NORTH ADAMS, Massachusetts — Framed on the faux-log-cabin wall of Kent Monkman’s piece “Two Kindred Spirits” (2012) (which depicts the American western characters of Tonto and the Lone Ranger as lovers in a sort of Horatio/Hamlet life-sized diorama death scene) is a hand-embroidered phrase: “The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name.” This Oscar Wildean quotation also encapsulates the ever-nuanced Canada/US relationship, and may give us a clue as to what’s really up with our neighbor to the north.
It is no coincidence that Monkman, who is of Cree First Nations (the Canadian term for what American’s call Native Americans) descent, also has a performance alter ego named “Miss Chief Eagle Testickle.” Miss Chief, in his words, represents “a person of the third gender: She is an empowered diva who drop-kicks the colonial experience in her seven-inch stiletto moccasins.” And although she doesn’t make an actual appearance in the exhibition Oh, Canada at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) her presence is nevertheless felt. Exhibition curator Denise Markonish clued me in to the fact that if you say “Miss Chief Eagle Testickle” quickly it sounds like “Mischief Egotistical.” As this wordplay hints, tricksters may well rule this show.
A lot has been postulated about Canada’s national “identity crisis,” both from without and within. In his essay for the exhibition catalogue, the late scribe David Rakoff notes that Canadian ex-pats in America “pass immediately” and “slip undetected into the normative culture.” By “normative culture,” I believe Rakoff was implying the kind of homogenizing assimilation that bubbles away in our own melting pot. But more than that, perhaps he was speaking about a mercurial, decidedly Canadian, proclivity for tolerance and adaptation.
I asked some Canadians myself what they thought. Toronto-based independent curator, Earl Miller put it like this: “Canada has always had an identity crisis of sorts. We don’t know how to define ourselves.” But to that, I have to ask, don’t know how, or simply don’t want to? After visiting Oh, Canada I find that what on the surface might seem like an inability in actuality is a bit of a ruse coyly deployed on seemingly innocent viewers like me. Rather than being unwilling to define themselves as a nation, Canadians (and the artists shown in the exhibition) prefer instead to watch with a wry smile as they let us try to peg and pigeonhole them.
At first, when she began to lead me on a three-plus-hour tour of the exhibition, I thought curator Denise Markonish was trying to entice me into emigration. She kept mentioning seemingly impossible things like government funding for the arts, individual artist grants, freedom to experiment, college educations for under $5,000 dollars a year, and “open” systems that help young artists get a leg up.
In Oh, Canada this sense of experimental freedom and risk-taking is expertly culled by Markonish. Given that the Canada Council on the Arts helped fund the exhibition and catalogue (which doubles as a textbook, but thankfully, one that’s really fun to read), is a testament to Canada’s bold support of its own artists and their art. As Alberta artist collective The Cedar Tavern Singers put it in their theme song for the exhibition, the lyrics of which Markonish lovingly recited for me, “What is contemporary Canadian art? Something called universal healthcare? That sounds so crazy, it must be art.”
There is a scene Douglas Coupland creates in his novel Generation X in which a father tells his son, who has just spilled gasoline all over, that it smells clean, “like the future.” Given the reality of extracting the oil in the Alberta tar sand and a would-be pipeline running due south, Terrance Houle’s “Iiniiwahkiimah,” a black vinyl bison that seems to be dripping up the wall from several quart-sized oil containers, is a fitting commentary on a future that links our two countries. Even Divya Mehra’s neon sign/sculpture proclaiming “WE MADE IT IN AMERICA” offers a layered riddle about this complex relationship. Metaphor pulls no punches in Patrick Bernatchez’s video “Chrysalide-Empereur” depicting Ronald McDonald sitting and smoking in a car as it slowly fills with water set to a soundtrack by Montreal’s Godspeed You! Black Emperor. I could have watched it for days.
I feel it is my duty as a painter to point out that some had criticized Markonish for not including enough painting in her exhibition. I don’t know from what century these critics got their definition of painting, but I certainly found a lot of painting in this show. In Wanda Koop’s gorgeous painting installation “LOOKUP,” I see a painter trying to sample the vast Canadian landscape — it leads me to ponder where painting ends and prairie sky begins.
There are more painterly moves, like in Ruth Cuthand’s Surviving… series. She uses native beadwork and the somber drape of a traditional portraiture backdrop to depict the colorful structures of virus cells, some used infamously by European colonists upon the native peoples of the Americas. Chris Millar’s “37OH55V” (2011), an elaborately intricate architectural microcosm, is made almost entirely out of acrylic paint that has been sculpted into miniaturized objects in a psychedelic world. Even when working with something with as much baggage as painting, Canadians continue to play with the plasticity of identity, even as it pertains to a particular medium.
“One of the most surprising things I found was the use of methods and materials,” Markonish said. “At a time in the US and Europe where we’re still finding ourselves in that unmonumental-anti-aesthetic-relational period, these Canadian artists are such makers,” she noted, citing the grant system as a possible cause of that difference in sensibility.
As New York’s industrial art market complex, wrings itself out and rebuilds in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, will it simply be a matter of time before it is once again business as usual? Will galleries take time to reflect on this system and re-envision it in perhaps a more open way? Will the smaller, more daring galleries be able to reopen at all? What about Nonprofit spaces? Will the hierarchy just build higher?
I think we in the United States can learn a lot from how the Canadians get things done. We must envy their tolerance, their social contract, and their support for the arts and each other even if they don’t share a common “identity.” These characteristics seem to be built into the very fabric of their national character. And that may be the rub — that national identity is indeed formed by how others view a nation’s values and actions. I think the Canadians have known that all along, they’re just too damn modest to brag about it.
Perhaps, now that Denise Markonish is the unofficial Canadian Art Ambassador, she can put in a good word for us to Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, and if we’re lucky, Miss Chief will slink down across the border to tempt us to call into crisis our own identity and our fidelity to our oh-so-normative culture. Compared to Canada’s courageous national support for arts, we still have a long way to go. And despite the sense of relief I feel for Tuesday’s election results, I just might have to move up north anyway.
Oh Canada runs at Mass MoCA (87 Marshall Street, North Adams, Massachusetts) through April 8, 2013.
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