It’s not often that you visit a major civic gallery and come away amazed, disturbed and politically provoked. Rebecca Belmore’s current exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery does exactly that and more. It is a remarkable retrospective for an artist deeply engaged in some of the most defining and difficult politics of our time.
Belmore’s practice encompasses sculpture/installation, performance, video and photography. The exhibition includes video documentation of five of Bellmore’s performances, and the much talked about video installation Fountain (2005), which is projected on a wall of falling water in a darkened room. The exhibition also includes some of her sculpture work and components from her performances. There is so much to see in this collection and all of it so very good.
Belmore’s art is an embodied practice, and as an aboriginal woman, her body is a complicated site where colonial, cultural and resistant tensions are inscribed on a daily basis. Wild (2001-2008) is a four-post bed with a red satin bedcover woven from beaver pelts and (black) human hair. The bed was created for an exhibition in The Grange, a colonial building that served as the original location of the Art Gallery of Ontario. Belmore sleeps in the bed unannounced. Nearby, hangs the disturbing Fringe (2008), a near life-size backlit photograph of a woman, naked but for a white sheet over her hips, lying on her side facing away from the viewer. On her back is a huge transversal wound starting at her right shoulder and ending below her left hip. The wound is sewn together, and hanging from the stitches are the beginnings of beadwork, small red beads decorating threads hanging from the grotesquely damaged skin.
(more on the exhibition…)
Belmore’s performances can be excruciating to watch. There is ritual in her performance work. In Vigil (2002) for example, she arrives at a spot in an alley in the Downtown East Side of Vancouver wearing a red dress. She scrubs the spot on her hands and knees with soapy water. She lights candles. Then she nails her dress (while wearing it) to a nearby telephone pole, then rips herself away, leaving shreds of the dress behind. It is painful to watch her yanking her body away from the pole while nailed to it. She repeats this until the dress is entirely torn off and the pole covered in red shreds. She then yells out the names of women (who I am assuming are dead or missing women form the DES). The names are on tags which have been tied to flowers which, after yelling the name, she then strips from their stems in her mouth. It is a repulsive and moving performance.
In Bury My Heart (2000), Belmore – wearing a white dress – digs in the mud in front of an art gallery until there is a hole big enough to bury a chair. She periodically rinses the mud from her hands and feet in a small ritual of cleansing. There is a violin player sitting near-by playing melancholy music. In Creation or Death (1991), she is bound – feet together, hands to feet – and while bound moves a pile of sand up three flights of wood stairs.
More playfully, Rising to Occasion (1987) is one of Belmore’s earliest projects. Picture a Victorian era dress decorated with indigenous leather-work and a bustle made of sticks like a beaver lodge – and in the bustle fragments of broken Victorian-era china and Royal Family memorabilia. Belmore wore this dress at an unofficial welcoming parade for the Duke and Duchess of York a few blocks away from the official parade.
Another remarkable project is/was Speaking to Their Mother (1991), mounted shortly after the stand-off between Mohawk warriors and the Canadian military at Oka. Belmore made a huge, intricate wood megaphone – a beautiful thing – and toured First Nations communities across Canada, asking them to speak to the land through the megaphone. At the VAG are photos from the tour and audio recordings of some of the heartfelt and moving addresses given.
It is a large exhibition and there is more than I’ve described. It is a complicated rendering of the difficult, tragic and rage-making history of genocidal practices against First Nations and colonial policies in Canada. What translates into liberation (for this viewer of European descent) is the transformation of personal and political into performance and ritual. A white viewer can’t escape the damning implications of Belmore’s work, but the creative power demonstrated in her transmuting of political history through art and embodied expression is truly an inspiration.
If you are in Vancouver, not to be missed. Extraordinary work from a remarkable artist.