Thursday, September 13, 2012

"...tous les chose..."

At bottom is a review I wrote of Esther Shalev-Gerz's recent exhibition at the Kamloops Art Gallery. The version that appears in the current issue of Canadian Art was cut by 5%.

WHITE-OUT: Between Telling and Listening (2012)
Esther Shalev-Gerz
Kamloops Art Gallery

Asa Simma dislikes museums. They are cold, she tells the viewer; everything feels “locked-in,” “preserved.” Simma is the subject of WHITE-OUT, an installation by Paris/Cortez Island-based artist Esther Shalev-Gerz. In the first of two opposing 40-minute videos, Simma speaks from her Stockholm home, before a reindeer-skin drum; in the second video she is in the windy outdoors, a 1000 kms north in Karesuando, listening through earbuds to what she told the camera six months earlier, her face tightly framed, the flora alive behind her.

As a double portrait, WHITE-OUT is more than the telling of ones life to its listening author. Mounted in the KAG’s first gallery are a series of dibond aluminum “location” photographs and “source” texts -- photos of the basement archive of Stockholm’s National Historical Museum interspersed with historical, ethnographic and literary writings on Lapland, where Simma (an artist herself) was raised. These writings, “preserved” in the id of the museum archive, were read to Simma (off-camera and off-mike by Shalev-Gerz), to which she responds with tales of Sami life, Swedish citizenry and the collision of the two. (A second work, Perpetuum Mobile [1998-2000] beckons from a third gallery, where a 10-franc coin, like or unlike the memory that the Euro has relegated it to, spins, falters, but never flattens.)

Shalev-Gerz employs a similar interview strategy in Between Telling and Listening: Last Witnesses, Auschwitz 1945-2005 (2005), involving survivors of Nazi concentration camps. However, where Last Witnesses provides only gestural responses, WHITE-OUT generates a new text, in addition to her subject’s corresponding gestures. What is “telling” here, what allows WHITE-OUT its overtone, are the ostensible contradictions -- a sad reminiscence greeted with a smile (of recognition?), a funny story met with a knit brow (Is this something I should be telling people?).

WHITE-OUT was included in a Shalev-Gerz survey earlier this year at the Jeu de Paume, where the context of Paris is equally “telling”. Because France is without an aboriginal presence, WHITE-OUT was viewed in relation to the artist’s other memory works. Yet to experience WHITE-OUT in Canada, where aboriginal culture has achieved a level of symbolic resonance, is to find parallels with the confessions of First Nations artists Dana Claxton and Skeena Reese. Either way, it is clear that Simma (who is Sami “wherever [she is] in the world”) identifies not as an alienated subject but as a European modernist (hello Jimmie Durham!), someone who, like memory specialists Hannah Arendt, Ingeborg Bachmann, Anselm Kiefer, W. G. Sebald and Shalev-Gerz herself, has “love for [her] chosen family,” whom she has met “through [her] work – as an artist.”

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