This summer, Carleton University offered a course specifically on Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art, led by Sheena Ellison. The students came to CUAG earlier in the summer for a tour of Rebecca Belmore | What is Said and What is Donewith curator Heather Anderson and wrote reviews of the exhibition. Sheena was kind enough to send us a few to post here. First up, Jennifer Browning.
Rebecca Belmore: What is Said and What is Done / Curated by Heather Anderson
Purposefully sparse and stark in appearance, the Carleton University Art Gallery (CUAG) satellite exhibition of the National Gallery’s Sakahàn features a select range of works by Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore. The works presented in What is Said and What is Done, curated by Heather Anderson, provide just a glimpse into Belmore’s great scope as an artist. The varied use of media in Belmore’s works, including photography, sculpture, video, and performance, corresponds with the varied themes and symbols she uses in her work, and it is striking how these variances remain apparent despite the small collection of works presented in the exhibition. It was Anderson’s intention to maintain a sense of sparseness with the exhibition, and with only five works featured, the exhibition space initially seems exceedingly limited or vacant. However, when moving through the space, the sense of physical sparseness becomes effectively balanced by the weighted presence of each of Belmore’s works. Belmore presents opposing or contradictory thematic forces in her works, such as tensions of ugliness and beauty, past and present, and civility and incivility, and the austerity of the exhibition space draws a similar tension that steadies the thematic heft of the works selected in What is Said and What is Done.
Anderson wanted to include The Great Water (2002) in the exhibition because of its grounding nature, and this piece, along with the video installation March 5 1819 (2008) asserts the main thematic elements of Belmore’s work due to the physical presence that they command in the small exhibition space at CUAG. March 5 1819 is a video installation with two screens on opposing walls displaying a re-enactment of the capture of the Beothuk woman Demasduit and the murder of her husband in 19th century Newfoundland. Competing for the viewer’s attention, the dual screens create a sense of physical immersion in the trauma being enacted. When positioned between the two screens a feeling of disorientation and anxiety presents itself, as you are compelled to follow the images on both screens in a manner that almost becomes frantic. The disorientation and anxiety conveyed in the video’s action extends itself physically to the viewer through the physical engagement and immersion required by the work.
After moving away from March 5 1819, the audio from the piece remains with the viewer, aggravating the sense of anxiety felt when watching the piece initially. Although no longer able to see the action on screen, sounds of the violent pursuit could still be heard when looking at the other installations in the space. The trauma experienced by Demasduit in March 5 1819 extends itself throughout the exhibition space with sound, and with its continued presence, the work establishes both a thematic and historical trajectory that is supported by the other installations in the exhibition. Just as the audial experience of March 5 1819 remains when looking at the other works in the exhibition, traumas of the past, such as those experienced by Demasduit and the Beothuks of Newfoundland, persist over time and affect our present day experiences. The grounding physicality of The Great Water that Anderson hoped to instill, coupled with the persisting experience of March 5 1819, connect the other works in the exhibition to the allegory of past and present traumas experienced in colonial and post-colonial Canada. Rather than detracting from the other pieces in the exhibit, the continued auditory experience of March 5 1819 provides a necessary thematic connection that otherwise might have gone unnoticed due to the small selection of works chosen for the exhibition.
As the themes in Belmore’s works make connections between opposing forces, Anderson’s intended use of sparseness in What is Said and What is Done provides balance to the complex depth of Rebecca Belmore’s art and the tensions she explores. It is interesting to note how such a small exhibition can so effectively assert its own thematic intension, especially in comparison to the great scale of Sakahàn at the National Gallery. The intimate exhibition at CUAG, stands in contrast to the main exhibition which, when considered as a whole, seems overwhelming in scope. In Sakahàn, while individual works may be obscured by more memorable or greater statement pieces, the works included in What is Said and What is Done have space to stand alone with the strength of Belmore’s work. Facilitated by the visual and auditory influence of March 5 1819, Anderson curates a space where past and present traumas experienced by Aboriginal Canadians remain physically real.