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Nathan Coley CAG Show Offers Chance to Reflect on Vancouver’s Problems & Prospects

Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver November 22, 2012 to January 20, 2013

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery, a unique cultural institution that—like Centre A, the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery and Presentation House Gallery—sits, at least budgetarily, between the monolithic Vancouver Art Gallery and Vancouver’s numerous and vital artist-run centres. However, unlike Centre A (with the “A” for its contemporary Asian art mandate), the Belkin (an organ of UBC) and PHG (focused on photographic practices), the CAG is ostensibly the most open, free to operate within that most amorphous of terms—the present. Also worth noting is that for a gallery that defines itself as a purveyor of the now (“contemporary”), it has a rich and difficult history, one that parallels the larger city’s passage from union mill town to libertarian resort through its transition from commissioning institution to (in 1984) artist-run centre, to (in 1996) “the only independent public art gallery in downtown Vancouver.” (The gallery now shares that distinction with Centre A, which, unlike the purpose-built CAG, will soon be without a building.)

The CAG’s 40th anniversary also marked the arrival of its current executive director: Nigel Prince, a former curator at the UK’s Ikon Gallery who, while in Birmingham, helped develop shows by Vancouver artists Roy Arden (2006), Steven Shearer (2007) and Ron Terada (2010). This latter point is something I remind Vancouverites of when they wonder aloud if the CAG has, over this past year, become a node in the European art circuit, or when they ask, What is the connection between some of Prince’s exhibitions and contemporary local practices? Yet while I, too, wonder aloud at some of Prince’s exhibitions, I am also aware that the answer lies less in his selections than his own curatorial history. Indeed, Vancouver’s current question is one that might well have arisen among Birminghamians when introduced to the work of Arden, Shearer and Terada. Such queries are faced by many contemporary art galleries that seek to elide the temporal linearity of “What’s next?” through the circulation and exchange of today’s art made by today’s artists.

It was with some degree of relief (and humility), then, that I read the news of the CAG’s current exhibition, “Nathan Coley: Knowledge, Kindliness and Courage”—which, in addition to gallery displays, would include a scaffolded and illuminated text work to be placed atop the Downtown Eastside’s newly restored Pennsylvania Hotel (the CAG is located further west, in tony Yaletown). But since it was the Glaswegian artist’s gallery work I saw first, let me begin there.

Those familiar with the CAG will know that its display areas consist of two galleries, with a front desk lobby between them and a series of slightly recessed vertical window boxes that form an “L” along its Nelson Street exterior and a portion of the alley to the west. Of these two gallery spaces, the largest and perhaps more spectacular is the high-ceilinged Binning Gallery, where Coley has displayed a series of decommissioned tombstones and grave markers; some of these are grouped together, while others lean against the walls. Beneath these markers are wooden two-by-fours, which act both as plinths and as devices to assist in their transportation (like the histories inscribed on them, these markers radiate weight).

I had two thoughts upon entering the Binning Gallery: that the installation had an aura of desecration and, more calmly, that there appeared to be a cross, so to speak, here between the installation strategies of Sam Durant and the date paintings of On Kawara. But as horror trumps familiarity, I gave myself over to the former and stared with dread at these stone faces yanked from their landscapes. Their names, like the eyes of a face, are routered out (far deeper than their initial engravings required) while their dates and some other details remain. As to the question of how these now anonymous memorials were acquired, is it possible that cemeteries, like every other business in our current neo-liberal moment (where cradle-to-grave security is itself a potential ruin of the market-state) will one day become, quite literally, a thing of the past?

If the deleted names on Coley’s memorials are erasures, then the gold-leaf applications on his black-and-white giclee prints in the CAG’s Balkind Gallery are redactions. The first gold-leaf application obscures what looks like a war memorial, while those that follow do the same over placard texts carried by protesters (peace movements, Occupy?) in London and Vancouver.

Although the viewer can accept the relationship between the (erased) cemetery memorials and the (redacted) photos, the presence of the war memorial sculpture in relation to the protesters’ (likely peace-seeking) placards adds a new dimension, allowing the unseen content of both the sculpture and the placards to form their own dialectical relationship. Of course, if the viewer has also visited the concurrent Ian Wallace retrospective at the VAG, they might note Wallace’s use of the monochromatic field not as a redaction, but as a Benjaminian dérive—a space that, in Coley’s case, allows us to imagine from where in history this war memorial is rooted and for what, in the future, these protesters are so afraid of.

There are also two other works in the Balkind Gallery. One is an outsized reproduction of a web page about a mangrove forest paired with a re-inscribed newspaper clipping of an African proverb. The other is Coley’s oft-exhibited video of Münster churches, “shot” not from a Lancaster bomber, as they were during the Second World War, but from a helicopter hired by the artist.

Coley’s aerial views remained with me as I approached the Pennsylvania Hotel, stopping at the corner of Hastings and Carrall (also the soon-to-be former home of Centre A) to take in his upper-case text “WE MUST CULTIVATE OUR GARDEN,” which is affixed to the hotel rooftop. Just as Durant and Kawara came to mind upon viewing Coley’s cemetery memorials, so too did the text’s author, Voltaire, here. These words form the last line of his 1759 novel Candide, where our hero and his friends, having found the philosophical (or optimistic) life too difficult, take solace in manual labour (gardening).

What to make of this advice? Are we to consider it in light of Candide’s biting satire, or take it at face value? Also worth consideration is the resident audience for this work, which consists variously of property-owning condo dwellers, emergency shelter occupants and homeless people. (Interestingly, the area’s other public-text artist, Coley’s Glasgow-raised contemporary Martin Creed, admitted indifference to this local factor after Vancouver collector/real-estate marketer Bob Rennie installed Creed’s Work No. 851:  EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT atop his Chinatown palais a few years ago.)

If Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is a metaphorical garden of humanity, what actions might be taken to cultivate it? One reading could begin by equating optimism with the market speculation that has had a hand in the neighbourhood’s dereliction. Another could just as easily equate that optimism to the potential for its residents—the homed, the homeless and those somewhere in between—to form the kind of Edenic paradise that the young Candide was cast out of.

But maybe the best clue to future directions can be found in what hangs before us as we enter the CAG’s lobby. There, the first (and also final) work in Coley’s exhibition asks us to consider whether what lies down the road is reason or that naturally occurring blank space where erasure and redaction invert—the void. In any case, I somehow missed this stacked text on my first pass; but if life is, as Prince’s curatorial tendency suggests, more a circle than a line, perhaps it is appropriate that I end with it: “A PLACE / BEYOND / BELIEF.”

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