Sunday, June 1, 2008

Prairie Artsters in Regina: May 2008

In town for the Prairie chapter of the IMAA Conference, I was taken aback by the small town charm of Regina, Saskatchewan, having only heard that the city was a smaller version of Edmonton, had one of the worst neighbors in North America, and continued to brood in deeply embedded and unresolved issues concerning the First Nations population.

To be fair, I was only in town for a few days, and from my observations, the downtown itself seems to be in a state ready for change, as was the “worst” neighborhood in question, streets lined with frozen meat shops and tiny bungalows ready for demolition, brown glass shards scattered every few meters, and an internalized isolation apparent in some areas more than others. A perfectly flat city for bicycling around, with a handful of coffee shops selling homemade cookies with jam, the art galleries and art communities would also yield one surprise after another.

The neighborhood shop and gallery on 13th Avenue, Mysteria, featured mostly regional artists in its ground floor retail space and upstairs gallery space including David Garneau, Heather Cline and a roster of exclusively Saskatchewan artists. Catching the Cathedral Arts Festival while in town, the crafty independent works along 13th Avenue would balance a lasting impression of Regina as a small town arts community (the amount of hippies and drum circles and fire dancing was eye brow raising) with visits to the Dunlop, Neutral Ground, and MacKenzie that realized their reputations as some of the finest public and artist run galleries in this country.

Image credit: Pandora's Box installation view, May 20, 2008, photo: Trevor Hopkin

The Dunlop Gallery inside of the downtown library has been a significant centre for researching and showcasing contemporary art works from around the world. The current exhibit, Pandora’s Box, continued to showcase high caliber international artists such as Laylah Ali, Amy Cutler and Kara Walker alongside Canadians Shary Boyle and Annie Pootoogook, amongst others including local artists in a thematic exhibition curated by Amanda Cachia. From Walker’s first video work with highly charged racial and sexual content in her famous shadow works, with shadow puppeteer transparently visible throughout the work, to an array of 2D works re-imagining the myth of Pandora through constructs of power and international identity and self-representation, the exhibition was certainly one of the most cohesive and daring programs I have seen in any public library. As a relatively small cube with high ceilings and a blacked out window directly inside the public library’s checkout counter, the Dunlop exists as a true public space devoted to challenging ideas, free to the general public as it should be, with even a small reading area stacked with relevant art books and magazines to peruse, marking an active and conscious step towards encouraging and building the public’s art knowledge.

Visiting Neutral Ground, one of the most notable new media arts centres in the region, international artist Chiyoko Szlavnics performed new recordings from research completed at the Heating and Cooling Physical Plant in Regina, field recordings of birds at Buffalo Pound Park and from other locations throughout Regina. From Szlavnics’s description that does accurately describe her live performance of sound and projection, "The electronics will relate to these soundscapes in terms of pitch/duration, contextualizing, re-contextualizing, or reframing the content of the recorded material through superimposition and/or juxtaposition. As a live work, superimposition might take the form of a single sine tone moving through the recorded material (like a line across a photograph or painting), or be very dense chordal material that masks the original recording. There will be an interplay between electronics and field recordings with changing degrees of importance/predominance of the two throughout the work." Although never too exciting or engaging to witness, this particular new media performance and artist did yield a worthwhile informal artist talk back connecting her work to the city and community that she continues to collaborate with over the years from her homebase in Germany.

Unprepared for the MacKenzie, complete and utter awe over the breadth and contrast of simultaneous exhibitions would inform the entire experience. Catching the tail end of Let Me Be Your Mirror featuring pieces by Nicolas Baier, Chris Cran, Adad Hannah, Ken Lum and others and inspired by Edward Kienholz’s National Banjo on the Knee Week, head curator Timothy Long propels the question of our collective self-reflexivity from 1960s North American pop culture and on to our current state.

Image credit: Kent Monkman Théâtre de Cristal (Montréal), 2006-07 Photo credit: Guy L'Heureux

Flowing into a retrospective on cherished landscape painter Dorothy Knowles and a display of works from the MacKenzie permanent collection that was relatively disappointing and expected from its early Joe Farfards to less popular prints and editions, the adjacent entrance of the permanent collection room led visitors to a back corner of the gallery featuring Kent Monkman’s Miss Chief: Shadow Catcher. Best known for his alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testikle, Monkman’s gorgeous Theatre de Cristal with a painted inscription surround the installation projects his short film The Group of Seven Inches from a ceiling chandelier inside of a crystal beaded teepee. Kneeling around the overturned buffalo hide that doubles as a screen to the inversion of colonial narratives and ethnographic portraiture, the viewer is fully immersed into Monkman's world. As Miss Eagle Testikle, a play on "egotistical," Monkman challenges contemporary Aboriginal visibility with grossly dark humour on how Aboriginal cultural has been visually portrayed and performed in art history’s canon. Organized by the MacKenzie’s assistant curator Michelle LaVallee, Miss Chief: Shadow Catcher was the stand out gem of the weekend. Visiting all four exhibits, in a layout that ran seamlessly from one gallery space to the next, including a back gallery space of textiles and ceramics, the MacKenzie seemed to encapsulate a region and its identity and politics into one succinct experience.

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