Did anybody here see this show at the AGO this summer? Sarah Milroy wrote a provocative review of the exhibition in April that has been reposted here, at indianz.com. The show was co-curated by Gerald McMaster and Joe Baker in a collaboration between the Heard Museum in Phoenix and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. According to the curators, the exhibition represented a generation of artists that "doesn’t feel compelled to reflect a traditional tribal identity in their work." It was an exploration of hybridity, featuring 15 artists from Canada, the United States and Mexico. According to Milroy, "The works on view seem to have lost the vitality of traditional culture, gaining little in the bargain. The curators have made weak choices: These works don't feel dynamically hybrid so much as simply diluted." To put it bluntly, Milroy didn't like the art. But she took her critique further, posing the question of whether or not exhibitions themed around aboriginal identity have become outdated and anachronistic.
McMaster, to his credit, invited Milroy to participate on a panel last Sunday to publicly discuss the issue, and Milroy, to her credit, showed up. Joe Baker was also on the panel along with Salah Hassan, professor of African and African Diaspora art history and visual culture. It was an interesting event.
McMaster's position was that there will always be exhibitions themed around indigeneity. He reminded us that artists will not stop questioning and exploring the dynamics between their cultural history and their contemporary experience, and he explained that in the contexts of the Heard and the Smithsonian the show had a radical aspect in that it challenged the stereotypes of Indian-ness associated with traditional practices. At the AGO, the frame of reference was quite different, focusing less on identity and more on new modernities.
Milroy's position was that the current international career success of so many indigenous Canadian artists indicates that the time for what she called "battering ram" exhibitions is over. She made an analogy to the history of feminism, suggesting that in the 60s and 70s women needed to strongly assert their presence in the artworld, but that now the kind of agressively political work of, for instance Judy Chicago, is no longer required. Likewise, in regards to aboriginal works, now is the time for "intellectual subtlety and refinements of quality." And, in her opinion, the curators of Remix made an error by choosing works according to themes of hybridity rather than on their aesthetic merits and their relations to one another in the space.
Hassan had a nuanced analysis, suggesting that exhibitions themed around identity were still necessitated by ongoing exclusionary practices in mainstream museums and the need for what he term the "subaltern" to own the process of their own representation. At the same time, however, he was frustrated that themed identity shows are currently more palatable to museums than other options for reddressing exclusionism. He was advocating for an opening of the canon to include serious restrospective solo exhibitions on subaltern artists who have made influential contributions with little recognition from established institutions, and cited examples from his personal experience in which a museum that had recently put on a big themed show on African art used that as their reason for declining a solo retrospective on an African artist he is working with (so sorry I did not catch the artist's name).
Joe Baker's presentation took a somewhat different tack. He began by describing his own experience as a person of mixed race, part Delaware Indian and part Dutch English, and gave a short history of the long history of the Delaware Tribe's struggles with the US gov't, not only for land but for their very identity, being repeatedly "administratively terminated" from and then reinstated to the state record. With regard to Remix, he adopted what I considered the most radical position on the panel, suggesting that the show was not curated for the audience nor the critics, but for the artists themselves — a reclaiming and a declaration of a group of artists that enabled them to recognise one another. "Of course the show is uneven," he said, explaining that it was designed as a self-consciously broad exhibition representing a diversity of voices, experiences and aesthetics.
Most of the questions from the audience were leveled at Sarah Milroy, prodding her to justify her position in various ways. She handled this with aplomb, reinforcing her view that First Nations art should be at the centre of Candian art discourse, admitting that of course she has a limited perspective but asserting that as a critic her job is to make aesthetic value judgements and were she to shy away from that role she would not be giving the work the respect it deserves. The most interesting question was a two-parter from a young man who asked (I'm paraphrasing, hopefully sort of accurately) whether or not in the context of this sort of show the rules of the game of aesthetic judgement are shifted, and further challenged Milroy's apparent preference for the aesthetics of traditional aboriginal artworks over contemporary works of hybridity. Unfortunately, only the second part of his question was taken up (with Milroy eventually backing down somewhat to acknowledge that the stereotypes of traditional practice are not necessarily a useful benchmark for aesthetically judging contemporary work).
To my mind, the most potentially fruitful axis of conflict that arose was between Milroy and Baker, who were operating within very different frames of reference. If we are to take Baker at his word, then Milroy's particular aesthetic response to the exhibition was simply irrelevant to his criteria for a successful exhibition. For Baker, the point of the show was to foster a community of artists and, although he did not say this, the implication is that the museum was thus put to use more as a tool of dissemination than as a contextual framing device. But this is not to say that a exhibitionary mandate based on mobilising and connecting artists cannot inform an aesthetic appreciation of the work. Like the young man who posed the question above, I don't believe there are universal criteria for aesthetic judement. A work that looks shabby if it is positioned as the epitome of a genre can look fresh and inspiring if it is positioned as part of a process of exploration. Part of the job of the critic is to take an exhibition on its own aesthetic terms. But if an exhibition is to be taken on its own terms, it is the job of the curators to effectively communicate those terms, and failing to do so ultimately does a disservice to the artists.
While the Remix show was accompanied by an extensive catalogue that laid out some of the curatorial agendas expressed above and profiled each of the artists, the exhibition was hung in such as way as to suggest a kind of museological momentousness. There was a lot of space between works, large but washed-out video projections, and broad expanses of shiny gallery floor and white wall that weren't adequately activitated. The works should have been closer together, so that each one wasn't required to justify its own presence as a museum piece. There could have been a lot more attention given to drawing out resonances between the works, so that viewers would have felt engaged in a dynamic and open-ended conversation rather than left wandering between somewhat isolated showcase pieces. The fact that the exhibition was "uneven" was not a weakness, but it was not installed as if it was a strength, and this left the artists vulnerable and open to a line of critique that was not really appropriate to the curatorial mandate.
How did this happen? I think there are two factors. First, as both McMaster and Baker pointed out, the show was not conceived for the AGO but for two institutions that, ironically, are in some ways more conservative. Baker explained that the fact that the artists were re-working aboriginal themes in a contemporary context had had a radical impact at the Heard — there was a public outcry and complaints that the museum should go back to showing "real Indian art." At the AGO, however, the permanent Canadian galleries express cross-cultural hybridity and the curators (cudos to McMaster, and cudos to the AGO for hiring him) have taken the intiative to mix up historical and contemporary indigenous works in a way that indicates that even the so-called "traditional" works emerged from a culture of dialogue and exchange. In this context, the hybridity of the works in Remix simply didn't stand out enough to carry the day.
Secondly, and this is pure speculation on my part, I suspect that the curators didn't pay enough attention to the differing context at the AGO, and didn't actually make the time to consider that a different installation strategy might be required. This was the last stop on a tour and my guess is that both Baker and McMaster were onto other projects, realising too late that some re-evaluation might be in order. The worst case scenario is that they did think about it, and made an intentional compromise to museuological tradition, compromising their own curatorial vision in favour of pandering to expectations about what a museum show should look like. But this last option is highly unlikely, given both curators' demonstrated courage, sophistication and depth of experience.
All that said, I think the panel was successful and important. I applaud Gerald McMaster for putting it together, and I commend Sarah Milroy for coming out and putting herself on the spot. The tone of the discussion was respectful, everyone listening and speaking with humility. At the same time, however, the points of conflict were exposed and discussed openly without apology or defensive positioning. While there was congeniality and agreement to disagree, the issues were not simplified nor reduced to trite expressions of common ground. Joe Baker finished his presentation with a celebratory comment, thankful that, in this Post-Bush era, complexity is once-again cool. I wholeheartedly agree.
- sally mckay 8-25-2009 10:55 pm
i am not first nation, but the remix show had a number of pieces that were new--to have the arcade game with it's digital remix of found racism, or the hank williams painting, or the metiszo ceramics at the AGO and not just the Dundas collection of Haida masks was powerfully reconsitutive for me. a - anthony (guest) 8-26-2009 3:01 am
Sally, thanks so much for posting your notes from this event. I suspect they will be oneof the few public records of the panel.
I wasn't at the panel, but I did see the show. As I've observed elsewhere, I can see the complaint about a lack of strength in a number of the exhibition artworks. But some of the artworks I still very much enjoyed. It struck me overall as a kind of okay if uneven show on a still-valid topic.
I might also be restating myself on this one, but as long as people are treated differently (economically, socially, culturally) on the basis of their identity (economic, social, cultural, sexual, whether externally perceived or internally felt) you will have artists (a typically self-reflexive bunch in any case) making works about identity. And we will curators, some of whom take the exhibition form as their own artwork, doing the same thing. It's all fine with me. Welcome and necessary, even. Even if it is and should be wide open for critical debate and judgment. - Leah Sandals (guest) 8-26-2009 3:13 am
I agree with you both.
I have the imagined voice of J. from simpleposie in my head prodding, "you didn't answer the question posed by Milroy and the panel — Are we past the age of an aboriginal art show?" So I'd better say it outright: no. I don't think we are. I certainly wouldn't want themed shows to be the only context available for contemporary aboriginal artworks, but happily they're not. I do take Hassan's point that there is a danger of institutions defaulting to the identity-based group show to cover their "subaltern" programming, but I tend to agree with Leah and McMaster (and Murray Whyte) that in the evolving process of expanding curatorial mandates they continue to have a relevant role.
A note: the panel was being recorded and AGO has been posting a lot of audio online lately so maybe it'll be available at some point soon. There's lots of stuff I didn't cover.
Another note: John Ralston Saul has been making all kinds of waves with his latest book A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada which argues that Canada as a nation is "heavily influenced and shaped by aboriginal ideas." I haven't read it yet, but I heard his lecture "Aboriginals and New Canadians: The Missing Conversation" on the CBC Ideas podcast and it was pretty fantastic. He is going to speak at the AGO on October 28th. Probably a good idea to get there early. - sally mckay 8-26-2009 4:17 am
Charting America by Bernard Williams was one of my favourite pieces in the show.
- sally mckay 8-26-2009 4:42 am
The Bernard Williams piece was pretty amazing, because it was about aboriginal, afro-american, chinese, euro-american symbols both icons and language. the symbols were eccentric, low fi, but epic, and epic by building up the contradictions and recreations that i keep thinking can only happen in LA - anthony (guest) 8-26-2009 8:19 am
and provides a solution to the problematizing of kara walker's work that howardina pindell does. - anthony (guest) 8-26-2009 8:20 am
(why did i think that Williams was from LA, hes NY/Chi.) - anthony (guest) 8-26-2009 8:23 am
Kara Walker's work is pretty shocking. I don't think that's what Williams is going for. - sally mckay 8-26-2009 3:09 pm
Willams use of historical signifers, silhouette, and racial/social contexts looks to Walker--he is doing different things, correcting her, being more social, being a little sweeter, but i think that they are in concert - anthony (guest) 8-26-2009 4:57 pm
I dunno Anthony. I agree that there may be an element of intentional formal correspondence with Walker. But "correcting" her? That seems unlikely. - sally mckay 8-26-2009 11:24 pm
correcting is the wrong word.
i think that he (using similar historical modes and formal choices) annotates some of the narratives that Walker chooses not to place in her work. Some of those choices have been criticised by Pindell, so there is a conversation of inclusion and langauge that is being engaged in here. I find that conversation, though it does not and is not likely to include me, fecund.
- anthony (guest) 8-27-2009 1:50 am
I enjoyed this piece. Thanks for posting it for those of us not living in Toronto. Another reason the age of the group Aboriginal art show is not over is that the vast majority of audiences visiting public galleries know pretty well nothing about Aboriginal people or their art. I know it's not the curators' or the artists' role to educate (at least not as a primary task), but group shows that have reasonable documentation can go a long way in opening up Aboriginal cultures and viewpoints to the mainstream. A show focusing on a single artist, especially retrospectives, can do the same thing.
But presenting a single First Nations artist alone with other non-Native artists - it will no doubt underscore some interesting aspects of that artist's work, but the Aboriginal cultural and political contexts will most likely be lost to the audience.
- Jennifer D (guest) 9-01-2009 10:47 am
You make good points, Jennifer D. The whole issue of whether or not curators should be in the business of education is a hot topic in museum studies. I think Gerald McMaster at the AGO has to walk a fine line. There's also the question of representation. Is it enough for the mainstream museums to confer status on a broader spectrum of art production? Or are we looking for deeper change than that? I think that solo retrospectives can go either way. They can be simply adding new names to the canon of artists who have been given the hierarchical stamp of approval. Or they can introduce new sets of criteria for assessing and making aesthetic value judgements. I think it's the latter that Hassan is more interested in. - sally mckay 9-01-2009 3:26 pm