The Canadian Art Database

Yam Lau

Theodore Saskatche Wan, or Posing with Another

C International, Toronto. Issue #89, Spring 2006, pp.30-35.

Life After Art and Life
I came to Theodore Wan's work as if by chance, but then, perhaps not at all. The Chinese Canadian artist/photographer died at 1987 the young age of 33. Despite its brevity, his life/work has managed to leave some indelible impressions on a few who have kept it alive (1). Meeting Wan thus is not to meet him alone, but also with those from many walks of life whom his various personas and work have touched.

Two interrelated directions propelled his work: the invention of personas which allowed him to implicate and invite himself into other lifestyles, visual systems, and procedures; and his ability to multiply the currency of his photographic work, such as the self-portraits that also functioned as medical illustrations, both within and outside of the art circuit. There is a sense of poignancy here. Taking up Wan's work today, for me, is an less an opportunity to promote or draw out some new interpretations of his work, than to testify to a certain manner of working and living that was beautiful. Here we see a practice that continues to fascinate, the unfolding of which was set into motion by the inner resolve of the man and not the career artist. For Wan, after making his initial splash in the late 70's and early 80's, did not publicly announce anything he did after 1981 as art, even though he continued to photograph subjects that exerted for him a long-standing fascination. When Wan died in 1987, his extensive archive was necessarily left open-ended, the ambiguous status of its materials seeming to have exceeded even the all-inclusive art and life paradigm.

Coming to Wan almost twenty years after his death, my impression of him is sealed by his last self-portrait presented in the traveling exhibition catalogue. The portrait is shot in a conventional commercial studio setting in which Wan, posing with casual dignity, documented the progress of the cancer that killed him (fig.1). Here we see the contemporary artist completely at ease with the ethos of conventional commercial studio practice. On this last note, I came to regard Wan's life and work, including his silence and withdrawal from the art world, as a remarkable project. Surely it is the aspiration of many artists, Wan included, to traverse the aesthetic and ethical boundaries between art and life. But I am glad that Wan also saw no need to list everything he did within this dichotomy. However complex the motivations behind his decision to stop producing art, Wan did not stop producing. He continued to work as a commercial photographer on the one hand, and explore photographic subjects that were important to him on the other. One may speculate that at some point the question of art and life no longer weighed on the artist as a necessary measure. Is it possible that the usefulness of such distinction became redundant, or to imagine that Wan operated outside of it in his last years? These are questions that produce no definitive answers, but remain important to look at in order to highlight other possibilities. Regardless, the fact that Wan had lived through or was still living through such questions at the time of his death makes this otherwise conventional last self-portrait before his death doubly beautiful.

Living Other Lives
Wan immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong in 1967 when he was 14. Soon after, his mother was remarried to a businessman who operated a funeral home in Vancouver's Chinatown. Wan worked in the family business and maintained a close tie to the Chinese community in various capacities throughout his life. Certain values of Wan's, such as his closeness to his family and his sense of obligation, are traditional to Chinese culture. Holding onto these values as a contemporary artist must have given a particular nuance to his practice. Coming from a religious family, He studied Theology for one year. He later received a BFA from the UBC in 1975. After a qualifying year in NSCAD, Wan received his MFA in 1977. There, Wan was a part of a generation of artists who attempted to introduce a measure of subjectivity into the vocabulary of conceptual art practice. It was at NSCAD where Wan produced his most well known work, the "Medical" series, which I will discuss in greater detail. Wan eventually returned to Vancouver in 1979 and settled there until he died of cancer in 1987. During this period Wan started an alternative gallery called Main Exit and continued to exhibit his work, until eventually both enterprises were "dropped". Archival material and testimony suggests that Wan might have been working towards resolving some materials as artwork just prior to his death.

I believe, in coming to Canada at 14, Wan must have been as fascinated by the alternative lifestyle of the artist as I was. Although I am from a later generation of the same cultural background - coming to Toronto as a teenager in the 80's – I remember vividly seeing through the streetcar window artists installing "interesting things" late at night along the galleries on Queen Street. These scenes helped to cultivate my desire to live and work differently from the value system within which I was brought up. Being an artist was not so much about practicing art, as I knew almost nothing about it, but more about a feeling that it was essentially associated with alternative values that are not available in traditional Chinese culture. Christine Conley told me Wan questioned whether he would be able to support his parents as an artist, just as Chinese offspring are expected to do even today. On the other hand, when Wan commenced his art education in the 70's, it was an especially interesting time to be practicing art. At that time being an artist meant having to assume the persona of the artist, which in turn, entitled the impersonating artist to assume other personas with ease. It was a game of identity. One may recall the pseudonyms of General Idea and Mr. Peanut, and the exuberant scenarios that were generated out of them. In this sense, to be an artist was to take part in multiplying one's identity in life. This also meant that, to be a good son and a respectable member of the Chinese community such as Wan was, could also be compartmentalized as one of the roles assumed by the artist amongst other, even conflicting, ones. For Wan's interest in porn stars, nudist camps and exotic dancers were certainly at odds with his Christian/Chinese value system.

Being and Being with Another
Wan entered the art scene and at the height of such activity at UBC. Taking up a common strategy of the time, Wan fabricated a number of personas to implicate himself in different life styles such as nudist, exotic dancers, and medical photographers, etc. that fascinated him. One may notice that Wan's continual fascination with the body as a site of erotic fantasy, pleasure, factual knowledge and discipline relates these seemingly disparate lifestyles. Wan, was into body building and produced an early piece entitled I Did it in Just Ten Minutes (fig.2) that underscores many of his on-going interests and strategies. The work hyperbolically deflates the notion that selfhood is no more than a secondary effect that can be produced by an exercise regime intended to glorify the body as a spectacle. In line with the conceptual practice of the time, this work usurps the seat of subjectivity with the artless format of pseudo scientific documentation, as well as advertising layout and humor.

In the early days at UBC, Wan's first assumed role while a student was Mr. Normal, a figure whose formal attire of suit, tie and hat deliberately contrasted with the casual dress code of the time. A more drastic move later at NSCAD involved officially changing his name from Theodore Fu Wan to Theodore Saskatche Wan, after the name of the village Theodore in Saskatchewan. The event was advertised in the local newspaper. Later, Wan produced for this project a postcard of the town in which he had included himself in the lower right corner (fig.3). The postcard was sold at the local village store for tourist. Here, behind the obvious humor and ingenuity of this performative gesture, Wan delivered himself to the "condition of the abject" as Christine Conley interprets it, to identify and experience himself as, in his own words,

    "a piece of land, the extreme passive state of just lying there (the victim's position). It was also making a fool of
    oneself to be laughed at, with the assumption that the audience (which includes the layman who came (sic) across the
    newspaper advertisement) would think that it was a foolish act. Changing the name legally in a sense is like being branded.
    It required a kind of commitment, in other words, not to feel sorry for one's action."(2)

Behind Wan's multitude of personas and the impersonal aesthetic typical of conceptual practice, one sometimes can sense a personal crisis that could only be articulated through such oblique gestures.

In of his work, as in the photographs taken on nudist beaches in BC, Wan stood at the threshold, participating as an observer behind the lens of his camera. One may say that the camera lens facilitated a kind of mediation, binding Wan to his subjects but only at a certain distance. Thus, what might have been personal and subjective is expressed through the "objective" procedure of the photo-conceptual art practice of the time. Another persona of Wan's, "Theo" was accepted as a photographer into the milieu of the Vancouver strip clubs. Theo documented the acts and lifestyles of the performers for his personal interest, while at the same time made a living out of preparing portfolios for his subjects. One such example is his photograph of Krystyne Kolorful, a performer who held the Guinness Record as the most tattooed female in the world (fig.4). Those who knew Wan as Theo were not aware of his "real" name, and/or his activity as an artist. This surreptitious maneuver was consistent throughout Wan's practice.

His entry points into other lives were thus a combination of his pseudonyms and photography, which for all the apparent humor of the personas and the formal beauty of the artwork, strategically functioned as a kind of interface between different lives and practices. It is not only photography as an artistic product that is at issue, but the way that the medium is deployed and mobilized as a conduit between different practices, as well as between Wan's subjective and objective measures and expressions. One might say that, although Wan was able to move across these personas and practices throughout his life, his insistence to compartmentalize them in their proper sphere without "blurring the boundary" (a profitable pretension within contemporary art practice) was a means to maintain a sense of their normalcy, autonomy and integrity – that the life-style of the exotic dancers, for example, was to be regarded as legitimate, deserving and as well, fascinating. For this, I admire Wan very much.

From Art to Trade
Surely, the sheer volume of his photographic output testifies to Wan's interest in the body as a site of multiple fascinations. He was scrupulous, however, when it came to selecting from what amongst his work would be elaborated as an artwork. Sometime, during his final year at NSCAD, Wan seized upon a most interesting opportunity. Using the protocols of medical illustration as a reference, he produced a series of large-format, black and white "self-portraits" that were not only "medically correct" but were also valid as medical illustrations. In some cases they were actually used as such. The titles of the series are hence descriptive, Bridine Scrub for General Surgery (fig.5), Arm Placement, Basic Surgical Positions, Bounded by Everyday Necessities (fig.6). Some of the photographs were later included in his MFA exhibition and became his most celebrated work.

Wan gained access to the facilities at the Dalhousie Medical School and the support of the staff in exchange for a set of his prints being used as teaching aid. Here we see Wan achieve a level of competence not only as a photo-based artist, but also a medical photographer. Indeed, Wan worked as one after graduation from NSCAD. Hence, the medical series are not merely aesthetic substitutions of the "real thing"; they also managed to satisfy the protocols of the medical profession and earned a certain currency in that field.

Much has been said about these series as inverted ready-mades, that they succeeded in putting the artwork into social circulation, as teaching aid or illustration. What interested me was that by producing these photos, Wan had demonstrated, by acquiring the necessary skill of a trade, respect for another discipline and its procedures. In other words, doing a "good job" as a medical photographer, or as a commercial photographer of exotic dancers, became the aesthetic and ethical measure of HIS conceptual photo-based practice. As this direction develops, it seems that, for Wan, satisfying the protocol, and hence earning admission to the community associated with the trade, has gradually supplanted the need to make some superlative, artistic statements above and beyond the practice of that community, as would be generally expected from the artist. According to Wan, the role of the artist here is almost superfluous.

In the Bounded by Necessity I series, Wan edited out a photo in which he had pictured himself lifting up the nurse's skirt as she strapped him in the apparatus. The erotic tension in this out-take would have been welcomed as very interesting material in the art world. Such an obvious gesture, however, surely conflicted with the clinical "objective" principles of medical illustration, which Wan had adopted as a final measure. The importance of trade photography is reiterated, as one may recall that in his last self-portrait Wan chose to present himself in the setting of a commercial photography studio, as the "subject" of a commercial photographer (which was also Wan's current trade) with great poise and equanimity. Yet, I wonder if such a self-reflexive gesture might already have opened up a different space?

The Medical Series
In the Medical Series, Wan explored the body as it is subjected to the disciplinary procedure of medical science. In Bounded by Everyday Necessity I and II the body, deprived of all agency, is valid only insofar as a component serving the function of the Stryker Frame and Circ-O-Lectric Bed. These series are in fact meant to document the proper use of the medical instruments using Wan's body as prop. Here, Wan once again evoked the abject and the horizontal state of the body as in the earlier work Untitled (Hornby Island Performance) (fig.7) in 1975. In this work, Wan was suspended naked from four posts for "as long as he could stand the pain" while assuming the voice of a preacher as he read from an Old Testament Treatise on the vanity of all things and all human endeavors. One may also recall the changing of his name to Theodore Sakesche Wan in order to identify himself with a flat piece of land.

Both Christine Conley and Cindy Stelmackowich have offered excellent analysis on these series. Here, however, I would like to raise the question as to why Wan needed to mortify the body, or reduce it to no more than an accessory within an intrusive clinical procedure? Perhaps, for Wan, to humble the body in such a manner was a kind of spiritual "training"? Might we not consider Wan the body builder on the one hand, and Wan the Theology student on the other, as both pursuing the glorification of the body while simultaneously seeking to mortify it in search of higher values? If it is already evident that Wan's unique practice enabled him to embrace contradictory values, then the Stryker Frame and Circ-O-Lectric Bed are akin to a certain kind of gym equipment such as a treadmill, albeit a negative kind that instead of enhancing the physical body, debase it in order to drain it of its pretension and self-assurance. The Medical Series are thus a special kind of self-portrait that undermine the narcissism inherit in that genre. It enacts a spiritual exercise/workout for Wan's contradictory directions, methods and beliefs.

1. Among those who knew Wan I am most indebted to is Christine Conley. Her work on the artist includes a traveling exhibition and catalogue, research on his archive, and the production of a CD-ROM, which contains an extensive presentation on Wan's work, including interviews with individuals who were associated with him at different points in his life. The traveling exhibition entitled Theodore Wan opened on January 2004 at the Dalhousie Art Gallery. It was subsequently presented at The Ottawa Art Gallery, Liane and Danny Taran Gallery of the Saidye Bronfman Centre for the Arts and the Vancouver Art Gallery.

2. Excerpt from Wan's M.F.A. exhibition statement, 1978.

The author wishes to thank Christine Conley, Susan Gibson Garvey and Gordon Lebredt for their generous support.

C International, Toronto. Issue #89, Spring 2006, pp.30-35.

Text: © Yam Lau. All rights reserved.

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