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Cathy Busby: All Apologies

Cathy Busby We Are Sorry: Laneway Commissions, Melbourne, Australia 2009 Installation view

When Nova Scotia artist Cathy Busby selected public apologies as a medium, she knew that she would never face a shortage of material. Modern sensibilities—and modern anxieties—have transformed the public apology into a favoured contemporary ritual.

Busby’s artwork Sorry, showcased this spring at Whitehorse’s Yukon Arts Centre, featured 18 recent apologies, each represented only by a media image of the mouth of the speaker blown up to near-abstract proportions. (Sorry was also previously shown at the Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery in Halifax, the McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton and the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.)

Through aggregation, Sorry prods at the growing “formula” for public apologies. Whether it’s Janet Jackson apologizing for a wardrobe malfunction or former Ontario premier Mike Harris apologizing for a tainted water scandal that killed seven people, Busby gives all the mouths equal rank.

Stripped of context, the photos are strikingly devoid of emotion. Except for the perfect half-moon frown of disgraced New York governor Eliot Spitzer, all the mouths seem to drift from bored to contented to menacing.

By presenting emotion as the only discernible variable, Busby draws the viewer into an unwitting bias towards visceral emotion. In a post–reality TV world, media demands for visible sentiment are increasingly strong, and Busby makes the viewer an involuntary accomplice. Substance or significance is irrelevant in Sorry’s massive images. The only distinction is who looks best.

Fittingly, substance is at the core of the show’s centrepiece We Are Sorry, a take on the 2008 apologies to Aboriginals by Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper and Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd. Text excerpts of the apologies are displayed against a background approximating the skin tone of each leader. Stripped down, Rudd’s call-and-answer speech-style carries the beat and pace of a prayer. Harper’s comes off as more judicial, intricately laying out the government’s wrongs and asking forgiveness.

In July of this year, the dual apologies were posted side by side on the exterior of a power substation in Melbourne, Australia. For Busby, the five-year-long display is a political reminder: a blaring, building-height attempt to sear the Harper/Rudd words into public memory and move forward with the post-apology task of reconciliation.

This week, Busby is bringing a revamped exhibition of Sorry to Beijing’s Red Gate Residency. The mouths are absent there, replaced by 1960s-era photographs from the Yukon’s Carcross Indian Residential School. Taken by residential school employees, the photos show First Nations children involved in the day-to-day activities of the school, and provide an innocent, banal catalogue of one of Canada’s darkest periods.

The work in Beijing suggests a shift for Busby—from looking at how public figures say sorry to showing what it is they are sorry for. It’s a new, if related, territory that seems just as infinite as the atonements that first caught Busby’s attention.

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