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Politicized art

After Presence and 13 Coyotes question contemporary political issues

Jonathan Petrychyn
A&C Editor

Politicians of a certain stripe are fond of saying that the arts don’t have their place in politics. Two shows running at the Mackenzie Art Gallery, After Presence and 13 Coyotes: Edward Poitras, show that art is sometimes nothing but politics.

The two shows don’t have any explicit connection, but both ask questions about broader political issues that permeate our news cycles.
Timothy Long, head curator at the Mackenzie Art Gallery and curator of After Presence, believes that while his show perhaps doesn’t deal with social issues in any specific sort of way, that isn’t a problem.

“These works are not meant to bowl you over, they’re meant to infiltrate your consciousness and make you wonder about some of these broader questions,” Long said.

“These questions are being asked in terms of aesthetics; they don’t really have a direct social message, but all these things are connected in some way, and so if you can start to ask yourself why am I looking for a certain kind of notion of presence in an artwork, maybe that will spill over into other areas of inquiry.”

Long said that the artworks he chose for After Presence confront the notion of “presence,” or the idea that a work of art needs to last and make an impression.

“We all know how important presence is in the world of politics, business, and entertainment; you know, if you don’t have presence, you haven’t got anything, It’s very much the same in the art world,” Long said.

“Artists have worked very hard over the last five centuries to create works with presence … But I’ve been intrigued by artists I’ve been looking at over the last few years that have expressed a kind of wariness of presence in their work. Somehow they’re wanting to unsettle the notion of presence as it relates to an artwork, that to create an artwork that brings into question this whole notion that an artwork only functions when it emits a strong aura or presence.”

After Presence curates the art of Jack Anderson, Shary Boyle, David Claerbout, and Liz Magor. While all four artists figure equally in the show, Long admits that it was the work of Boyle that really signaled the idea of an “after presence” to him.

“I was looking at the work of Shary Boyle [and] I was attending one of her exhibitions in Toronto, and I was drawn to one of these small watercolours on black construction paper she had done of venetian class chandeliers,” Long said. “And these little chandeliers – there’s a collection of them in the show – appear to float in this black void.

"There’s one in particular where the drawing is maybe only an inch high, and it just occupies one small corner of the paper … I had this sensation of it just disappearing, of it floating away from me on this black tide. And I was really drawn to this idea of an artwork that was moving away from me, that was retreating, that was creating an after presence.”

This idea permeates the exhibition throughout the work of David Claerbout, Jack Anderson, and Liz Magor as well, especially when considered against what Long calls Magor’s “servant object” works of art. Magor’s work deals ideas of the servant and the aristocrat, the privileged and the underprivileged, that can also be seen in the work of Boyle, Claerbout, and Anderson.

“The aristocrat doesn’t want to be seen, the servant is not allowed to be seen,” Long said. “But they’re both the two poles of invisibility in our society, the two places that resist our current notions of presence.

“And so presence, as it turns out, is politicized.”

Long believes that notions of presence underline the Occupy movement, which – though it isn’t specifically spoken to in the show –  is a movement that visitors may find themselves considering in relation to the show.

“I think [the notion of presence] was really germane to the whole situation with the Occupy movement,” Long said. “I think the moment when it became visible in the media was the moment when it lost its power. I think it had far more powerful when it was invisible and was just the underground movement that was spreading by word of mouth and by other subterranean means.

“But I think the questions that I’m asking in this show go in a little bit different direction by asking the underlying question, which is how is our social understanding connected to our notions of visibility and invisibility, of presence and absence, which are, after all, what determine the value of something? How can we change the structure of value if everything has to become present in order to become valuable?”

On the other side of the Mackenzie floor is 13 Coyotes: Edward Poitras, an exhibition of the work of Edward Poitras. Poitras, a First Nations artist who is a resident of Treaty 4 territory, has used his art to work through First Nations issues of community and history. The exhibition is a combination of new and recent work spread across two galleries. Most of the main gallery is filled with new large installation pieces, the most impressive of which is bone coyote in the centre of a large circle of white rice.

The second gallery contains much of his recent work, including Cell, a series of images of hundreds of post office boxes pinned to the wall, and Coyote as Lard, which is literally just a stack of cubes of store-bought lard.

Like the work exhibited in After Presence, the Mackenzie’s assistant curator and curator of 13 Coyotes Michelle LaVallee said the work of Poitras has political undertones that deal directly with how the viewer “experiences the work.”

“It’s not necessarily going you’re to leave with possibly any new knowledge,” LaVallee said, “but it’s more to experience the work, to really reflect on the works and what they’re speaking to. The history, reflect on your relationship to the history, to this land, to this area, to Saskatchewan.”

Much like After Presence, 13 Coyotes asks people to consider not only their relationship to the artwork, but their relationships to each other in relation to the First Nations community.

“We’re very aware of the institutional and on-going racism within Canada, but particularly within Saskatchewan as well, and the issues that are coming to light here,” LaVallee said. “In some cases [in the show] it’s very literal – the histories that he’s looking at, asking the viewer to question the mainstream narratives or the histories that we know or things that have happened in the past and our relation to these things. And depending on the viewer’s background, or knowledge base, everyone will be able to interpret something differently about it.

“I think that’s the main thing, to really challenge people’s perspectives, not necessarily in a negative way or a confrontational way, but I really think just engage people to think about things and why he might be working, and why has this artist been working with these themes and issues for two or three decades. Why do we have to keep addressing these things?”

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