The breaking down of White construction

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A blinding exhibit uncovering hidden truths. Jorah Bright

An exhibit at the Mackenzie Art Gallery that breaks down myths surrounding White authority and privilege

From August 6 to November 13, 2022, the Mackenzie Art Gallery presented an exhibition called Conceptions of White. The exhibition was curated by the Mackenzie Art Gallery’s Executive Director and CEO John G. Hampton and the Gallery 44’s Curator of Exhibitions and Public Programming Lillian O’Brien Davis. 

Conceptions of White focused on White people, centring in on ideas of the “White race” and the myths behind it. It follows feelings of “white guilt, anxiety, supremacy, benevolence, fragility, and power.” It sees Whiteness as something created by colonizers and something that has been socially constructed. 

Seeing this exhibition curated by Hampton and O’Brien Davis was incredible. The setup was great; it was impactful. You walk into a room filled with white. White statues and white art pieces. Black backgrounds to offset it. Every use of colour feels deliberate.

The use of white made the exhibition feel open, larger than it truly was, but the placement of the art pieces balanced that openness and made you truly look at what was there. It all melded together, it was one cohesive exhibition, but when you stood and looked at one piece, it was separate. It created that perfect mix of collection and individual. 

The very first piece you see when you walk in is called Portal. It’s a minimalist piece by Robert Morris from 1964. When you walk through this archway, this portal, made from solid white, you walk into the Conceptions of White exhibition. You’re walking through a portal into an entirely new space, a space where everything is familiar yet different. The archway itself is familiar yet different. We walk through so many archways and passages in our everyday lives, but this one stands out. It’s a clear archway with no walls around it, and it’s broken down to its bare essentials: two sides and a top to connect it. Something so simple leads to something so profound. 

The next thing I saw was the statue. The statue was a plaster replica of the famous sculpture Apollo Belvedere. Because it’s a replica of something so famous, the statue holds a feeling of uncanny familiarity. “The father of Art History” Johann Joachim Winckelmann saw the sculpture in the Vatican, made of pure white marble and “equated the […] sculpture’s whiteness with white skin, and proximity to perfection.” He said that “as white is the colour which reflects the greatest number of rays of light, and consequently the most easily perceived, a beautiful body will, accordingly, be the more beautiful the whiter it is.”

Winckelmann’s ideology about the colour white helped implement ideas that White people are the superior race because of the colour of their skin. While this is obviously not true, Winckelmann’s ideas highly influenced the social construction of Whiteness. 

Past the statue, I looked at Nell Irvin Painter’s Ancient Hair from 2019. It was an image of Painter’s original installation from New Hampshire. The piece discusses the ideas of historical Whiteness. The idea is that people of ancient civilizations could not have been White. She looks specifically at hair and the differences between hair in statues and sculptures compared to the hair of people who were claiming that the statues were of White people.

After that was Love and Loss in the Milky Way, a piece by Fred Wilson from 2005. According to the description of the piece, “New York-based artist Fred Wilson is known for creating meaning by bringing various objects into proximity to one another.” The arrangement of objects in Love and Loss in the Milky Way consists of a table, two busts, a sculpture of a woman, and 47 various objects that look like cups, plates, and vases. Everything next to each other brings up the question: why? Why does the woman stand above all else? Why are certain objects facing one another? What is the meaning of the placement of each object? I could have spent hours staring at this piece, questioning every element of it and what it means.

Afterward, I looked at Deanna Bowen’s White Man’s Burden from 2022. White Man’s Burden is full of newspaper clippings and images about White supremacist groups in Canada. It shows how these groups view themselves as better than everyone else. It also shows how black and white their thinking is, because those pieces are in black and white. The further down the wall you look at this piece, the more colour starts to emerge. The more you see different kinds of people and the things they do. Bowen melds together Canadian culture, the idea of who you are and why, through this piece. You can see “the relationships between the people, events, and concepts within the material.”

Then, I looked at Ryan Kuo’s File: A Primer. This was a very interesting installation. Instead of images, sculptures, or videos, this was an animation. It was an animation that showed how systems often work, how societal systems keep inside of themselves the things that work for them and they often don’t make space for change. They keep their values and the things they see as important while rejecting everything that doesn’t match. Kuo does this through a file that continues to get more and more full and chaotic while it struggles to keep order within itself. When it can’t do that, it reverts to a simple, blank file. The animation was simple, yet impactful and incredible.

I was utterly fascinated by what I saw next. Whitesimple by Jeremy Bailey. Whitesimple is an installation of something that relates heavily to Gen Z: AR filters. I see these constantly on TikTok and Instagram; filters that tell you what kind of pie you are or which Spice Girl you would be. Bailey’s work is about social issues, ideas of race, and ideas of performative activism. The first reads “Enjoy discomfort. Became more approachable in seconds.” When you walk up to it, it prompts you to smile; the more you smile, the more a meter bar fills up and then prompts you to do it again.

The next reads “Check privilege. Learn whether you’re special or just lucky.” When you walk up to it, it spins a wheel and says either “undeserved or deserved.” You get whatever it lands on. Then, there was “Get curious. Vocalize your own ignorance.” This causes a circle to appear over your mouth reading “Say ‘I know nothing.’” and microphone dots to listen to you say it. Finally, there was “Stop talking. Never share an uninvited opinion again.” which made a mute button appear over your mouth. This was one of my favourite pieces because it related to me and my generation. It relates to things I see online every single day.

That wasn’t all that was in Conceptions of White, but I didn’t want to give away everything. Unfortunately, by the time you read this, Conceptions of White will have closed, but the Mackenzie Art Gallery always has new exhibitions coming in, and there’s sure to be something for you.

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