It would be nearly impossible to accuse Vancouver artist Althea Thauberger of being weak or fearful; in fact she is quite the opposite. Not only does she happily invite controversy and criticism, but she willingly flew to Kandahar, Afghanistan as a part of the Canadian War Artist program while Canada was still active at the front. Not an adventure for the light of heart for sure, but one that Thauberger took on with her characteristic aplomb.
Thauberger’s work often revolves around collaborating with a community – from female singer/songwriters in Victoria for Songstress to the Canadian women stationed at Kandahar airbase, highlighting the controls these communities operate and live under.
“I think a lot of it has to do with my personal history and actualities that I’ve lived in, and in living inside of isolated microcultures,” she says of her bravery.
Growing up, her family were fundamentalist Christians who did not allow her to have any friends that weren’t also fundamentalist Christians. At an older age, she worked as a tree planter for a decade. “There’s something kind of similar in [those two communities] about the ways that cultures develop over the course of a short period of time when you are living and working together in extreme conditions,” she recalls of the experience. In her art this translates as sometimes just sharing the experience of being a member of a given social group, other times its about creating a whole new community around that original community.
Take for instance Thauberger’s controversial Carrall Street performance project. On September 30, 2008, she lit up the 200-block of Carrall Street in front of Artspeak with big nighttime film set lights. She invited performers to act out roles related to the area’s history and political realities, but the whole evening could have dissolved completely into improv as they were meant to interact and engage with passerby and members of the neighbourhood. Highlighting a space where residents of Gastown and the Downtown Eastside meet she was sure to hear some strong opinions from either side. Reaction at the public forum after the event was mixed.
“I was expecting critical response for sure,” notes Thauberger. “You walk into a minefield basically.” The responses were all over the map, but were all fairly vehement about the point they wanted to make. “People had real difficulty because there was no stated intention. It was about being a place or a time under particular circumstances – cinema lighting, political realities, and a certain kind of theatrical gaze some people found really annoying.” The important thing for her is that the responses don’t end now that the project is over. “The considerations of the work continue to be considerations and possibly change over time. I think that this work was successful in that way.”
Spring of 2009 saw Thauberger travel to Kandahar, Afghanistan for the aforementioned Canadian War Artist programme. Similar to the British War Artist program which artist Steve McQueen participated in, Canada’s program has been active on and off since 1916, engaging artists in the activities of the Canadian military both at home and abroad. Thauberger proposed creating work around Canadian women stationed in Afghanistan. The images produced seem less important than the experience of Afghanistan that they share, both of the female soldiers and of the artist herself. While her experience was quite different than that of the soldiers, it clearly affected her and gave her new insight into the military experience. She described it as both “exhilarating” and “horrifying,” and found herself both “grateful” for the people around her and “disturbed” by some of the things that people said. “The military is a world within a world,” she says. “There are so many different people and different ideologies. There’s no monoculture in the Canadian military and that was something I had no choice but to respect.”
‘Kandahar International Airport’ 2009. Digital c-print on adhesive, dimensions variable.
Thauberger has most recently completed Ecce Homo, a large photo mural for the City of Vancouver’s Public Art Program, installed on the entrance to the Canada Line station at Granville and Georgia Streets.
The work features actor Nicholas Campbell, famous for portraying Dominic Da Vinci in the CBC television series “Da Vinci’s Inquest.” In the image, Campbell is lying on a gurney, barely alive or recently dead we’re not sure. The ideas surrounding the piece are multi-fold – according to Thauberger she initially came up with the idea because she wanted to make a contemporary version of Jacques-Louis David’s 1793 painting The Death of Marat. Jean-Paul Marat was a journalist who supported the Jacobins against the Girondists during the French Revolution. He suffered from a painful skin disease that he soothed by sitting in a warm bathtub while he wrote, and it was here that he was stabbed to death by Charlotte Corday, a Girondist sympathizer. A very political French painting thus becomes the influence for a very political Vancouver photo mural.
Jacques-Louis David ‘The Death of Marat’ 1793. Oil on canvas, 162.5 x 130.
“Da Vinci’s Inquest” aired on CBC from 1998 to 2005. It featured Nicholas Campbell as Vancouver’s Chief Coroner. A former narcotics cop, he strives to return dignity to the dead by trying to make sure their death means something. Their stories tell him what’s wrong with the city, causing him to file inquests to attempt to influence city policy.
It is possibly the one time in film or television where Vancouver has played itself, addressing issues surrounding homelessness, drugs, disappearing women and more. Da Vinci himself was based on Larry Campbell, formerly Vancouver’s Chief Coroner and Mayor from 2002-05, now a Canadian Senator.
When Thauberger began thinking about re-creating David’s painting, she knew she wanted someone both contemporary and of local significance. Now living in Toronto, Nicholas Campbell agreed to take part, so she flew to meet him and set up the shoot at Ydessa Hendeles’ space. She loves the layers that become apparent by the use of Campbell as the model.
“It’s this great actor who we love. It’s also a character who is identified intrinsically with the city. But there’s also the man behind the character, Larry Campbell, who is very controversial and a sometimes infuriating figure in the city.”
The mural is sure to inspire some controversy of its own. As far as Thauberger is concerned, “it better!”[Note: Image of Ecce Homo to come. On display until fall 2012.]
Althea Thauberger lives and works in Vancouver. She received a BFA in photography from Concordia University in 2000 and an MFA from University of Victoria in 2002. Currently studying part-time for a PhD in cultural theory, she has shown at Artspeak, Vancouver; John Connelly Presents, New York; BAK, Utrecht, Netherlands; Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin; Presentation House Gallery, Vancouver; National Gallery, Ottawa; Manifesta 7, Italy; and Guangzhou Tiennial, China amongst many others. She has been nominated for the 2011 Grange Prize, whose winner is decided by public vote. Cast your vote for her at thegrangeprize.com/grange-prize-2011.
Thauberger in Afghanistan (Photo: Sharon MacKay)
Originally published in Vancouver is Awesome