Saturday, October 1, 2016

Liz Magor

Like Christos Dikeakos's talk twelve days ago, this Monday's UBCO talk by Liz Magor will have me listening as a writer who writes on visual art, but also as a teaching assistant. Did my assistantship change the way I listened to Chris's talk? It did. Like the students in CCS-250, I also took notes. Which turned out to be a good thing, because later that day I was asked if I would re-capitulate Chris's talk at the start of next week's class.

Listening to Liz will differ from listening to Chris in that Liz will be visiting our CCS-506 class after her talk. In thinking about what I might ask her, and in light of what I think is the artist's interest in memory, I found myself revisiting her Field Work (1989) series.

Here is what Jessica Bradley (2008) and later Mira Berlin (2015) have to say about the work in Canadian Encyclopedia:

Magor's 1989 photographic series, Field Work -- a collection of reprinted images she had captured in the 1960s depicting longhaired hippies in the back-to-the-land movement in moccasins and feathered headdress, cooking over campfires -- came under sharp criticism for what was taken as a mocking display of Aboriginal culture. Put-off by such superficial critique, Magor left Toronto in 1993 and returned to the West Coast.

Here is what Magor had to say of this work in a 2016 interview with Lesley Johnstone:

In 1989 I found some black and white photographs that I had taken twenty years earlier, in the late 1960s. These were simple pictures of my friends as we explored life on the land: camping, fishing, canoeing, cooking in the open, etc. I was surprised at the naivety and romantic drive that were invisible to us in our youth but so obvious twenty years after the fact. So I printed them with some of the titles from Edward Curtis’s photogravures from earlier in the century. He too was a romantic and used images of indigenous people to entertain his ahistorical notions. Anyhow, what I had intended as an exposure of a recurring and enduring folly, others saw as a case of cultural appropriation, and I was pulled up on the carpet and treated to a big correction. Which I took seriously, by the way. I was very chastened by the experience and I spent a good part of the 1990s reviewing the situation and considering my options. I tried contextualizing the Field Work portfolio by making a number of photographic works based on historical re-enactors.

Here is what the National Gallery of Canada has to say on its "Collections" page:

Field Work, 1989
Liz Magor
Canadian, 1948
gelatin silver prints on paper
matted print: 55.9 x 71.1 cm each (some vertical, some horizontal)
Purchased 1993
National Gallery of Canada (no. 37174.1-10)

Liz Magor plays on the element of fiction or dramatization that often colours museum displays. In "Field Work" she presents photographs of her friends taken in the British Columbia wilderness in the early 1970s. The photos are framed with museum-style mats bearing captions borrowed from Edward Curtis's documentations of the disappearing way of life of Aboriginal Peoples. Curtis is known to have asked his subjects to pose rather elaborately, and his captions seem more like fiction than fact. Magor draws parallels between Curtis's efforts and her own youthful role-playing search for alternative values in the same landscape that Curtis worked in. In this work, Magor questions the subtexts of museum display, its claims to authenticity and its implicit theatricality, asking us to re-consider where the meanings of such displays might lie.

*image atop this post is Magor's Fieldwork (Waihusiwa, a Zuni Kyaqimassi) 1988, Courtesy of Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery / photo Michael Barrick

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