Susan Edgerley’s Shimmer is the first thing you see when you walk into this year’s exhibition for the Governor General’s Awards for Visual Arts at the National Gallery.
Shimmer doesn’t command attention with bigness or brightness, instead, its display is subdued, lightly illuminated from above, so you must lean in to see its breathtaking delicacy.
Bare wisps of glass, are formed into a spiral of what look like stylized swans or egrets, with elongated necks and thin, yellow-orange beaks. Or perhaps they’re tendrils of fire, glowing, crackling — Shimmer is open to interpretation which seems more the realm of art than craft. Edgerley, from Val-Morin, Quebec, is the winner of the Saidye Bronfman Award for Excellence in Fine Crafts.
There are eight laureates for this year’s awards, including Ottawa’s Jeff Thomas, identified on the website as a “photo-based storyteller,” which seems about right.
Thomas is an urban Iroquois who was born in Buffalo, New York, but by now is as much a part of the Ottawa arts scene as mineral veins are part of the rock escarpment beneath the city. For this exhibition, the curators (Adam Welch, Nicole Burisch and Jasmine Inglis) have chosen photographs from Thomas’s Indians on Tour series, each of a figurine of a “North American Indian” in traditional dress posed before backgrounds that are redolent of indigenous history, from downtown Chicago to Champlain Lookout in Gatineau Park. They are at once proud and sad, leavened with a resolute wit.
There’s a different sort of humour in laureate Andrew James Paterson’s videos. Paterson, from Toronto, poses himself as arts bureaucrats in conversation with each other, and the result is hilariously banal. Another video is a TV ad for a food supplement for artists who are too busy to eat. Be productive!
It’s a stark contrast to its neighbour, from Toronto artist Stephen Andrews. His representative work for the exhibition is wall of dozens of portraits of friends who had died of AIDS-related illnesses by the 1990s, based on photographs that were sent to him by fax. The faxed images dropped a lot of detail of the faces, and Andrews’ graphite-and-wax portraits “mimicked the faxed transmissions to emulate the fragility of memory.” Row by row, his dead friends seem to fade into the blackness. Below the photos is a player-piano scroll of Auld Lang Syne, with the names of each lost friend.
Unless an arts award has a specific aesthetic or cultural theme, an exhibition of work by the winners is necessarily a mixed bag of media, subject, and emotions. Here there’s a bright and loose material installation by Cozic, the Montreal duo of Monic Brassard and Yvon Cozic, and two photographs by Marlene Creates, who lives on “a six-acre patch of Newfoundland Boreal forest.” Creates’ photographs are of elderly people, each accompanied by the person’s spoken and hand-drawn memories of the land. “This is where we used to fish after we was married,” says one. “When I was young like you I never thought I would be an old woman,” says the other, in what’s surely a universal sentiment. Being old is inconceivable to the young.
There’s a display of the career (to date) of laureate Lee-Ann Martin, who was curator of contemporary Canadian aboriginal art at the Museum of History in Gatineau. Martin’s work is seen daily in two of the museum’s greatest permanent installations, including Alex Janvier’s massive mural Morning Star, and Mary Anne Barkhouse’s namaxsala, a life-sized bronze wolf in a copper canoe, floating in a pool aside the main building.
Finally, Ali Kazimi’s seven-minute video is in 3D, or as it says on the wall panel, it’s stereoscopic. It’s titled Fair Play, and it refers to a 1914 incident when 376 Indian British subjects were held on a ship for two months off Canada’s shores “as immigration officials sought to maintain a hidden ‘whites only’ policy of exclusion.”
I put on a pair of the 3D glasses and wonder, why am I wearing these? In each scene, Asian models sit quietly, peacefully, still or near so while eating lunch, reading, resting.
I realize what the format provides is not only depth and a sense of space, but also a vibrantly realistic light and colour. It’s like walking through a museum of classic western paintings. In one scene two men are in an old, plain wooden house. One man in a turban reads by the light of a small window, while the other sleep on the lower bed of thick, wood-framed bunks, and wrapped in a red blanket. The diffused light and rich drapery of the blanket makes me think of Vermeer, while the jutting bed frame reminds me of the skewed interiors of Van Gogh.
In another scene, a woman sits on the corner of a cot and looking through a vintage stereoscope, while a man sits on the other corner of the cot, lost in thought. The man and women face away from each other, in a room of painted walls and base mouldings, all softly illuminated by fading sunlight through the white-framed window. This is Edward Hopper, with his scenes of melancholic isolation recast on a scale of global politics.
Kazimi, born in India and based in Toronto, has created a thing that is as deeply beautiful as it is deeply sad. I could watch it all day long, sitting in the darkness with our old Canadian colleagues shame and hope.
The exhibition continues at the National Gallery to Aug. 5. Visit ggavma.canadacouncil.ca for short videos about each of the laureates.