CURRENT ISSUE | WINTER 2018: CARE AND WELLNESS
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Q&A: Haema Sivanesan on Centre A & Vancouver Scenes

Much attention in Vancouver has been focused on the fate of the Vancouver Art Gallery, which is looking to move to a new, expanded site on Cambie Street. But smaller organizations vital to the scene are also making significant changes. Centre A, the only public gallery in Canada dedicated to contemporary Asian art practices, is currently presenting its inaugural exhibition in its new Chinatown space. Centre A executive director Haema Sivanesan is also offering fresh perspectives on the Vancouver context, having moved to the city in 2011 following positions at Toronto’s South Asian Visual Art Centre and Australia’s Art Gallery of New South Wales. Here, in an email interview with Michael Turner, Sivanesan discusses cultural translation, local challenges and alternative Vancouver art histories.

Michael Turner: My theory of the Vancouverite is based not on those who can trace their family’s residency back three or more generations (like the New Yorker or the Parisian), but those who come to this city and, as quickly as a single weekend, find themselves indifferent to that which they were curious about, and seduced by that which they took for granted. (This contradiction, which usually involves Culture at one end and Nature at the other, is the engine that can both define and drive the Vancouverite.) You have been in Vancouver two years now. Given what you knew of the city before you arrived, what are some of your surprises or disappointments?

Haema Sivanesan: I have a theory about Australia (which is where I am from): that it is a place where people go to forget. And there seems to be something true about this in Vancouver, certainly amongst immigrant communities who come to this city looking for a safe haven; perhaps also amongst Canadians who have moved here from “out east” or elsewhere.

It is always an adjustment to move to a new city. Each city presents opportunities and challenges. I’m not sure if there are any particular surprises or disappointments. Vancouver does have an amazing international profile. I would love to see this city leverage this profile to attract investment, build the economy and build more opportunity.

MT: For as long as I have known Hank Bull [founding director of Centre A], he has described Vancouver as an Asian city. The Vancouver I was born and raised in (in the 1960s and 1970s) felt very much like a British city—the Union Jack was as ubiquitous as the Canadian flag, and there were cops with Scottish accents. While I am aware that observations such as these are particular to identity and context, I am also aware of a tendency many of us have, inadvertent or otherwise, to reduce—whether to produce an essence or a proposition, whether to generate a conversation or to end one. In your time here, is there a particular conversation that you find lacking?

HS: I would agree with you that Vancouver feels very British—I think that is reflected as a social attitude, but also in the instrumentalizing and managing of multiculturalism. This governmentalized, top-down approach to dealing with diverse communities may be well-intentioned, but it is celebratory and uncritical and ultimately disempowers communities.

I am curious, for example, that there is a culture of self-segregation amongst Asian communities and groups in Vancouver. My sense is that despite the large Asian demographic, Vancouver has not developed a culture of pluralism. Amongst artists, Asian cultural histories and perspectives rarely seem to inform the production of work.

That said, I’ve not yet had a chance to do many studio visits, so perhaps I will be proven otherwise. I’m not sure that the art community in Vancouver, for example, is particularly aware of the enormous critical and cultural discussions that are emerging across the Pacific. It would seem relevant for Vancouver artists, academics and cultural organizations to be better connected to these developments.

MT: When I am travelling, and the topic of Vancouver art comes up, I find myself providing additional histories to the only one that many outside this city are familiar with: artists for whom photography and conceptualism are conjoined. One history I enjoy sharing is Vancouver’s intermedial legacy, where Asian-Canadian artists figure prominently. The expansive salons of Roy Kiyooka in the early 1960s; “Mainstreet” gang leader Paul Wong in the 1970s and 80s; Laiwan, who founded the Or Gallery in 1983; and artists today, like Vanessa Kwan, Ron Tran and Instant Coffee’s Jinhan Ko. Is this local history—this intermedial history—important to you when inviting international artists to participate in Centre A’s program? Or do you see Centre A more as a place through which to introduce local audiences to what is otherwise absent with respect to local production? If it is a bit of both, please talk about that balance.

HS: The essential issue—I believe—when inviting artists to show in any city is a question of translation: will the work translate from one cultural context to the other?

This is as true nationally as it is internationally, given that the Canadian discourse is so regionalized. How and where do ideas connect, and where can an exhibiting artist offer new ideas, new approaches, new challenges to existing discourses and practices? I think these are important issues to consider.

I’m not especially knowledgeable about Vancouver’s particular art history, but I am interested in the work of a number of the artists you have mentioned. What would it look like to have one of them collaborate with an artist from Indonesia, Taiwan or India? How would that shift the working paradigm from a North American conceptual-art framework to developing a receptivity to other histories, paradigms and perspectives?

While the artists you name may be ethnically Asian, the framework that they work within is essentially a North American paradigm, not an Asian paradigm. I am aware that many artists in Vancouver would like to be better connected to the very exciting developments in Asia. It seems to me that these kinds of dialogues and exchanges are going to be necessary and inevitable for artists in Vancouver to participate in a larger discourse, to access a larger audience, and to continue to challenge and develop their practices.

MT: Centre A chose to open its new space with a much-anticipated—and much-talked-about—work by Khan Lee: a single-channel fixed-perspective video that features the artist carving a diamond from a block of ice on Vancouver’s waterfront at sunrise. In looking at Lee’s Hearts and Arrows in relation to the gallery’s move, I see it as an overture, an indication of things to come. Since we have been speaking so generally, I would like to hear your thoughts on the work, especially now that it has been up for a while, and if its reception has changed the way you think about it.

HS: This exhibition came after an intense period of change and uncertainty for the organization, so in many ways we also saw Khan’s piece as an overture of a type—a new dawn, a new beginning, optimism. It has been a very fitting exhibition to reopen Centre A at its new location.

The piece itself is extraordinary—Khan’s meticulous and considered approach, his sense of discipline as an artist and the multivalence of the work. He is effectively working across three mediums: sculpture, performance and video, with remarkable attention to both vision and sound. When you are showing a piece like this in a small gallery, as staff you live with the piece for the duration of the exhibition. And this has been a very comfortable work to live with in the gallery—the various registers of the work have continued to unfold over the period of the exhibition.

MT: In addition to changing venues, Centre A has undergone some board and staff changes in the last few years. Could you talk about these changes in relation to the future direction of the gallery on an organizational level?

HS: The environment for the arts in Vancouver is extremely challenging. This includes the pressures on real estate, poor funding and the lack of arm’s-length arts councils to support the specific needs of each art form, let alone develop the strength of the cultural community.

The changes at Centre A reflect the economics of the city. They are financial and strategic to the extent that we need stability. But relative to Centre A’s expansive mandate, the changes also reflect, I think, on the situation of the visual arts in this city.

In terms of future direction, Centre A has a lot of work to do to build the value of contemporary Asian art in this city, and to further cultivate wide interest, respect and curiosity for other cultures, other values, other histories and other perspectives. I think Centre A is much better known and recognized across Asia and internationally than it is in its own city.

Centre A’s inaugural Chinatown-space exhibition, “Khan Lee: Hearts and Arrows,” continues to July 27.

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