How does one picture an absence?
To some, this might be an academic question—an opportunity to dust off the Derrida.
But to me—someone who lost a parent at a young age, whose ancestors migrated widely and often—this question can have a visceral quality. It evokes the distressing phenomenon in which one knows something is absent or lost without knowing quite what that thing is.
Linklater’s style—as evinced the silent film Modest Livelihood co-created with Brian Jungen and now on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario—already tends to be spare. He leaves a lot of space around the objects and images he presents, space that some may read as empty or void.
Yet Linklater’s presentation in the MacLaren is more spare than even he originally envisioned. A wall text indicates that Linklater hoped to take a 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee—his family car until late this summer—and have it stripped down to its frame by its regular mechanic. Then, he hoped to exhibit this frame in one of the MacLaren’s galleries alongside other elements. The project (as the wall text puts it) “deconstructs the jeep’s problematic model name, which stereotypically associates land and nature with Indigenous cultures.”
Shortly before the exhibition’s opening, it became clear Linklater’s initial plans were not going to work. There was no way to get the auto body into the gallery in one piece.
So, inside the MacLaren, one finds the large plinth where the stripped-down Jeep was to be exhibited; four small prints documenting the mechanic’s work; two large images from a Hitchcock film; and an intervention in which one of the gallery walls has been painted dark grey.
Outside, in the gallery’s courtyard, is where the Jeep’s remains are. This makes the car viewable from one of the windows in Linklater’s exhibition; a set of stairs leads down to the courtyard, too, but its door is used only in emergencies. Though incidental, these conditions exacerbate the sense of something being absent in the gallery—something viewable yet inaccessible, proximal yet distant.
Interestingly, this outdoor placement of the Jeep—originally named a “Grand Cherokee,” remember—gives presence to a web of common yet uncomfortable instances of cultural appropriation, expectation and exchange in the area.
Initially, the Jeep provides an engaging counterpoint to John McEwen’s Striking Stone (2009), a steel-and-granite silhouette of a wolf that has been installed in the courtyard since July 2012. The MacLaren website indicates that McEwen believes “our prohibition of recognizing ourselves as animal poses an inherent obstacle to humanity’s full realization.” Yet it’s Linklater’s industrial object—branded and marketed to have an outdoorsy, “noble savage” appeal—that is being returned to nature. Even in the first few days of the show, a ferning, lichen-like rust had spread over the automobile. Leaves were captured in pools of ice inside. This degradation of the car will continue over the run of the show, while McEwen’s wolf remains frozen in mid-prowl.
Other unsettling readings of Linklater’s piece come into focus when considering the massive, 70-foot steel sculpture which dominates Barrie’s Lake Simcoe waterfront and serves, for many residents, as a symbol for the city. Titled Spirit Catcher and created by artist Ron Baird (who lives on the opposite side of the lake), it was commissioned for Expo 86 and then acquired by local art patrons as the first piece ever added to the MacLaren’s permanent collection. As a plaque near the waterfront details, “Baird responded to Expo’s theme of communications with an image of the Thunderbird, the messenger for carrying people’s dreams and desires to the Creator.”
Spirit Catcher is viewable through a second window in Linklater’s MacLaren exhibition, where it looks small, from a distance, but raises big questions: What if it is the dream of one people to not have their culture appropriated by another? And what if it is the dream of another people to continue appropriating for reasons they feel are honourable? What is the wild in North America, and how much are First Nations peoples still expected to represent that wildness? How does that expectation get translated into consumer products like automobiles, professional athletic teams, and, yes, art?
While I can’t answer these questions, I’m grateful to Linklater’s installation for highlighting them anew—and with complexity. As the wall text states, “Here, Linklater acknowledges his own contradictions and compliance with systems of consumerism and identity, and similarly prompts us to consider our own complicity.”
During a related artist talk at Georgian College, Linklater spoke about visiting Newfoundland and feeling the palpable absence of the Beothuk. He also said that as a student, he attempted to emulate Norval Morrisseau, but discovered that he couldn’t match the master’s painting skills.
In light of such comments (and this may be my own form of appropriation, or obsessive Hitchcockian looking) I wonder whether it’s possible to view the stripped-down Jeep as a structure of curved lines—a body that Morrisseau, in an alternate universe, might have filled with a variety of hues until its voids made up a vibrant whole—as well as a container of empty promises and civilizations lost.