Arni Runar Haraldsson
The Western Front, Vancouver
C Magazine #11, Fall 1986.
[ 1,926 words ]
What strikes human eyes determines not only the knowledge of relations between various objects, but also a given decisive inexplicable state of mind. Thus the sight of a flower reveals, it is true, the presence of this well-defined part of a plant, but it is impossible to stop at this superficial observation; in fact, the sign of this flower provokes in the mind much more significant reactions, because the flower expresses an obscure vegetal resolution. What the configuration and colour of the corella reveal, what the dirty traces of pollen or the freshness of the pistil betray doubtless cannot be adequately expressed by language. Roy Arden is a Vancouver photographer. His recent works, Mission and Black Sun form the third and fourth parts of an evolving body of work that consists of appropriated historical documents pertaining to incidents that have played a part in the socio-political development of British Columbia.
The previous work Rupture (Or Gallery, 1985) consisted of diptych panels whose lower sections comprised archival photographs of 'Bloody Sunday': the June,1938 riots that lead to the occupation of Vancouver's Main Post Office and the Vancouver Art Gallery. (1) Above each of these black and white images, Arden juxtaposed his own photograph of what appeared to be, simply enough, empty blue sky. Similarly Abjection (Coburg Gallery, 1985) focused on the persecution and re-settling of Japanese-Canadians during World War II. Like Rupture, Abjection was made complete by an accompaniment: a blank, black void — a nothingness composed out of exposed photographic paper.
This use of parergonal devices seems to function, for Arden, as a means of indirect commentary on the appropriated image, both at the level of its historical-representational value and of its status as material object. He is adamant about not providing references to his original sources. Identifying their author and locating them within a specific history would risk expunging poetic implications from the work. For Arden, it is a matter of avoiding a logocentric reading in the form of a coinage that is a quick exit — a consumption without reflection. By extracting the archive image and re-contextualizing it, Arden re-introduces it as found object. Its historically intended meaning — with all the limitations that are therefore imposed upon it — is deconstructed, opening the possibility of other meanings.
Like Rupture and Abjection, the recent works extend the accompaniment. Although the formal aspects of the project remain the same, the blank image has disappeared in favour of flower imagery in Black Sun and the symbolic connotations of the colour red in Mission.
Mission originates from two glass negatives by the Bailey brothers taken before the turn of the century at St. Mary's Mission, located where the town of Mission, B.C. is today. Arden has divided each image into three to form a series of six segments. Viewed together these six images form a panoramic effect, an effect heightened by their presentation on a wall painted the colour of dried blood. Here, fragmentation functions to emphasize detail; instead of consuming each image whole, one is lead to peruse each of the six . That the two originals are quite similar (apparently taken seconds apart) is a strategic editing choice by Arden. Their similarity invites comparison. In the course of dwelling on their differences one is inevitably compelled to take in certain subtle, yet powerful details. Dwelling from detail to detail one pieces together the components of the whole.
The subject is a passion play performed by Native Canadians before an audience composed, for the most part, of other Natives. The viewpoint is from behind the audience. In the foreground is an array of different shaped heads, varying lengths of hair, blockish shoulders, impassive postures. Indeed, the absence of physiognomy posits the question, what could they have been thinking? We only note their inanimate bodies. Several Caucasian missionaries in the audience (two have their profile to the camera) assume more arch postures of contemplation: the head tilted downward, chin resting between index finger and thumb. One wonders if these postures are sincere, or have been 'taken up' to set an example, to display the solemnity of the occasion, to initiate the uninitiated into a proper appreciation for the passion of the dying Christ.
Atop the stage are a dozen or so figures, both men and women dressed in full costume. There is something of the absurd about a Native Indian clutching a spear with an expressionless face dressed as a Roman soldier. The performance may be real, but the facial expressions captured by the camera do not appear to be mourning over a Christ who is always both dead and about to die, whose flesh may appear to be lit from within, but in reality is only carved wood, painted flesh. As for the figures on stage, their performance hints at a feigned passion combined with a touch of bewilderment.
To be sure, it is difficult to avoid romanticizing any history of Native Canadians. And Arden is not entirely innocent here with his suggestions of repression and the undercurrent idea of the Noble Savage. But his approach is a discursive one: he presents images with detached formality that trigger a subjective response. His intent hinges on an ambiguity that fluctuates between, on the one hand, our viewing these photographs as historical documents and, on the other hand, our viewing them as aesthetic objects.
Black Sun consists of ten collages composed out of microfiche photostats of The Daily Province and The Vancouver Sun, dated June 20th and 23rd, 1938 — in the aftermath of 'Bloody Sunday.' In the centre of each photostat are offset photo reproductions depicting various cross-sections of flowers. These (as the gallery press release makes clear) Arden extracted from a book, entitled From Flower To Seed, purchased for 25 cents at a library discard sale. From a distance, the bursting pods and over-ripe vegetation merge to become one with the newspaper photos and captions.
Protruding from these flower interiors and cross-sections are an assortment of sensual forms, penises and vaginas. Indeed, the sexual suggestiveness is as apparent as is Arden's prime influence here, Georges Bataille (the work's title recalls his Solar Anus). In 'The Language of Flowers,' Bataille wrote:
Yet Bataille went on to locate the sign of the flower as representing the failure of human ideals (i.e. Marxism), thus recalling a determinism that posits all human endeavour as subject to a cyclical negativity endlessly played out between earth and sky. Read in this light, Arden's flower metaphorically suggests that the incidents surrounding 'Bloody Sunday' could never have amounted to more than a temporal rupture. Like the course of the sun, the heliotropic turn of certain flowers, and sexual arousal, indeed life and death, that which goes up must inevitably come down.
The flower also partakes of mimicking that which it is juxtaposed with the captions, advertisements, and banal images littered around the depiction and description of 'Bloody Sunday.' Captions such as: 'Proud of My Boys But I Need A Shave' / 'Tea Follows Polo Matches At Brighouse On Sunday' / 'Many Attend Saturday Night Parties,' are interspersed with ads reading: 'Shoes On Credit' / 'Action Photos' (advertising the sale of photographs from 'Bloody Sunday') / 'Many Sickly Women Need A Liver Tonic' / 'Rupture' (an ad for kidney pads and doubling as a self-referential play on another type of rupture). Columns of extraneous information, at one moment perpetuating the need to consume and the next informing of some trivial proceeding, have been extracted from one section of the paper and inserted in another to show to what extent they operate as an enclosure filtering out and thus suppressing the potential language of 'Bloody Sunday' from attempting to surface through the media's screen of plurality.
To date, Arden's project poses itself in stubborn opposition to ideals of authenticity and originality. As a means of nullifying subjectivity and unmasking history's claim to the real, the accompaniment also suggests a desired authenticity that hinges on a signature style in that it separates Arden from being a mere producer of exacting copies. As an archive of history these photographs have, in a sense, been extrapolated onto what will inevitably serve as an archive of image making. No longer a single scene belonging to a particular historical period, the document is transformed into a set of relations. Transcending its historical origins, its archival limitations, it participates in illustrating a contemporary theoretical construct within a current art practice.
Arden is less concerned with photography as an individual expression of artistic creativity than he is with the idea of photography as a type of history whose course has been limited by the very institutions it serves. As such, one can speculate to what extent photography, in general, plays a part in the overall dissemination of meaning and ideology while also contributing to its limitations.
The placement of something so abstract and ambiguous alongside the archival document suggests that the integral recollection of past meaning is virtually impossible, that the identity of being and meaning is never given in the 'here and now' but at infinity.
Ultimately, Arden's accompaniment doubles as a serious gesture justified by superior obligations (a higher vision in the form of a dialectic that assumes a topological view of the world), and a cipher that plays on the viewer's subjective response while posing the possibility of some hidden meaning (one always other than what history may unravel). It accords itself the privilege of being both one and the other, and neither one nor the other. It is impossible to decide. A proposition which is neither this nor that — with regard to its object of extraction — is finally undecidable. By analogy, Arden indicates a dialectical arrangement that simply cannot be mastered. To this extent, the accompaniment becomes indistinguishable from the archival image — the emphasis must be on both or neither. One becomes the simulation of the other. Here, then, is the abolition of the difference that otherwise separates representation from non-representation, history from fiction, the private from the public.
The accompaniment does not operate as a positive concept but a necessary non-concept that undermines the linear. It is not an open invitation leading to some final summation but, instead, signals the closure of any one single reading in favour of a multiplicity. All opposites have been stripped of their difference, everything is interchangeable — there is beauty in violence as there is an ugliness to flowers. This Other is always the Same.
Like Bataille's proclamation of a scandalous eruption, the asexual noble heads of the bourgeois may indeed be chopped off — but only to soon grow back again.
C Magazine #11, Fall 1986.
Text: © Arni Runar Haraldsson. All rights reserved.
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