Victor Wang: Walking through your exhibition “SPIRITLANDS: t/HERE,” I observed that much of your work is autobiographical, focused particularly on the exploration of memory and family. For example, your work Mnemonicon (The Screen) (1988) features images of your daughter as part of an investigation of motherhood, while Transfigured Wood (1984–6)—which I first saw in the Surrey Art Gallery’s “Mechanics of Memory: Installations by Marian Penner Bancroft and Stan Douglas” catalogue from 1986—contemplates your family’s place within British Columbia through the use of images and structure. Could you perhaps speak a little about how you have used art as a vehicle in exploring your own history?
Marian Penner Bancroft: Photography has always been, for me, a natural vehicle for investigating the past—seems ironic—but each image does itself instantly become historic. With Mnemonicon (The Screen) I wanted to use a structure which expressed something of the mediation that occurs in the construction of the female imagination—the screens upon which are projected the ideals and the actualities which sit right below the surface, i.e. the printed page, the television, the view from the car.
Transfigured Wood is a four-part installation that looks at not only my family, but also at the specifics of British Columbia and some of the forces at work in its short history as a colony. My own history is not particularly unusual—pretty typically Canadian if you are not First Nations, with parents, grandparents coming from elsewhere. And so that work came from a need to understand the effects on my own imagination of those movements of humans across the globe and the material history of a place. This involved looking at the landscape and both its real and imagined histories.
VW: I’ve also noticed a strong structural component in many of your works. What led you to “come off the walls,” and how does this movement away from the wall affect photography? In what ways does it change the traditional role of photography as a documentary process?
MPB: What led me to “come off the walls” was a desire to involve the viewers’ bodies in the experience of the photograph in the gallery—to create a situation of overlap between pictorial and actual space. I think this movement away from the wall affects one’s reception of an image, allowing the possibility of contemplating not only its content, but also its structure as an object. As a viewer, you are implicated—your movement in the space matters and becomes part of the process of constructing the meaning of what’s in front of you. For a time, the documentary photograph was received as an image with “truth” value. That no longer holds, of course, although the “folklore,” as Allan Sekula calls it, persists.
VW: Vancouver has produced several successful male photographers. Do you believe in the existence of a woman’s view in photography, separate from the masculine gaze? How have you used photography as a medium to explore female identity?
MPB: Vancouver has produced a lot of photographers, men and women—each with a distinct perspective, some more conventional than others. You can find the “masculine” gaze in the work of women and a “female” gaze in the work of men. What I think about the practice of photography is that with its short history, it invites a range of applications that is broader and more permissive than, say, the masculinist history of an art form such as painting allows. The rules have not been around long enough to become fixed, leaving it open to being combined with sound, video, text and sculpture. And that’s what works for me. I’ve used the medium to explore not so much “female identity” as the construction of my own imagination and identity as a white colonial Canadian female with cultural roots in a number of different places. That exploration involves research that looks at economic, educational, institutional, political and social factors, all of which contain specific histories in relation to women.
VW: One of your works which examines gender, and its construction within social institutions such as the educational system, is BLIND/MAT(T)ER (1990). Can you elaborate on how you combined free-standing structures and photography in this piece?
MPB: I think of the title as a fraction with the word BLIND underlined and MAT(T)ER underneath, and I pronounce it “blind over matter.” In this installation, I’ve used the structure of the two-sided portable blackboard and made five of them from cedar (the original school blackboards here were made of heavier fir). Above them are five more photographs, which are hinged to the wall at the bottom and angled out at the top with short lengths of chain. These mimic two things: the transom windows found above classroom doors, never meant to be seen through but really intended for ventilation, and the 19th-century salon style of hanging pictures high in order to accommodate more pictures in an exhibition. The wall-hung photos are all of material objects: a fish carving, a camera, a fossilized clam, a tamarack goose decoy and a prehistoric hand maul, all of which are constructed impressions and, with the exception of the fossil, humanly made.
Each blackboard has a photo on one side, a graphite rubbing on the other. The photographs are of objects with ambiguous value, a value dependent upon what you might perceive as a need: a car, a hydro pole, a clear-cut, a dead deer, a map. On the other side are rubbings from the surfaces of my studio walls and floors: Gyproc, fir, tile, linoleum and plaster (it was an old building). From the simple act of rubbing graphite over these surfaces, one gets an appearance of landscapes or moonscapes. One remove is all it takes for an image to appear that has nothing to do with its referent.
All of these blackboard-like structures have wheels, are mobile and can be continually rearranged and reconfigured. There is no single “right” way to install them. It depends on the given space.
I think I was trying to dislodge the idea of authoritative fixity in delivery of knowledge and our apprehension of the material world. I wanted to dislodge this in order to allow for the entry of undervalued wisdom, the obvious kind that we usually ignore when it’s expedient, for example: that cars pollute, that electricity complicates the environment, that logging destroys habitat and so on. All the images have small one-word copper labels attached to the cedar frames. Copper, while the material of Canada’s lowest currency, is, in the form of a shield, a symbol of great wealth and an object much revered in the original cultures of the west coast.