Bearing witness: Governor General’s visual arts laureates ask much of the viewer

The National Gallery of Canada announces cancellations of summer show and biennials of contemporary art.

The first thing you see when you walk into the Governor General’s Visual Arts Awards exhibition at the National Gallery is a life-sized buffalo, circled by what seem to be crouched figures wrapped in buffalo hides.

Are the mysterious figures stalking the buffalo as prey, or paying it reverence from a submissive position? As with all successful art, the interpretation says as much about the person doing the viewing as it does about the piece being viewed.

Beyond Redemption by Adrian Stimson. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The installation is by the Siksika (Blackfoot) Nation’s Adrian Stimson, one of the laureates for the 2018 Governor-General’s Visual and Media Arts Awards whose work appears in this annual exhibition. While there’s no defining theme to the exhibition — the eight laureates work in a wide variety of media and inspiration — there is coherence in the grouping.

“Loss, memory and trauma” are cited in the exhibition notes, and curator Rhiannon Vogl says the themes are considered “in relation to the human body — on a micro, or even cellular level,” while “others explore historical and personal suffering that has resulted from sociological stigmas, government regulation, and culture shock.”

So there are domestically intimate photographs by Vancouver-based artist Sandra Semchuk, titled Residential School, Camperville, Manitoba. The photographs are of hands, lands, homes, and people. Across the sequence are printed the words, “I do not know the bond connecting one heart to heart to heart as did my father, his father and their grandfathers. I am witness.” The viewer too is witness, and must decide, to what?

Toronto artist Bruce Eves’s Leviticus is nine photographs of what appears to be a dry, cracked sea bed, with the word “no” superimposed throughout. Leviticus is where the law was laid down in the Old Testament. So, an eternal struggle of personal, spiritual interpretation?

There are videos from Toronto’s Midi Onodera, and exquisite pottery by Saidye-Bronfman Award winner Jack Sures, of Regina. There’s a cabinet of archival peeks into the career of Vancouver curator Glenn Atleen, for his career contributions (so far) to visual arts.

Then there is Spring Hurlbut, whose contemplation on death is so unexpectedly . . . well, uplifting.

In the Victoria era, Hurlbut notes in an interview, “there was proper mourning time, you were expected to attend funerals. There was a much greater formality and also social pressure to honour the deceased. Now it’s a very different landscape.”


Spring Hurlbut. Peewee #3, 2007. National Gallery of Canada. Photo: National Gallery of Canada.

Hurlbut “wanted to do something that was secular, but something that was meaningful to me, and that was to investigate the ashes of my late father, James.”

Hurlbut had her father’s ashes in her Toronto studio for five years. Finally, she decided to photograph them.

“When I began this process, I didn’t even think I could call it art. It was just something I urgently needed to do for myself.” But when she exhibited the photographs for people who had allowed her to use the ashes of their loved ones, “it turned this very sombre affair into a cathartic experience.”

Catharsis, indeed. There is something joyful in Hurlbut’s photos of ashes, a profound statement on the mortality from which we all cannot escape. On the video of Hurlbut produced by the Canada Council for the Arts to accompany the exhibition — videos on each of the artists are on the council’s webpage and are worth seeing — the ashes of one deceased person curl up through the air as if dancing not just in the presence of death, but in spite of it. To witness it is to feel a thrilling freedom, a sort of unexpected immortality. It is art transcending life.

Some of the ashes are of her late husband, the photographer Arnaud Maggs, who died in 2012. In one photo Maggs’ ashes look like a giant nebula in deep space. Other ashes are from Peewee, a poodle that belonged to Canadian artist Wanda Koop. Peewee’s ashes form what looks like a drop of water filmed at high speed.

Bodies in space, motion in water: Hurlbut’s photos testify that we are ephemeral, that we are elemental, that we are the universe and it is us. Ashes to ashes . . .

Stimson’s buffalo installation, by the way, is titled Beyond Redemption. The title, like the work, calls upon viewers to interpret it, and to reveal something about themselves, about how we live with ourselves, how we live with others, how we live with death, and die with dignity.

The exhibition continues to August 5. See videos of the artists at

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.