Saturday, January 23, 2010

A sudden and unexpectedly gorgeous January 22nd morning. Not just a peek at the sun, but the prospect of sun all day.

At 10 a.m. I received a call from Christopher Eamon asking if I might tour him through the SFU Gallery show. Chris, in town for his curation of Vancouver Art Gallery’s Cue: Artists' Videos, had never visited the Burnaby campus, so I made a point of arriving via the western-most road, the way its architect, Arthur Erickson, had envisioned. At the final turn, the woods gave way, and bang, there it was, the Academic Quadrangle (like a giant elbow!), and Chris took its picture.

Upon returning downtown we visited the Cue site – a huge monitor installed on the VAG’s south steps, below which stood a wall high enough to keep people from gathering (the steps are a popular site of protest), one that also doubles as a "Table of Contents" and a schedule for the videos in the show. Unfortunately (in this instance) the sun was shining, and the screen was washed out. You could hear the audio, but that could use some tweaking too.

From there Chris and I wandered the VAG giftshop. As we were leaving I noticed the recent VAG/Douglas & McIntyre publication Visions of British Columbia: A Landscape Manual, a pairing of BC literary writings with BC artworks intended to coincide with the gallery’s latest collection show of the same name, which itself is intended to coincide with the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. Because I had time to kill, I purchased a copy and took it with me to my office at SFU Harbour Centre.

The book is a disappointment, its problems having less to do with the images than the texts selected to accompany them. Is Maurice Gibbons’ gentle testimonial concerning his and his wife’s participation in the Clayoquot protest what comes to mind when considering what is possible in the monochromic space of Ian Wallace’s Clayoquot Protest (August 9, 1993)? I, for one, am not that literal. In place of Gibbons, why not an excerpt from Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach (2000), a book that Visions (literary) editor Scott Steedman chose not to include because, as he said in his “Introduction”, “to produce one page and reproduce it out of context would have been a folly.” Well, I have read Robinson’s novel, and it is full of follies, just as it is full of interior passages that would have worked well with Wallace’s piece – an idle thought, a remembrance, a non sequitur – anything other than what is already stated photographically.

Another poor pairing is a poem by Gregory Scofield placed next to Stan Douglas’s photograph Every Building On 100 Hundred Block West Hastings (2001), a work that, because it lacks people, has been criticized for dehumanizing what is widely-seen as Vancouver’s most abject city block; at the same time, a critique that ignores how the photo’s composition (a montage of buildings, which the artist shot independently) is not unrelated to the means by which hidden economic forces (objective material conditions) shape (dehumanize?) the lives of those no longer capable of appearing in such pictures. (A presence born from two conspicuous absences?) As with Wallace’s photo/painting, it is often how a work is made that contributes to its content.

That Steedman proceeded in such as literal fashion is indicative of the difference between written and visual literacy (I think Steedman lacks both). Indeed, a visionary editor might have paired texts and pictures that operate in a more ambiguous relationship, creating the potential for a third work, as opposed to something as unilateral as the often strident Scofield berating his “grinning” “businessman” for not getting it, while the first-on-the-scene poet/healer does. (From the literal to the Biblical!) As for omissions, Where are our civic poets -- Maxine Gadd, Gerry Gilbert, George Stanley? Or our great prose stylists -- George Bowering and Sheila Watson? I am not an Evelyn Lau fan, but there is room for her psychosexualizations in Visions – especially when some contributors are represented by multiple entries. Surely a literary advisory panel comprised of Clint Burnham, Douglas Coupland, Peter Culley (not included), Lee Henderson (not included), Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas and Deborah Campbell (“Five men and one woman” quoth Steedman) would have kept those names from slipping by.

At 4 p.m. SFU PH.D candidate Jason Starnes knocked on my door, and we made our way to the Railway Club. How sweet it was to chat with Jason about Olson and Gloucester, Williams and Paterson, Niedecker and Black Hawk Island, watching the club fill up around us. After too many beers, we parted -- he to a concert, me down Hastings. Lots of action on the 100 Block West, our provincial government having shelled out thousands for its temporary Olympic makeover.

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