Saturday, August 06, 2005

The Big Picture 43

A funny thing happened on the way to the Power Plant - and, no, there’s no punch line at the end of this paragraph involving an agile farm hand and a rabbi’s daughter. I discovered that I’m a cultural nationalist. Ok, re-discovered.

Currently playing in the big rooms at the Power Plant is an exhibition by the American art star Glenn Ligon, whose work focuses on African-American identity and the iconography of the US civil rights movement. I loved this work, even if I had some qualms about its polemical simplicity, because Ligon is first and foremost a very playful artist engaged in some very serious explorations. What relevance Ligon’s work has to our own African and Caribbean communities I’ll leave for those communities to address, being a member of neither.

What triggered my uppity Canuckness was not a question of Ligon’s relevance or irrelevance to our particular national experience (after all, we invite artists from other cultures to come here so that we can learn both about them and about ourselves), but a question pertaining to what might be described as the ideology of presentation. Or, to be less fat-assed about it all, the politics of who gets to play the grand salon and who gets to play the lounge - because upstairs from Ligon’s exhibition, in a far from perfect exhibition space that resembles a board room more than a gallery, sits a brilliant, eye-opening exhibition of important Canadian historical work that is, to be blunt, too good for the Power Plant’s often overlooked attic gallery.

The not very subtle implication lurking in this upstairs/downstairs dynamic is that American art stars trump all, and that their works are more vital (and box office bankable) than art that contributes to and showcases our national legacy. But I’m a pot-stirring, touchy sort, as one suspicious Power Plant employee enjoyed reminding me.

The politics of headliners and opening acts aside, please haul yourself upstairs and see the gripping Images of Justice: Sissons/Morrow Collection, an exhibition of Inuit sculpture on loan from the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories. Don’t just do it for yourself, do it for your country (there, I’ll stop with the flag waving now).

Let’s face it, the words “Inuit sculpture” are unlikely to ignite passion in most gallery goers. Every airport gift shop in Canada keeps a tray by the cash register full of the genre’s worst examples. The discipline has been greatly cheapened by dollar store knock offs and lost much of its uniqueness due to the Inuit community’s own semi-industrialization of sculpture production. To too many Canadians, Inuit sculpture is doctor’s office decoration, or Prime Ministerial weaponry – lumpy grey stones shaped like bears, owls, or seals. Nice, but about as artistically vital as a house plant.

Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The works in Images of Justice have as much in common with mainstream, commercial Inuit sculpture as the films of David Cronenberg have with Porky’s. In fact, there’s enough violence, mayhem and brutal behaviour on display in this exhibition to fuel a half dozen Cronenberg movies. Don’t tell anyone at the CBC, but Inuit life is apparently not all beadwork and throat singing.

A bit of backstory is necessary at this point: Between 1955 and 1976, the Northwest Territories Supreme Court was headed by Mr. Justice J.H. Sissons and his successor Mr. Justice William G. Morrow, two men thrust into positions of authority during a time when the Inuit community was facing both massive re- (and dis)location and dealing with the increased presence, and imposition, of non-Inuit people in the north. Naturally, things got a bit rough as traditional ways of life collided with southern white values and laws.

Justice Sissons initiated the practice of commissioning sculptures by local artists to commemorate legal cases that involved this clash of traditions and/or cases that resonated emotionally within the community – creating, in essence, an oral history in stone.

The result is a collection of sculptures unlike any I’ve seen before from the Inuit world – sculptures that combine the traditional forms and style of ancient carving practices with a bizarre, at times shocking, journalistic impulse to record murders, abductions, rapes, and family abuse.

Apart from the obvious socio-historical importance of the works (a number of the sculptures depict pivotal aboriginal hunting rights test cases), there is nothing weirder than looking at these soft, rounded figures - the comfy and cuddly, baby-fat jolly men and women who are a standard of Inuit sculpture - engaged in decidedly malignant activities. This work is gruesome and unblinking, a testimony to the horrific violence and communal disorder that plagued (and continues to worry) the upended Inuit world. This is not an exhibition for the faint hearted or for those who romanticize aboriginal culture.

I don’t scare easy, but sculptures such as Agnes Topiak’s R. v. Kaotak (the Crown versus Kaotak), stopped me in my tracks. The tiny stone carving, not much bigger than a bread plate, depicts a father kneeling with a shot gun to the back of his head while his child stands to the side, waiting for the gun to go off. The fact that the tiny gun looks like a prop from a dollhouse only makes the sculpture more sinister.

Similar homespun horrors are found in Bob Ekalopialok’s R. v. Mingeriak, which recreates a double homicide and uses bright red knitting wool to portray gushers of blood, and Sam Anavilok’s R. v. Amak, Avinga and Nangmalik, a retelling of the assisted suicide of an elder. The elder in Anavilok’s sculpture is shown standing inside an ice house, behind a peek-a-boo cut out, looking just like a mischievous garden gnome - except for the miniature wooden rifle tucked under his chin.

My favourite sculpture, if that happy word can be applied to such dark work, is Bernard Ekutartuq’s R. v. Shooyook and Aiyoot, an interpretation of the shocking murder of a mother by her child and his friend. What makes this work so unnerving is that the awful event is memorialized in gorgeous ivory carvings set on a lovingly polished antler. The fluid, glowing white ivory figures appear to be made from buttery ice cream - a surprisingly calm and delicate look, given that the sculpture re-enacts the cruel execution of a young woman by two rifle-toting boys.

Phew … that’s four out of twenty five gasp-inducing works. Everywhere you turn in Images of Justice, the beautiful and the terrible meet. The art in this moving, very emotional exhibition, a strange brew of solemn facts and lurid dramatization, abstracted forms and unflinchingly realistic portrayals - dualities spawned by and befitting a culture in profound transition – will challenge even the most hardened viewer.

Images of Justice is a stellar exhibition that deserves a national audience (and, please, a less cramped showcase).

Images of Justice: Sissons/Morrow Collection
The Power Plant 231 Queens Quay West Until September 5