 30 years ago, in 1988, this is the first time to the galleries have undergone a major change. The NGC’s Director, Marc Mayer called it “rearticulating the story of art in Canada by integrating Indigenous art and photography into the narrative.” He believes it will be a “transformative experience” for art enthusiasts, in an interview with the CBC. (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/national-gallery-canadian-indigenous-galleries-1.3962263)

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Installation view of NGC

I don’t know that I found it a trans-formative experience, but it was nice to see the changes, which included arranging indigenous and colonialist works along side one another to create a dialogue about how one influenced the other. I could feel that there were still so many pulls to be safe in this exhibition, which is understandable in such a large cultural institution. However, the do not touch signs on every sculptural work, were incredibly distracting. Almost all of the works by indigenous artists were behind glass, which made it difficult to get a closer look, and appreciate the materiality of the works.

I found the contemporary galleries much more alive. With so many artist multiples, videos and prints on display, I was excited to see many of the interdisciplinary artists I learned about during my undergrad on display. There works by indigenous artist were treated no differently than the other works on display, and were never presented as ‘other’ to the rest of the exhibition.

One piece I was very excited to see in person was I Am the Coin by Micah Lexier. This piece employed the artist’s unique visual language, which he draws form diagrams and his playful use of language. The 20 000 coins were mounted in a near perfect grid. The story by Derek McCormack, can be read in a few different directions, and really activates the way the viewer reads a story. You have to walk from left to right, and move your head around to see the letters pressed into the highly reflective coins. You really want to find the coin and because of that challenge read the whole story, and spend time looking and reading. You can find the coin for yourself here: http://iamthecoin.com/ I didn’t find it in the gallery, but I did online.

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Shelley Niro, Five Hundred Year Itch, 1992

I was also able to see Shelley Niro’s works which use photographs of herself and female family members cast in contemporary positions to challenge the stereotypes and clichés of Native American women. One of her work I could see in person was 500 Year Itch, 1992. In his work Niro parodies Monroe’s famous skirt-billowing scene originally from The Seven-Year Itch. The middle image is of one of Niro’s family members, and the third is of the artist.  Five hundred years refers to the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s landing in 1492 on the shores of North America. The way Niro plays with documentation, and archive through presentation is subtle, but combines historical and contemporary photography.

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Kelly Mark, Hold That Thought, Neon with programmed failure units

There was a lot of great thought provoking works on display, and I am sure I will circle back to them in other journal posts, but these seemed to be right at the heart of things I am trying to work through at the moment. Be it curatorial decisions, the work itself, or the information I have gained from researching these artists further, I am going to take Kelly Mark’s flickering neon’s advice and Hold That Thought, to bring it into my work.

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