CONTEXT AND CATALYST
The Art Gallery of Ontario. Walker Court. Nuit Blanche sans Banque Scotia.
We are situated in Walker Court, home to Anishinaabe artist Robert Houle’s installation Seven Grandfathers.
It is a transitory yet social space. Viewers are directed, like a school of fish, down into the basement and back up, passing through exhibitions before discovering what they came here to see: Rebecca Belmore, working away at a flat composition of clay behind a soft TensaBarrier, the kind found at airports. She is applying clay carefully in a rectangular grid that lines up with the marble stones of the floor. The clay, dug up from the Red River Valley in Manitoba, is both drying in spots and being re-applied, wet, with her hands, over the course of the night.
The situation appears to be a solitary woman working away with natural materials. She is surrounded on all sides by us, a viewership, who talks away while observing from a higher level. We are divided into little groups by pillars, looking as if from a series of patios.
The gallery can be such a curious, or such a fucking cold, space. On this Night of White, whimsical dismissal and spontaneous engagement seem to be the two dominant modes of the art audience. The former involves a distanced evaluation of whatever is contained in the space, a focus on its persistent appearance in the context of the gallery. The latter is, ideally, invested in personal, sensory contact, which could subvert the exhibition space, and the colonial context through which it exists. Belmore’s work, as curated in this space, seems to do both, and thus brings about polarized experiences. It seems meant for those who either know too little or too much about the visual arts.
Belmore’s feet are covered in clay and her simple black outfit is marked up with clay handprints on her backside, presumably from having supported herself at some point. It becomes clear that while Belmore is working or moving across the clay, she makes sure only to step on the dry areas. Every once in a while she would sit and simply be among her creation.
Sometimes people who are invited to see their surroundings differently simply interchange a few semantic neurons here and there. They never land in the place they’ve found themselves in long enough to relate to it on a felt level. I have trained in holistic, therapeutic bodywork, including a practice called somatic experiencing. I have had the privilege of being dissociated—a psychological and/or physical detachment from one’s surroundings as a kind of coping mechanism—while also remaining present to it.
Unfortunately for many, an experience with disassociation is so subtle that not only is it difficult to perceive, but it also makes perception itself difficult. Bodily sensation in certain areas goes numb or disappears, often as a protective response. Proprioception, or the mechanisms by which our bodies tell us where we are in space, is so relative that we may wake up and forget that we ever felt any different. If our surrounding culture does not help us to process our adaptive responses, this can quickly become normalized and habitual. We may actually go out of our way to achieve dissociation, because it is the easiest thing to do.
The contemporary gallery defends itself as a critical space, but I maintain my curiosity surrounding cultural institutions that have historically normalized the act of dissociating from one’s environment, exchanging first-hand life experiences with largely singular-vision white-male fantasies, projections and interpretations. This is the part where I identify myself as one of those white males. (I even grew up in the church, another symbolic legion of patriarchy.)
When a person walks into a room where the artist’s work attempts to change the perception of the very building and its history, does the person see the place, the artist and/or the tension created by the situation? My experiences over the course of the evening told me that, more often than not, either the place or the artist becomes the subject of objectification. This seems somewhat predicated on race and gender. With one notable exception explained below, I only heard white males speaking offensively and dismissively about Belmore’s work.
As a dance artist, I noticed an absence of my discipline at this year’s Nuit Blanche. For me this feels a bit as if the body of the artist has been forgotten. Perhaps this is why I returned again and again to Belmore’s work. It’s not that I believe in the dancer or choreographer as any kind of authority on embodiment. But in meditating on and with the work for several hours, overhearing and engaging in a number of conversations, I couldn’t help but wonder whether dance audiences might be more inclined to empathize with the sensorial exchange being engaged here. Or was it female audiences? Or queer audiences? Or non-white audiences?
How cuttingly clear it’s becoming that normativity is how colonialism performs itself.
OPINIONS, CHARACTERS, INTERACTIONS
I am stoned. Over the course of the night, a network of presumably intoxicated subjects, some known to me and others unknown, make offensive, reductive comments about Belmore’s work. I will refer to them here only as he/him/his and she/her.
Belmore stumbles for the shortest moment.
He says, “Well, I guess she’s drunk too.” He is drunker than he knows, this being Nuit Blanche, and so is half the audience.
He is concerned for the next few hours that the artist has heard this comment.
“Who’s going to clean this up?” he asks.
He wonders how much she’s getting paid, without ascribing value to the experience, having paid no price of admission.
He doesn’t like the pauses between her actions, speaking as if he really expects her to be performing a performance for us (as she re-claims the space for her people for 12 hours.)
He tells me how this work feels quite different from Belmore’s past performances—it lacks darkness and intensity. “I like it better,” he says of this new work. Moments later he says something he admits to considering offensive, following up with, “It’s okay; I’m an art history major so I’ve got cred.”
He is disappointed because he had looked Belmore’s work up online and was hoping for something more morbid.
“Maybe she’s feeling hopeful,” I say.
He complains that Belmore is not looking at the audience. I let him know that at one point she made eye contact with me. He takes this as an excuse to dismiss both his previous comment and the work, muttering something about how she has broken the fourth wall after all. He then promptly leaves.
He is very loud, and at one point begins to question whether Belmore can hear him in particular, though it is obvious that she can in general, even among the hum.
The first time people clap just before leaving, they are on the second floor. The action seems short-lived but somehow celebratory. The second time I witness applause, it comes from a larger group who stands at the central point, where people would usually enter. This group’s position seems to give them authority.
He claps slowly and evenly in a tone that registers, to me, as condescendingly mocking.
Belmore comes and sits on her bucket, in the corner of her rectangle clay composition closest to us, and begins to bang on the bucket like a drum. Later, after two of us return and watch for a considerable length of time, we realize this action is an isolated event. Is it in response to his cacophonous and discordant sounds?
She is trying to get Belmore’s attention, banging her water bottle on a railing. I ask my friends whether I should go talk to her. She continues. All of a sudden I am beside her, and by the time I arrive she is literally climbing over the barrier. Several people are concernedly attempting to get her to stop, but mostly through their facial expressions, and by saying, “I don’t know if you should do that.” I ask her, head on, what she is doing and why.
She is baked.
Her response is something like, “We are all agents of transformation,” which she repeats several times.
She wants to talk to Rebecca, she says, and turns to the performance space again, with a friend gently holding her back.
“Rebecca’s already decided what it is that she’s doing here,” I attempt. “And since you can’t just go up and talk to her like a human, banging your water bottle to get her attention makes it look like you think she’s an animal.”
She repeats, “But she’s white, she’s a white person,” over and over. And then, “Why do you think you’re better than me as a white person?”
I say, “I don’t think I’m better than you; that’s why I feel like this.”
I return to my friends. My legs are shaking a bit.
I try to imagine what might have happened had she crossed the barrier.
Would she have ventured onto the wet clay? Perhaps slip or trip?
Did she really want to talk to Belmore?
Did she really expect that banging her water bottle on the rail would cause Belmore to come over and talk to her?
Did she want to enact the power of affecting the behaviour of someone who appeared to be in a world unto themselves?
What would this performance have been like if there had been no barriers?
Would people have taken off their shoes and walked on the clay?
Would they have helped to continue its application or use it as a novelty to cover over more and more space, further from its source?
(OMG the colony is everywhere.)
Or, would people simply have watched?
Would they have been quieter, more respectful?
Did the difference in height make us spectators to something that was asking us to participate with our senses?
At one point, a splotch of clay landed just over the hard-lined boundary that Belmore was re-covering. The audience gasped. Though it seemed like a rule had been broken, she continued on uninterrupted, not making any attempt to smooth over or correct the form that had incidentally taken shape. Had an audience member broken the membrane of Belmore’s wider performance space (which included buckets, rags and several water bottles), would she have been able to continue on as if nothing had happened or would the intention and integrity of her space have been compromised?
How long would it have taken the performance’s sole caretaker to remove this person from the space?
I see a link between the boundary or frame that Belmore created for her clay ground painting at the AGO, and the similarly shaped boundary defining the space within which the public can observe and be with the performance. While Belmore is painting she remains inside of her rectangle. It would have been easier for her to apply the paint from beyond the bounds of her space, as she would not have had to negotiate staying on the dry areas while slowly moving across the length of the clay canvas. Was she opposed to leaving footprints, or does her choice to work within the boundary tell us something about staying within the space one is working on, defining or referring to?
At first I saw the containment of the composition as an art-object dead space, one that her agency was working to keep wet. But when I consider a version of the work where the clay is applied organically, without boundary, I think again of boundary-less, borderless capitalism, forgetting the containment and sense of place demanded by, for one, a potentially sustainable future.
Rebecca Belmore was and will now forever be remembered as building a ground in that space. Those who could not withstand the charge of this ritual of rooting flew further off into a land of pretend. Rest in peace, white artist man.
Robert Kingsbury is a Toronto-based, multidisciplinary artist working in the frame of conceptual experimental dance. He writes music, text, records and edits video and is a therapeutic bodyworker.