Being a member of the Vancouver Art Gallery entitles one to attend the openings of new shows so, with the annual membership I received in December as a Christmas present, a couple of week ago, on a Friday evening, I attended the opening of the VAG‘s two current shows, Lights Out! Canadian Painting from the 1960s and Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture.

Back in 2006, I attended an opening for another VAG show, Emily Carr: New Perspectives on a Canadian Icon; but that opening was exceptional.  It coincided with the 75th anniversary celebrations of the gallery and, for a mere 10 cents, the price of admission to the gallery 75 years ago and the special reduced price of admission that day, anyone could attend.  Approximately 5000 visitors attended the Gallery on the 75th anniversary, the largest single-day attendance in VAG history.

At the opening I attended at the VAG a few weeks ago, only a couple of hundred people were present at the opening ceremony, beginning at 6 p.m., consisting of speeches by the Gallery Director, Kathleen Bartels, the curators of the two shows, and a special guest, Debra Sparrow, from the Musqueam First Nations Band on whose traditional land the VAG is situated and herself a weaver whose works have been displayed in galleries and museums.  However, many more people than that saw the shows that evening.  This opening coincided with one of the Gallery’s monthly ‘Fuse’ evenings, beginning later, at 9 p.m., and continuing into the wee hours of the morning.  I’ve never previously attended Fuse, nor did I attend this time, but these evenings are advertised as consisting of music and various kinds of performance-art related to current shows.  If I attend another VAG opening, and if that opening also coincides with a Fuse evening, I’ll probably skip the opening ceremony and arrive later, as many other visitors to the Gallery that evening seemed to be doing, so that I can both see the show and attend some of the Fuse event.  (Attendance at Fuse at no extra charge is one of the benefits of a VAG membership.)  Also, that way, I can have something to eat after work, before getting to the Gallery.

Most of my previous experience of art show openings has come from movies and TV shows, and those staged events always seemed to include refreshments.  Also, at the special 75th anniversary opening I attended, there were free hot dogs, pop, and cake–but no such luck this time.  (There is a restaurant in the Gallery, that was probably open that evening, but I didn’t bother.)

Despite wishing I had eaten first, some of the information that was imparted in the opening ceremony speeches was helpful to me in interpreting these shows.  I’m especially grateful to certain comments made by Debra Sparrow about traditional First Nations art, that I suspected, after seeing the Beat Nation show, consisted of a subtle critique of that show–or certain pieces within it.  Whether or not that was actually her intent, I personally felt uncomfortable with several of the pieces in the show, and Sparrow’s comments helped me to understand why–and to feel confident enough to express my concerns, including later in this post, even though I am White and therefore venturing into a politically sensitive area.

Although I was uncomfortable with several pieces in the Beat Nation show (and although I wished I had eaten before getting to the Gallery), my overall experience at the Gallery was much more positive this time than the last time I attended, back in December, as recounted in my post dated January 3.  I then concluded that, if the Vancouver Art Gallery were to double in size, allowing it to put more of its permanent collection on show, the overall quality of the work shown at the Gallery was likely to decline.  I actually generally enjoyed seeing much of the work that was on show this time, including the many pieces from the Gallery’s permanent collection in the Lights Out! show.  It helped, too, that these were cohesive shows, in contrast to the widely divergent pieces that comprised both of the two previous shows.  (Despite this experience generally being more positive than my previous experience, I still believe the Gallery should stay where it is.)

If I had more time now for my blog, I would comment in greater detail here about the actual paintings in the Lights Out! show.  But, because my time is still very tight, I’ll just be commenting briefly, immediately below, about that show, and mainly about my observations of the gallery-goers as opposed to the paintings in the show.  Afterwords, I’ll discuss in greater detail the Beat Nation show.  




The name for this show comes from the title of one of Michael Snow’s paintings that is included in the show, from his Walking Woman series from the 1960s.  Confusing matters, Snow’s painting is not the painting reproduced in the promotional material for the show, including the above banner, which is by another artist, Greg Curnoe, and which also is in the show.  Snow’s painting, is, however, quite similar in its basic composition, with a central woman walking, in profile. 

A long time ago, back when I was a student at McGill University in Montreal, I attended some sort of event that Michael Snow also attended (it probably was an evening of films, perhaps including a film by Snow, some of which I’ve seen), and was introduced to Michael Snow, and shook Snow’s hand.  (I do clearly recall that the introduction came courtesy of Hugo McPherson, who was then teaching at McGill, but who had previously served as the Commissioner of the National Film Board.)  I thought of that encounter when I saw Snow’s painting in the show–and of how I was more closely connected with the arts, especially film-making, earlier in my life than I have been of late. 

I don’t know what actually inspired Snow to create his iconic Walking Woman (which apparently, in turn, inspired Curnoe); but, after seeing the Lights Out! show at the VAG on opening night, I wonder if it may have been, at least in part, his experience of viewing gallery-goers at art shows, especially shows consisting of collections of paintings, and especially at show openings. Even if that’s not the case, I will never see Snow’s (and Curnoe’s) images the same way after attending the opening for Lights Out!

The people who attended the opening of the VAG show, Lights Out!, men and women alike, and even a few young kids, and even a relatively aged woman using a walker, seemed to me to all move through space so gracefully, even in a relatively large crowd.  Compared to most ordinary crowded street scenes in Vancouver, anyway, this was a veritable ballet.  Gallery-goers seemed highly conscious of those around them, constantly subtly shifting their own positions to accommodate others, to make it easier for others to see pictures or to read those little tags beside the pictures with information, in small print, about the various paintings.  Also, those who attended with others and wanted to converse kept their voices down, so they didn’t disturb anyone else in the vicinity.

I wondered if the gallery-goers that evening may have been especially solicitous towards others because it was the opening and, as such, there were several relatively important people, at least in the Vancouver art world, attending that evening.  (For example, I’m pretty sure that was Michael Audain and his wife, sharing in muted tones their observations of a picture they were looking at, a few pictures down from where I then was.)  Anyone that one encountered in the Gallery that evening that one didn’t know stood a good chance of being important (at least in the Vancouver art world)–even if, like me, they really weren’t.  Or maybe it was just that gallery-goers, and especially the more experienced gallery-goers that are likely to predominate at show-openings, are well-versed in how to move with maximum efficiency, and elegance, through galleries of paintings.  Perhaps, in addition, a lot of these art aficionados had some dance training in their backgrounds, as do I. 

Whatever its source, I found the gallery-goers’ movement in space at the opening of the Lights Out! show, the first of the two shows I saw that evening, fascinating, and quite beautiful.  Also, although I hadn’t really expected it, I  sensed that I belonged in this world, even though I been away from it for quite some time.

Beat Nation is a multimedia show with pieces not only on the walls but also in various locations on the floors of the rooms in which the show is installed, and therefore offers a much more complex physical environment to navigate than does the Lights Out! show.  The movement of the crowd at Beat Nation wasn’t exactly chaotic, but it also wasn’t Swan Lake. 




It’s highly likely I would have paid my own money to see the Beat Nation show now at the Vancouver Art Gallery.  I’ve been interested in the work of one of the artists whose work is included in the show, Brian Jungen, for several years–and even had a large poster featuring a photograph of one of his masks made from Nike Air Jordan running shoes hanging in my office in my last job, for the full five years I worked there.  Up to now, I’d seen only pictures of his work, and this show included several of Jungen’s actual masks.  Also, the basic concept of the entire Beat Nation show, Aboriginal artists incorporating elements of urban, hip hop, culture into their art (like Air Jordans refashioned into masks with the basic form of Aboriginal ceremonial masks) was intriguing to me.

A problem for me with many of the pieces in this show, including all of the six masks by Jungen on display (the one on my poster wasn’t in the show), was the awkward relationship between functionality and ‘art’, the latter in the sense of something to behold, as opposed to something to hold in ones hands and to use.  (More could be said, certainly, about the meaning of art; but, for my present purpose, the above definition will suffice.)   As Debra Sparrow, from the Musqueam Band, noted in her speech in the Opening Ceremony, traditionally, Canadian Aboriginal People didn’t have words in their languages that corresponded to the word ‘art’.  She elaborated by mentioning that every object that was made by traditional Aboriginal people had a practical function in the household, even if the objects incorporated decorative elements.  Since Sparrow is a weaver who works with traditional materials and designs, and makes beautiful, but also highly functional, objects, I had to wonder if her comments reflected some misgivings about the directions taken by at least some of the Aboriginal artists whose work is included in the Beat Nation show.  (Sparrow mentioned she already had seen the show, but had gone through it quickly and wanted to see it again.)

I personally was uncomfortable not with the non-functionality of most pieces in the show, per se, but rather, with the awkward relationship between functionality and ‘art’ (as defined above), especially in the many non-functional pieces that incorporated practical objects from hip hop culture, and in those that involved creating non-functional facsimiles of practical objects related to hip hop, with an Aboriginal twist.  (Once I’ve provided some concrete examples, which I shall do shortly, the preceding sentence should become much clearer.)  In forging a new kind of non-functional Aboriginal art (without quotations), the artists who created these pieces seemed to be denigrating the practical beauty of the objects incorporated in their works, or upon which their works were modelled, as well as defying the Aboriginal tradition of merging form and functionality.

Before I provide specific examples of what I didn’t like, I will point out that there were two works in the show that I found entirely satisfying.  Both of these works were fundamentally non-functional, employing media associated with Western notions of ‘art’ (film and photography, respectively), while drawing on Aboriginal themes.  I found the experimental film, “Nikamowin”, directed by Kevin Burton, breathtakingly beautiful, in terms of both cinematography and the poetic way it dealt with the theme of someone of Cree descent who doesn’t speak Cree learning to speak the language.  (I thought some of the other films by Aboriginal film-makers in the Beat Nation show were interesting, although not as interesting as this one.  Kudos to the Aboriginal Film Program at Capilano College, that many of the filmmakers in this show attended.)  Also, I thought the photograph, “Mustang Suite”, by Dana Claxton, consisting of twin girls in matching red dresses and buckskin boots, posed sitting on their matching red Mustang bicycles, was terrific.  In ages past, the girls would have been posed on their Mustang ponies; but, in the hip hop age, it was Mustang bikes.  I was, however, upset that it seemed to be the same great bikes from the photograph, that any kid, from whatever cultural background, would have cherished, that were used in an arty (without quotation marks) sculpture, of sorts, very near the terrific photograph.

The latter is my first example of “a non-functional piece incorporating practical objects from hip hop culture” that made me uncomfortable.  The photograph of the girls with the bikes was both beautiful and poignant; however, taking those great bikes, that should have been in use as bikes, and decorating them using Aboriginal trinkets, and then plunking them down in an art gallery, seemed to me to be a kind of sacrilege.  Kids should have been riding those bikes—and having a great time doing so.  I remember decorating my bike when I was a kid for sports day at school and, at least once, for the annual community summer parade along the waterfront in the small seaside town where I grew up.  (I recall once employing a fishing boat motif for my bike decoration, with fish hanging off the handlebars.)  Decorating my bike was fun; but those decorations came off right away when I needed to use the bike as transportation, which was the bike’s primary function, or for racing (including in sports day events), an important secondary function.  (I don’t know who created the ‘sculpture’ using those bikes and, even if I did, after that review, I wouldn’t mention it here.  It wasn’t necessarily Dana Claxton.)

Another piece in the Beat Nation show with which I was uncomfortable was the two skateboards transformed, through painstaking carving, into non-functional facsimiles of snowshoes.  Again, I’m sure there are kids, from all cultural backgrounds, who would have loved to own those skateboards—when they were still intact, and when they still functioned as skateboards.  Carving them up to create wooden models of snowshoes, that would never work as actual snowshoes (when I lived in Montreal, I did quite a bit of snowshoeing in the Laurentians), seemed stupid to me,  both denigrating the practical beauty of the original skateboards, and defying the Aboriginal tradition of merging form and functionality.  (Again, even if I knew the name of the artist, I wouldn’t tell you.)

A third example of a piece that made me feel uncomfortable did not involve incorporating an object from hip hop culture but, instead, involved just creating a non-functional facsimile of a practical object related to hip hop, but with an Aboriginal twist.  I had to wonder why someone with considerable skill as a wood-carver would bother creating an intricate replica of a record player, carved out of wood, that played only a couple of seconds of sound on one special phonograph record, also carved of wood.  (The couple of seconds of sound were culturally significant, but all the same . . . )  It was remarkable that this carved contraption played anything at all—but, really, why bother?  The basic craftsmanship involved in creating this piece was outstanding, as it was in many of the other pieces in Beat Nation that incorporated traditional Aboriginal crafts; but, surely, there were better applications for this craftsmanship. 

Even Brian Jungen’s masks made out of Nike Air Jordans were a bit of a disappointment to me.  I’ve never been one to fetishize running shoes, of any kind, so I wasn’t bothered by Jungen ripping up Air Jordans to make masks–though it’s conceivable there are people who were bothered by this.  It was the masks, themselves, that were the problem for me.  Although traditional Aboriginal ceremonial masks are not ‘functional’ objects, in any ordinary sense, even Jungen’s masks were not as functional as I wanted them to be.  As far as I’m concerned, for a mask to be a mask, it has to have the basic functionality of being able to slip it over one’s face.  (I’ve had some experience with mask-making, too, including making masks with Cree kids up on James Bay when I was working for CESO.  Mask-making wasn’t part of their traditional cultural, but the rock band KISS was definitely part of their current culture. The masks the kids made were very similar to the painted faces of the KISS band members.)  At least the six masks in the Beat Nation show (Jungen is said to have created twenty-three of these masks in total, since twenty-three was Michael Jordan’s team number) were all quite a bit smaller than I expected.  With their small size, they seemed designed only for show, as pieces of ‘art’.  (I wonder now if the mask depicted on that poster that hung on my office wall was the size of an actual mask, or if it also was a miniature, with its image enlarged for the poster.) 

However, despite my disappointment at Jungen’s masks, I did have a very interesting encounter with a young guy, around twenty years of age, who seemed to be Aboriginal himself, when I was looking at the masks.  He was so, so, excited about Jungen’s masks, effusing to me about how creative they were, and how could anyone have possibly come up with the idea of making masks out of running shoes, and that, according to the description for one of the masks,  Jungen gave this mask to Michael Jordan as a gift, so Michael Jordan must actually have touched it!!!  It reminded me of how excited I’d been (or almost been) when I first saw pictures of some of Jungen’s masks.  I guess, even if you can’t actually wear them as masks, they are pretty cool.

Although there were aspects of the Beat Nation show I did enjoy, the show on the whole brought to mind something I was told regarding houseplants when I was working in the Cree community on the James Bay.  Some of the Whites who lived in the community year-round (some teachers, a priest, and so on) kept decorative houseplants, and these plants were quite foreign to those Cree in the community who had had relatively little contact with Whites.  (This was before there was even television in this community, and certainly well before computers.)  Seeing these houseplants, these Cree would ask whether they were for eating or smoking.  Keeping them for simply aesthetic purposes was foreign to them. This is the same basic message that Debra Sparrow conveyed in her speech.

I personally have no problem, in principle, with objects (including houseplants) that serve only an aesthetic function.  (Aesthetics can be taken to excess, but that’s another issue.)   I do, however, have a big problem with taking objects that are beautiful in their functionality, whether from White or Aboriginal cultures, and rendering them non-functional for the sake of art. 

The Aboriginal artists represented in the Beat Nation show are by no means the first artists to have done this kind of thing–but I think that, with the emphasis on practicality in Aboriginal culture, they should have known better.  If any of the artists in the Beat Nation show had chosen to work with meat (as other artists certainly have done), it’s quite possible I would have grabbed a hunk, both because, certainly towards the time I left the gallery, I truly was hungry, and to make a point. 

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