Exploring Canadian Art in the Capital: David Altmejd

The beginning of this month proved to be an exciting one filled with the opening of two Canadian themed exhibitions. The National Art Gallery of Canada (NGC) is currently running the exhibition It is what It Is: Recent Acquisitions of New Canadian Art (Nov. 5th to April 24th) and the Patrick John Mills Contemporary Fine Art Gallery is exhibiting a show titled I killed the Group of Seven (Nov. 11th to Dec. 5th) both serving to expose the city to great Canadian Artists. I had the pleasure of attending the second of two Meet and Greet Artist talks, put on by the NGC; and of going to the opening of I killed the Group of Seven where I had a lovely conversation with one of the artists exhibiting.

I managed to fall in love with a couple of artists, well their work. I left both exhibitions optimistic about Canadian art but most importantly: with a pensative mind. Because when it comes right down to it, art is not supposed to create parties or cultures, its suppose to make you think and perhaps, react with or against the culture it finds itself in. I want to focus on five artists who, uh, pretty much blew my mind: David Altmejd and  Adad Hannah, both from It is what It is and Mathieu Laca, Dane Atkinson and Allan Egan from I killed the Group of Seven in order to give them the space they deserve.

I managed to walk into the Artists Talk five minutes late (I blame this on my own disorganization and my rusty French, long story, involves the loss of a key and a key attendant, ’nuff said). But what I did walk into held me to silence and admiration. David Altmejd was up first and he was discussing one of his sculpture, the Holes. Altmejd managed to create these giant anamorphic-monster-like sculptures whose bodies are turned inside out, revealed, holed and blended into the mythical landscape they find themselves in. I wish I could’ve sneaked a picture. But since I tend to follow rules and not break them (ultimate sad face here – this gal’s down fall!) I didn’t bring my beautiful broken camera into the exhibition space. Instead, I managed to find a flickr account that holds five pictures of the piece. So enjoy them.

What I loved so much about Altmejd’s sculpture was how easily my eyes flowed over the bodies of these grotesque yet beautiful monster-like bodies. Altmejd’s use of light, pastel colours within the sculpture allowed for the eyes to move around easily, letting you take in the scuplture as a whole. Their holes not only revealed their insides, allowing their organs to spill out; but it also provided an opportunity for growth to happen. Altmejd’s combination of little creatures and societies around the dead bodies gave the piece a sense of balance between the lightness and darkness of, well, life. Even though Altmejd’s shows the viewer organs outside of the body and a figure decaying you can’t help but feel happy when viewing it. The darkness of the piece gives way to the  use of the colours and the sprouting of life (be it nature or societal) around the figures.

The aspect of  the mythological provides the viewer to go beyond escapism. This monster-like creature does not exist; it seems like it belongs in the movie “The Never Ending Story”. Its death signifies its non-existence within this world. But instead of staying within an escapist universe, Altmejd’s piece points to something true within culture: societies flourish when built up on myths (especially myths designed for a Nation). The dead figures have [stairs] built onto them for the use of the society. Allowing for the flourishment of a society to happen around them. It not only speaks to the life cycle of decay turning into life but it also speaks to myth generating success.

Canada’s art history when steeped in the Group of Seven revolves around the myth of the artist and his inspiration. The group allegidly gained all of its inspiration from Nature and Nature alone. This statement completely disregarded the picturesque style they were painting in  (and its history) and Europe’s history within landscape painting. But our society accepted it. Society also accepted their “success” within Europe when really most of our paintings were laughed at, along with the didactic panel of the artist influence and inspiration. Their paintings have flourished because we, a young independent nation, needed to show Europe that we were independent of them (ah, “high” culture and its use) but yet, they still flourished on a myth. This is just one example of how a myth can generate some sort of success. One can only wonder what else lies beneath the myth. {Financial Crisis, anyone?}

The piece not only served aesthetic purposes but allowed for my mind to be stimulated beyond the art world. It has further allowed this viewer to keep asking questions on how this culture is shaped. A value that surpasses any monetary worth.


From Fiction and Sound.

On occasion life gets extremely hellish for 99% of us. Since time is limited and spirits are at its whim I’ve decided to do the unthinkable: expose some of my creative writing. I haven’t really had time to focus on certain blog posts that I’ve been wanting to write about; but since this is a serious blog, I’ve decided to unleash a short, short, short story that I wrote some time ago. I’m slightly freaked out that I’m about to do this. So please: be gentle.

–Let there be not one fiction but many—

The sound carried itself. They could hear it through the wires vibration. It was not like it used to be. Where you could be involved with the message through silence. It carried itself well. Provoking the listeners senses. Establishing its truth near the inner canal. Laying there to be ingested.

They remembered when they passed by the word. The powerful word that filled them. They walked on empty streets that were filled with its power. Now the word was no longer something that lay still in the air. It moved the air. Its power had grown.

Now the sound played daily. Inciting the same feelings in the listener. The repetition of the sound could not be escaped. Through the streets, the alley ways, the sound carried through the walls. The neighbourhood was caught stalling, listening to its pulse. Its feelings were in the air.

Slowly, the sound began to evolve. It grew into an image. The image was born from the word; like a child born with eyes wide open and a high-pitched scream. The child of word grew beyond its sound. The image began to wash over those seated before it. And forever they will always remember those two rays of light in the left hand corner, exposing those words of which involved a hunt, an animal and manipulated truth.

A Truth, forever lost.

The group of Seven are Dead.

I Killed the Group of Seven, Patrick John Mills Contemporary Fin Art Gallery, Nov. 11th - Dec 2nd

November 11th is not only rembrance day folks! Its the day the Patrick John Milss contemporary fine art gallery reveals who killed the group of seven with the exhibition “I Killed the Group of Seven” running from November 11th to December 2nd. If you were lucky enough to have walked downtown Ottawa throughout the months of September and October, you might have noticed a poster with the words “I Killed the Group of Seven”, along with a call for submissions. The submissions calls for 15 artists to submit works that challenge conventional notions of Canadian landscape painting.  This humble blogger is salvating at the prospects and will be at the opening tomorrow, November 11th from 6-9. Artists will be in attendance and hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to chat with them about their work and what they think about Canadian landscape painting. Stay tuned for further developments! And if you are in the Ottawa area: hope to see you there!

Deciphering the Invisible, Vol. 1: Ran

I’ve decided to create a series revolving around Invisible Cinema (because I love it so much). Invisible Cinema is any voyeur’s dream come true since it’s an independent DVD/Video rental store that specializes in Art House, International, Hollywood, Independent, Classical Cinema, Criterion Collection, Documentaries, Cult Cinema and Cinema Erotika (everything). Their collection is quite impressive and every time I visit it, I drool. So I wouldn’t be suprised if a film novice became overwhelmed by the collection; thus I’ve decided to create this series to make my and your life easier. Welcome to Deciphering the Invisible where a film rented from Invisible Cinema get’s reviewed!

This week’s review was taken off their newly released shelf. I tend to stalk film critics on twitter and as soon as this film was released on the Blue-Ray criterion collection, twitter exploded. Every critic was raving about how amazing this recently restored film was to your eyesight. I had held off from watching it, since back home I, a) lacked a blue-ray player and b), well no b, I just lacked a blue-ray player. So imagine my excitement when I walked into Invisible Cinema a couple of weeks ago and found Ran on their shelf (and now having access to a Blue-Ray player). The time had come.

Ran, a film by Akira Kurosawa, tells the story of the fall of the Ichimonji clan. The film has everything from betrayal, murder, vicious women, epic battle scenes to tender moments between father and son. Ran does run a bit on the long side (162 mins) but I promise you it is worth it. So make yourself a lovely dinner, enjoy it before hand, because the only thing that can distract you during this film is the nice bottle of wine left over from your nice meal. The wine will be a great companion to the beautiful images that Kurosawa has constructed, just wait until you get to the first battle scene!

Knowlege is never a terrible thing so here are a couple of pointers before viewing Ran:

1. It is a reinterpretation of King Lear but devoid of Shaskespear’s tragic cathartis. The two follow the story of an aging warlord; who suffers the consequences of dividing up his kingdom to his offspring before his own death.

2. It has elements of Noh theater within the character of Hidetora. Both  Tatsuya Nakadai’s (Hidetora) make-up and acting style are derived from elements of Noh theatre. Nakadai’s heavy make-up parallels that of an emotive Noh mask. His acting style of long static movements of silence juxtaposed with violent, feverish movements is also indicative of Noh.

3. Ran is unlike the Seven Samurai where instead of showing love Kurosawa treats his characters mercilessly and produces a more pessimistic outlook on human nature. Kurosawa has been known to say that one of the subjects within Ran is the threat of nuclear war. Although, this viewer couldn’t really see that, the film does have a feel of high anxiety (will Hidetora ever come out of his madness?). The film does depict the darker side of humanity, considering that most of its characters are corrupt, greedy and vengeful. The film is a tad on the dark side….

4. The battle scenes are mostly composed of long shots and have very few close-ups. The director’s signature of using three cameras simultaneously is erased and editing becomings invisible. The battle scenes are composed to remove the viewer from them. Unlike other Kurosawa battle scenes, like in Seven Samurai, you are not in the thick of it. Ran’s  battle scenes are shot from a distance and in a continuous take so the viewer becomes spectator; which is nice, considering this allows you to remove yourself from the madness.

5. Kyoami will become your favorite character. You’ll see why within the first five minutes of the film.

“Move to the Buffalo”

Performance art is a very special privilege that not many experience. It is the kind of art that can never be replicated nor experienced outside of the confines of an art atmosphere. The audience witnesses a one-of-a-kind event. Uniqueness is where the beauty lays. Even if the artist chooses to perform in multiple venues there will always be variation: whether it be in the artist or the audience. This past Friday (Oct. 29, 2010) I had the opportunity of experiencing a performance by Terrance J. Houle at G-101 called IINNIIWAHKIIMAH.

Terrance J. Houle is a performance artist who has used many mediums (photography, graffiti, music, painting, video/film) to explore issues on colonization, racism, identity, cultural difference and representation of the Aboriginal people in popular culture. Iinniiwahkiimah (not only the title of this piece but also his Blackfoot name translating to Buffalo Herder) explored contemporary and traditional identities of Aboriginal people. The performance was set within a room that had its walls stenciled-graffiti black with Buffalos. It began with Houle undressing in the middle of the G-101 as the audience crowded around him.  He removed his contemporary clothing of jeans, shoes, socks and t-shirt to change into simple Native regalia, consisting of breach cloth, moccasins and a breast plate made out of wood and leather; while keeping his red boxer-briefs and stylish eye glasses on. As soon as he “transformed himself” he cued the music and “Run through the Hills” by Iron Maiden flooded the space.

As soon as the music started the performance/enactment of Buffalo herding started. Houle would run towards the Buffalo closes to him, stopping to peel off tape only to reveal white borders and enhance the esthetic of the stenciled-graffiti  Buffalo. As he ran towards the Buffalo (and this is the magic of live performance art) two women had to remove themselves from where they were standing so as to not get trampled. This caused them to move closer to the crowd. Houle would take the whole duration of the song to peel/reveal more of the identity of the Buffalo. As soon as “Run through the Hills” finished playing the process was repeated again. He stationed himself in a corner and “Indians” by Anthrax hit our ears. This time as Houle ran through the room he shouted out “Move to the Buffalo” in Blackfoot. Running towards the Buffalo and further encircling the crowd together, he once again, spent the whole duration of that song peeling and revealing the Buffalo. The process, the two songs and the shouting, were repeated until the crowd had come closely together and the last of the Buffalo was removed of its surrounding tape. The performance lasted about 20 minutes and by the end of it everybody was very much in close quarters, some of us dancing along to the guitar licks that we recognized.


Integral to the performance was the aspect of the mixture of the contemporary Native identity. Houle had kept the Native regalia simple so the (mostly) white Audience would be able to identify it as so and as he says ” to draw away from the fantastical or spectacle of regalia in Powwow”. By undressing and re-dressing in front of the audience he confronts our fantastical notions of Native regalia and contextualizes it into an everyday act, making them more present.  The regalia has been removed from its traditional atmosphere into a contemporary one; all the while keeping its artistic integrity. The regalia is no longer just a part of traditional identity but a part of a contemporary Native identity.  As he removed his clothes, Houle, exposed the audience his body, which is clearly on display to be seen as it is. Even when barely dressed it still is composed in Western wear. His hair is cut in an urban fashion, his boxer-briefs, his trendy eyeglasses are all markings of a contemporary body. The mixture of traditional and contemporary where very much exposed as soon as he finished putting on his breast plate, the last item to be put on.

The performance will always stay with me as I’m sure it will with the rest of the audience. To a certain extent Houle places us in history. The subversion of being herded will always make me think of the history of our North American continent. It will make think of the significance that this animal has played in the lives of the Blackfoot. The Buffalos stenciled and graffiti evoke replications found on Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park but as they are done in a contemporary fashion it places them in our place and time, again combining the traditional with the contemporary. They remind us of an act that was very much part of the everyday life of the Blackfoot and of an act that contemporary farmers do when keeping Bison. Houle has a gift of mixing the contemporary with the traditional together. In a way the mixing lends itself to something that will never forgets the past but will become something new, something stronger. This is the kind of art that needs no begging to be loved.