The Canadian Art Database
 

   

Charity Mewburn

Sixteen Hundred Miles North of Denver (1)
Iain and Ingrid Baxter / N.E. Thing Company

The Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia,
Vancouver, Permanent Collection

[ 5,832 words ]

In September of 1969 Iain and Ingrid Baxter, as co-presidents of the N.E. Thing Company — or NETCO — of North Vancouver, formed part of a small group of Canadian and American artists, curators, critics and journalists who flew from Edmonton, Alberta to Inuvik, N.W.T. in Canada's Arctic region. Over a two-day period the artists — Harry Savage from Edmonton, Lawrence Weiner from New York, and the Baxters — executed a variety of outdoor works that were documented on the spot via text and photographs by the New York curator and critic Lucy Lippard and the Edmonton visual arts professor and journalist Virgil Hammock. (2) The documentation of the Inuvik works was shown shortly afterwards in Place and Process, an exhibition of 'outdoor sculptural projects' (3) already in progress at the Edmonton Art Gallery. (4) Place and Process encompassed the performance and/or documentation of a range of mainly outdoor pieces originating both in Edmonton (actually performed there by Les Levine, Robert Morris, Dennis Oppenheim and John Van Saun, and, indirectly, Hans Haacke) (5) and at various other sites, including Inuvik in Canada, and in the U.S., Europe and Asia. The documentation of the Inuvik projects formed part of the exhibition's 'Place' component. As their contribution to the 'Process' segment, the Baxters confined themselves to an Edmonton hotel room for a designated period and documented this 'non-activity' as Nothing is impossible. Nothing is something.

As part of the Edmonton Art Gallery's multi-sited and international project, Iain and Ingrid Baxter's 'Northern works' represent one small disruption among many in the sixties re-conceptualization of conventional art practices and their displacement to sometimes extreme, excentric locations. The Edmonton Art Gallery's rarely-discussed exhibition, which not only involved bringing international art-producers on-site but also encompassed the work, via documentation, of Jan Dibbets, Joseph Beuys, Robert Smithson, Lawrence Weiner, Carl André, Richard Long and others, (6) must be seen as an early Conceptualist demonstration of the feasibility of notable art production emanating from a non art centre. At the invitation of Edmonton Art Gallery Director Bill Kirby, New York curator and critic Willoughby Sharp played the key organizational and coordinating role. (7) It was Sharp who wrote up an abbreviated documentation of the 'Process' pieces performed in and around Edmonton for Artforum's November 1969 issue. In addition, it was he who was responsible for securing Robert Fiore and Evander Schley of New York's Great Balls of Fire Inc. to produce a colour film of Place and Process that was shown through November 1969 in New York at Sharp's Kineticism Press offices. (8)

It is this situation of individual and joint authorship, collaborative staging and multiple geographical sites of production and dissemination that forms the context for the works produced by the Baxters in Inuvik. Together, the Edmonton exhibition and the Baxters' position within it played out a complex politics of geography — that is, a struggle over meaning in both artistic and political realms that relied specifically on a range of culturally-embedded notions of 'the North.' (9) While producing in the Arctic frontier for exhibition in the urban centre — Edmonton — NETCO inverted Edmonton's own marginal and northern relationship to New York, still the authoritative centre of high modernism through the figure of Clement Greenberg. NETCO's Inuvik activities made claims for the production of legitimate, even important, 'international' art from sites absurdly remote from either art's institutional centres or its conventional systems of support.

While the Baxters' own engagement at the end of the sixties represents an intervention into one of late modernism's highly contested moments, it also needs to be read in relation to Canadian self-definition through the terms of a unifying wilderness ethos. NETCO's presence in Inuvik and its representation of 'the North' through the specificity of this single Arctic town negotiated a Canadian modernist tradition arbitrated by central Canada and particularly from Toronto and the National Gallery in Ottawa. But examination of this national perspective in conjunction with the broader situation involving New York and Washington reveals other complex histories of territorial conflict. Each one of these conflicts — over economic, political or cultural control of 'the North' — foregrounds the psychic power of this strategic site.

An analysis of NETCO's 1969 Inuvik work must therefore recognize its relation to the policies of the Liberal governments of that decade, first under Lester Pearson and later Pierre Trudeau, whose pursuit of cultural regionalism aimed to diffuse the alienation of both Westerners and Quebec separatists. At the same time these cultural policies addressed a significant anti-American sentiment among those artists who felt marginalized by the institutional dominance of American high art and overwhelmed by American mass culture. These domestic moves against the effects of forms of cultural colonialism emanating from both central Canada and the United States ran concurrently with Ottawa's attempts to reestablish friendly diplomatic and trade relations with Washington in the wake of the often virulent anti-American stance of the previous Prime Minister, Conservative John Diefenbaker. (10) Such a convergence of a range of concerns forced Ottawa into delicate negotiations through matters bearing on national unity, sovereignty and bilateral international relations.

NETCO's Inuvik projects that deal with charting or mapping procedures and involve notions of directionality, measurement and the relationship of time and space (11) themselves inscribe a politics of space that both re-presents and ironically reworks the histories of many of the issues addressed by the Pearson and Trudeau governments. For example, the 'Information' format adopted by the Baxters for NETCO's Inuvik 'process' pieces (and which had been initiated a year earlier) was both serial and portable, as in the Company's project reference book, N.E. Thing Co Ltd. While this worked to undermine received notions of 'high art' objecthood and related institutional orthodoxies as they had been traditionally promoted from New York, it simultaneously mixed the culture of business and the business of culture. Indeed the new form staged work as 'visual sensitivity information' rather than art, authenticating it by the use of a company seal of approval.

As representational systems, both the map and the multiply-produced business form, which, in NETCO's production, acts as an Information support, work to reveal the commodifying practices that have historically constructed 'the North' for its southern consumers. As social geographer Edward Soja has argued, Western spatial models have over time deployed precise, objectifying languages that tend to evacuate the social dimensions of space. He has also claimed that as Western critical systems privilege history, or time, as dynamic and dialectical — that is, full of emancipatory potential — their perceptions of space as 'fixed, dead, and undialectical' set up the conditions for its exploitation and colonization. (12) If this is so, it would follow that as long as space is seen as an empty container, the lived experience of particularized space — or place — is invisible and available for reinvention. The mythic North, the site of NETCO's 1969 project, was, and is, such a space.

Within the specifically Canadian visual mythology, it is perhaps Torontonian Lawren Harris of the Group of Seven who is responsible for our most trenchant Canadian collective imaginings of the 'Far North' in this century. His paintings representing the Canadian Arctic have been reproduced, recycled and revalidated in a myriad of popular and high art contexts in both official and non-official projects. In 1930 he made his pilgrimage to the Northern Wilderness with another Group member, A.Y. Jackson, aboard the Canadian government supply ship, the Boethic. In so doing he symbolically initiated himself into the historic company of those hero / explorers whose spiritual baptism was imagined to have taken place in the 'hostile vastness' of the northern land / seascape.

Harris's interpretation of the landscape through the language of the sublime, as in Bylot Island (recently retitled Greenland Mountains), one of the paintings produced as a result of the 1930 trip, corresponds to a wider tradition of Northern representation which has stressed the region's awesome and unforgiving aspects. This characterization has taken on mythic proportions and has become deeply embedded in the Canadian consciousness through the constant circulation and reproduction of narratives associated with heroic human struggle against the formidable forces of nature. For example, the third and last Franklin expedition of 1845, lost in the course of its search for the Northwest Passage, has functioned as a central icon in the Canadian cultural identity for over a century. (13) As such, it — and by extension the 'myth of North' that was both its source and its legacy — has served an official purpose in the promotion of Canadian unity against the reality of regional and cultural conflict. Indeed, in 1967, in the midst of mounting Anglo-French tensions, the Canadian armed forces sent a 'Franklin Project' group into the Arctic in a gesture honouring the centenary of Confederation. (14)

The government ship on which Lawren Harris traveled during his 1930 sketching expedition — the Boethic — followed the route navigated by the Hudson's Bay Company's provisioning voyages in the late 17th century. Those voyages, which required the deployment of visual systems through which one could accurately record and render knowable unfamiliar and exploitable territories resulted in pictorial idioms that stressed detailed accuracy and objectivity. Thus, Harris's powerfully reductive language of the sublime can be seen as a reworking that privileges 'psychic' as well as administrative sovereignty over the North. (15) NETCO's Sixteen Compass Points Within the Arctic Circle reduces Lawren Harris's iconic image to a graphic record of an unidealized landscape, its location pinpointed on one sheet by a tiny circle on a road map of Western Canada and sixteen colour prints arranged across this and five other 'information sheets' in a panoramic, sequential order. The photographs represent the site as bland and generally undifferentiated. Each of the 'information sheets' contains a textual description consisting of the date and project number and the department under which the information is categorized, here the 'Project Department.' Under this heading appears the title of the work. The first sheet alone contains a 'description' of the project in a designated area at the bottom of the page reading: 'This compass project was carried out in Inuvik, N.W.T, Canada, in September, 1969.' The concise text, together with the gridded form's factual and scientific associations, call up the circulation of information through office memos and situates the work somewhere between art and business.

While the format parodies the pretensions of high art elitism through the blurring of received categories — whether that elitism emanates from Toronto, New York, or elsewhere — it also clearly references the cartographic grid. As cultural geographer David Harvey explains, it was the Ptolmeic grid, a system capable of charting information with a high degree of mathematical precision from a single, fixed viewpoint, that proved indispensable to the success of European voyages of discovery and profit from the Renaissance forward. (16) The Baxters' title — Sixteen Compass Points Within the Arctic Circle — calls up such a system by referencing the directional points on a mariner's compass. Rotating from a single, fixed position the16 points provide a scaffold for panoramic viewing of the surrounding landscape. What is interesting here is the way in which languages of navigation — the mariner's compass and the modern road atlas — are ironically deployed in a simultaneous relationship to construct a particular historical narrative of progress. It begins with the heroic, that is, the scientific voyages of discovery and exploration, and ends with the cultural tourism of a husband / wife suburban small-business enterprise in the late sixties. Unlike Harris's construction, which allows no human intervention to contaminate the spiritual, NETCO constructs this landscape as a relational space, its lived particularity hinted at by the odd rooftop in the distance. The casual placement of a pickup truck in two of its frames suggests the modern and industrial colonization of space via the networks of roads through which the map measures the landscape.

Going one step further, Circular Walk Inside Arctic Circle Around Inuvik, N.W.T. uses the vernacular of the unposed snapshot to represent another humourous reduction of the solitary heroic to the suburban banal. According to the descriptive text that forms part of the work's documentation, eighteen photographic frames taken by Ingrid Baxter record the walking progress of Iain Baxter, co-president, around the outside perimeter of Inuvik. This three-and-a-half mile walk was measured by a pedometer in a modern mimicry of the surveying techniques of the historic exploratory expeditions. But distances are measured here not by nautical miles but by the individual footstep. The human presence is inscribed directly onto the landscape. Place is defined and claimed by the social experience, both 'scientific,' as suggested in the written description, and middle-class touristic, as alluded to by the amateur photographic itinerary of spouse / by spouse in 'exotic' locale.

The Baxters would, of course, be fully aware of Inuvik's ironic resonance within the mythology of 'the North'. Far from exotic, Inuvik was an instant town built by the federal government in the fifties to serve as administrative centre for the Western Arctic. At this moment, when southern notions of the predominant modes of northern sociability were in part formed by the vigorous promotion of Inuit sculpture and prints both preceding and during 1967, the year of Canada's Centennial celebrations, Inuvik's population was overwhelmingly white and itinerant. The full-scale commercial promotion of Northern native talent in the south did not dwell on the fine distinctions of place, however, as will become evident when examining the discrepancy between expectations formed by myth and the reality of place. Nonetheless, popular Canadian imaginings of 'the North' now included a space for a particular, though homogenized, native presence — that of the genuine, artistic 'Eskimo'. What is interesting about the Baxters' representations is that in spite of the location of their project they appear to make no effort to reference any native presence, focusing instead on empty landscape or the documentation of themselves (or Lucy Lippard) within it. Moreover, they avoid referencing the overwhelming presence of American, French, and Canadian oil company crews who were conducting exploratory and seismic work in the Inuvik area at this time. (17) In this way, it could be argued that the appropriative use of the landscape of 'the North' by the international corporate presence is here being mimicked by the N.E. Thing Company's representational inscription of their own business presence.

At the same time, the visual construction of these landscapes is at violent odds with Harris's idealized empty Arctic, the kind of image that had colonized the Canadian imagination and contributed to an ongoing popular Canadian fascination fed by the Northern stories of such writers as Farley Mowat, Pierre Berton and, earlier, Robert Service. In order to subvert the visual myth specifically, the Baxters undermined its modernist language and construction. While Harris relied on a more or less centralized background form to establish stability and unity, and then invited the viewer to penetrate the pristine, snowy landscape diagonally by way of a frozen expanse of water, the Baxters dismantled the unified effect in favour of — in Sixteen Compass Points . . . , for example — the presentation of a 360-degree panoramic view in photographic segments, resulting in a view that resists apprehension as a totality. However, perhaps the most blatant disruption to Harris's modernist vision in this work is the effect of a seemingly unmediated documentary 'realism' which shatters any preconceptions of an Arctic landscape as a sublime configuration of vast oceans and islands of mountains. The Baxters' approach renders the landscape almost unconsumable in its lack of picturesque artifice. Lucy Lippard's journal provides a parallel verbal description that captures something of the landscape's ambiguous effect: 'What makes it so impressive, and so uninteresting to describe, is the space, and the infinite sameness of the terrain, the very subtle colour range illuminated by a sharp, even light which has a terrible clarity.' (18) As a space it seems capable of opening up to multiple readings. While it can be argued that the image's endless, almost uninterrupted, horizon and the bleak northern light could indeed be read as a construction of the sublime, it can be read simultaneously as parodying the conventions of that very language through its contextualization within a 'business' or office format.

What is crucially important to acknowledge, then, is that the Baxters' insistence on the monotonous and the banal, while suggesting a strategy to undermine the ideal, is in fact anchored in the reality of place. Inuvik, situated in the western Arctic of the Mackenzie Valley and near the Beaufort Sea, lies on a flat and spongy delta (19) which bears little relation to the grandeur of the landscape Harris encountered in the eastern Arctic. It seems that here, in this insistence on the particularities of a specific and un-spectacular space as represented through the most banal of forms, the conventional commodification of 'the North' was indeed momentarily resisted. (20)

This kind of playful disruption of the dominant Canadian cultural tradition represented by the Baxters and the Place and Process exhibition invites reexamination in light of its participation in a larger project of subversion, not limited to a past language of modernism generated from Toronto. The Edmonton Art Gallery's willingness, under Director Bill Kirby, to mount a significant early group show of Conceptualist work — whose documentation and, thus, historical significance has been largely 'misplaced' — represented at the time, in Kirby's words, 'a way to get local artists plugged into the international scenes' at a time when Edmonton artists were receptive and interested in exploring new ground. A network that made a virtue of Edmonton's geographic and artistic marginality and was, at the same time, able to circumvent Toronto's authority represented a definite bonus. However, acceptance of the Conceptualist project was not seamless. Although coverage of and attendance at the artists' 'processes' were substantial, local artists' enthusiasm was somewhat defused by the 'big city arrogance' of some of the so-called 'stars'. Within a short time, Harry Savage — who had accompanied the Baxters and Lawrence Weiner on the Inuvik trip and produced such process pieces as Exposed Light Silhouette — and many other Edmonton-based artists who had made a foray into Conceptualist practices returned to conventional representations of the landscape. (21) Nevertheless, at the time, the Edmonton exhibition was designed to satisfy Edmonton artists' and curators' desire to be part of a decentred and radical new scene and was promoted as an international event. (22)

Edmonton's location on the Canadian Prairies is strategic to understanding how the Edmonton show and the Baxters' practice within it can, in some ways, be described in terms of a contestation over territorial meaning between the two ideologies of, on one hand, Greenbergian formalism and, on the other, Conceptualism. By this I mean that 'the North' of both Edmonton and the Arctic could be constituted differently from a range of positions. For example, Place and Process was characterized to the participating American artists as taking place '1600 miles north of Denver,' and as an 'Odyssey North' in a city that promoted itself as the 'gateway to the North,' all in a kind of celebration of traditional adventure / exploration narratives but also as a seductive parody of the modernist quest for self-actualization.

During the late fifties and early sixties Prairie isolation from the institutional and market structures of the art world in central Canada —   that is, Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal — encouraged in some a strong regionalist ethos and in others an openness to international ideas, particularly those emanating from American centres such as New York and Los Angeles. (23) Though it is important to stress that artists from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba resisted homogenization across and even within provincial boundaries, it is fair to say that a strong contingent of Prairie artists who saw Greenbergian modernism as the most progressive approach to contemporary problems of art production and self-identity were encouraged by validation emanating from the Emma Lake Workshops, (24) summer artists' workshops held in 'remote' northern Saskatchewan and led by pre-eminent, mostly American artists and critics. (25) The most significant of these for the eventual institutionalization of Greenbergian formalism in a Prairie city such as Edmonton was the 1959 leadership of Barnett Newman. Not only was Newman highly enthusiastic about his discovery of a socialist government in a provincial region of Canada (the CCF had been in office in Saskatchewan since 1944), (26) he was, as Matthew Teitlebaum argues, drawn to Emma Lake by what he considered its associations with the Arctic Tundra. (27) Thus, for Newman, Emma Lake — as place — worked as a metaphor of an ideal 'aloneness' or isolation, and empty container for 'the spiritual aspirations of American modernist abstraction' and political idealism. His concept of a sense of place as metaphysical space, where 'one induced and experienced the release of an inner image,' was accepted by many of the workshop participants. (28) The same kind of enthusiasm for politics and place convinced Clement Greenberg, high modernism's chief strategist and proponent, to lead a workshop in 1962. This was only a year after publication of Art and Culture, so that by the time Greenberg reached Saskatchewan the significance of his presence was in the process of shifting from that of an influential critic to the grand canonical voice. The following year Greenberg's 'Painting and Sculpture in Prairie Canada Today' appeared in the May/June issue of Canadian Art(29) While this firmly established him as an interested and influential party within the Canadian art scene, it can be seen as part of a strategy to mark out the Canadian Prairies, for Canadians and Americans alike, as one of the most significant new sites for the continuing development of the modernist tradition. (30)

As NETCO's symbolic claim of 'the North' for Conceptualist and, at the same time, Canadian practice articulates, Greenberg's 'invasion' did not go uncontested. Although by 1969 his formalist high art position was an entrenched institutional fact in Saskatchewan, it was for many an obnoxious symbol of American cultural imperialism that suppressed local expression and popular forms. (31) However, what is particularly interesting to note for the purposes of my argument here is that in the summer of 1969 Terry Fenton, soon to follow Bill Kirby as Director of the EAG, was busy from his position as Assistant to the Director of the University of Regina's Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery securing Michael Steiner, New York steel sculptor and protegé of Clement Greenberg, to lead that summer's Emma Lake workshop. (32) By 1972 Fenton and Karen Wilkin had moved to the Edmonton Art Gallery as Director and Chief Curator, and the 'most progressive tradition of modernism' established its institutional foothold in Alberta.

For Greenberg, the obscure northern Canadian Prairie represented an opportunity to reconstitute and press forward the teleological development of high modernism after its failure in Los Angeles in the 1964 'Post-Painterly Abstraction' exhibition. (33) Here he was able to reinvigorate his position by promoting the idea that the inherent qualities of the Canadian North, as 'the Prairie' was to his centrist perceptions, predisposed artists and audiences to a direct experience of the landscape which would allow for the transcendence of the literal towards pure painting, or 'the progressive surrender to the resistance of the medium.' (34)

Barnett Newman's Voice of Fire may not be an entirely accurate example of the kind of painting Greenberg saw as possible in the Prairie context. However, it is a work that has a certain potential —   because of its author's Canadian affiliation and its exhibition in the American pavilion at Expo 67 during Canada's centenary as well as for the more recent controversy its acquisition by the National Gallery of Canada has generated (35) — to act as a nexus for many of the issues arising out of this discussion of place, North and cultural colonialism. It has been argued that the 5.4 meter vertical acrylic on canvas, consisting of three bold vertical bars, the central cadmium red enclosed by two of ultramarine blue, functioned in its 1967 Montreal Expo context as an authoritarian voice of American post-war neo-colonialism. (36) A juxtaposition of Voice of Fire with NETCO'S 44 x 44 centimetre Territorial Claim — Urination (representing, through photographic documentation and text, the company's president urinating onto ice inside the Arctic Circle as 'one of a series of territorial claims being done on a global scale' in September of 1969) not only provides an articulation of the antagonistic attitude of Conceptualism towards the elite forms and practices of modernism, it also gives us an ironic, even absurd, reading of the political moment through the trope of North.

Historically the Canadian North has been a site of struggle between American economic and military interests and Canadian concerns about sovereignty. The American presence during and since the Second World War has tended to see the Canadian Arctic as a vast economic resource and, in terms of the Cold War, an empty space with a strategic American military value as a zone separating the United States from the Soviet Russian threat. Intermittent and insistent American demands for degrees of access and control continued through the sixties when Canada's sovereignty over the Arctic waters of the Northwest Passage was challenged by American oil interests. (37) A cartoon from the Vancouver Sun dated Sept. 12, 1969, only two weeks prior to the Inuvik 'expedition' and already a week into the course of the Place and Process exhibition, foregrounds the continuing controversy by way of a specific incident which was seen as a serious challenge to Canada's ability to assert its 'sovereign rights' in the face of its 'friendly' but formidable neighbour. In the cartoon the enormous hull of the American tanker Manhattan breaks through the ice floe upon which two tiny Canadian and American officials gesticulate and wave their respective flags. In the meantime, both are oblivious to the protesting native who plants a sign of warning against the environmental impact of the two colonialist interests on a land already long inhabited as place. (38)

Given these two images — the high modernist Voice of Fire and the popular cartoon of the Manhattan's 'progress' — and the attendant perceptions of U.S. cultural and territorial imperialism, Territorial Claim can be read as parodic commentary on the ineffectiveness of Canadian gestures to combat instances of American colonialist practices, whether in the cultural or political realm. But it can also be read productively here for the way it allows for a folding back onto the history of Canadian modernist practice as we have already seen it represented by Lawren Harris. Harris's Bylot Island, which gives visual form to a landscape encountered around the top of Baffin Island during his 1930 trip, bears a relation to this long history of a commercial presence in what has become the Canadian North. What was probably unapparent to the majority of contemporary viewers of Harris's painting was that the Boethic's annual trips were then part of a Canadian government strategy to reinforce its territorial claim to the Arctic archipelago against American encroachments. (39) The Beothic's annual summer expeditions had run from Nova Scotia far up along the northern coast of Greenland and Ellesmere Island, back down around the northern tip of Baffin Island and into the upper regions of Hudson's Bay, before cutting across the northern coastal waters of Quebec to return home. Ironically it had navigated the same coastal waters around Baffin Island that the U.S. tanker Manhattan covered in its search for a viable commercial sealane through the Northwest Passage some four decades later during the time of the Edmonton Place and Process exhibition. (40)

Of course, Territorial Claim must also be seen as the antithetical challenge to high art orthodoxies. NETCO's Duchampian disregard for the precious art object and for truth to materials is an insult to what the Greenbergian camp considered the most advanced and progressive art that could be made. Using snow as a support, Baxter urinates onto an ecological canvas, transforming a patch of ice into a colour field abstraction — a Morris Louis stain, perhaps. Jackson Pollock's 'drip paintings' provide a more appropriate analogy still. Baxter's gesture, wielding penis as artist's brush or container of paint, parodies the masculinist avant-garde gesture and the stereotype of solitary hero expelled into the metaphorical wilderness of misunderstood genius. Instead, it pays hommage to popular culture, and Canadian popular culture specifically, by way of a performative reference to the work to which it was dedicated, Farley Mowat's Canadian classic, Never Cry Wolf. (41)

Finally, I want to look at NETCO's image, Lucy Lippard Walking Toward True North. (43) The information sheet contains a single photograph of a segment of a scraggly scrub-pine forest which recedes into vaguely-defined middle and backgrounds. A felt-pen marker has inscribed a small circle in the exact centre of the image within which one can barely distinguish what might be a figure walking away from the viewer. The precision of the circle's placement suggests the metaphorical importance of the measurement of a 'true' North, a fixed and incontestable site, an essential value, a goal to be strived for but never to be achieved. Aside from the title, no further text embellishes the document. Represented as solitary and moving through an inhospitable, but hardly heroic, landscape, Lippard's figure is on the verge of disintegrating into its surroundings. As if following the standard Northern formulation of the dangers faced by the male traveler / explorer, Lippard enacts on a literal level 'the necessary encounter with the primitive' that is the prerequisite for 'the obligatory journey within,' (43) reminiscent of Barnett Newman's quest for a metaphysical sense of 'place'. In this way the work can be seen to play off the mythic, masculinist and modernist constructions of 'North' which inform Harris's dramatically-illuminated canvases and their suggestion of spiritual apotheosis or self-actualization. At the same time, Lippard's position in this image suggests a reworking of Territorial Claim's gesture. In an ironic commentary on American pretensions NETCO has represented the authoritative American centre as it surreptitiously moves within and towards a peculiarly Canadian space — that is, the imaginary space which has worked to define the 'essential' Canadian psyche, the 'True North strong and free' of the Canadian national anthem.

Lippard's actual presence in 'the North' as documented by this last work raises certain questions. The most obvious is whether this Far Northern facet of Edmonton's radical new project did indeed rupture the colonialist attitudes and practices the Baxters' work seems implicitly to critique. If the answer is yes, then how are we to frame Lucy Lippard's — and by extension Weiner's and the Baxters' — occupation of this space for the 39½ hours they were there? As a disruption to the modernist colonization of the North, or as a continuation of its commodifying project?

Lippard's journal documentation of the trip suggests that the discrepancy between her preconceptions of the 'Far North' — in part formed by the popular literature of Farley Mowat, as she acknowledges, and undoubtedly other deeply-imbedded cultural formulations such as Robert Flaherty's highly romanticized 1922 'documentary' Nanook of the North(44) — were severely disappointed by the reality of Inuvik as a bureaucratic slum and at least mildly disappointed by the un-spectacular landscape. At the same time she appears to have been sensitive to the landscape and to the ecological dangers presented by pervasive oil exploration. More importantly her journal makes continual references to the disturbing impact upon her of the deplorable living conditions endured by the native residents and their treatment at the hands of an exploitative, profit-oriented white population and administrative class. (45)

For all her concerns however, Lippard was herself caught up in the colonizing project. That the critical focus of her journal record of the Arctic trip was Weiner's production is revealing. More interesting perhaps is that her photographic documentation of Weiner's Arctic works includes a particular piece only marginally mentioned in her journal text — and then in terms of an interest in the instability of boundaries and the aesthetic of the found object. (46) What appears to have escaped Lippard in these special circumstances is that Weiner's Arctic Circle Shattered, in which the artist fires a rifle across a barren and apparently uninhabited landscape, in fact suggests a succinct visual metaphor for certain enduring American modernist / colonialist practices.

Indeed, for Lippard, as for the Baxters, 'the North' was an exploitable commodity, a site with which association meant the accrual of cultural capital and, with historical consistency, the ultimate effacement of the native presence. As explorers, travellers or tourists and, particularly in the case of the Baxters, as business people, their mandate in Inuvik was to extract value that would have artistic currency 'down south'. The very fact that Inuvik was a Euro-Canadian invention, a contact zone between transients of all kinds, native and non-native, Canadian, American and European, finally transformed the Baxters' 'internationalist' Arctic Circle project from a parodic exercise against the colonizing pretensions of high art formalism to a highly ironic symbol itself of neo-colonialism. (47) Finally, it must be said that however disappointed Lippard and Weiner were with the reality they encountered in the Arctic (48) it is unlikely that the Baxters, as Canadian artists acutely aware of the popular mythology of the North, would have embarked on the trip with any such delusions. Nor, as Canadians, did they have any Utopian notions about changing the American commodity-driven system which their work critiqued but within which it simultaneously circulated. Rather, it was just this outsider status which provided the Baxters with the ability to manipulate the system to their advantage.

However, other questions about colonization might be asked of the historical record from which the Edmonton exhibition, Place and Process, has virtually disappeared. That such an important representation of Conceptual artists at an early point in Conceptualism's history — Place and Process ran concurrently with Seattle's now-canonized 557,087 and three months prior to Vancouver's 997,000 — has never been the object of Canadian or Conceptual retrospective analysis begs interrogation. The reason for its virtual disappearance can be partially attributed to the loss of its textual and photographic documentation in a flood that damaged much of the EAG's archive. However, very recently a dusty video copy of Fiore and Schley's film of the exhibition's 'Process' component was unexpectedly discovered in an obscure corner of the gallery.

What is likely is that by the time of Bill Kirby's departure from the Directorship of the EAG in 1972 Edmonton artists' (and audiences') enthusiasm for new and experimental work had all but evaporated. But what is also significant to this line of inquiry is the fact that in 1972 Kirby was replaced as Director by Terry Fenton, who at the time of the Place and Process exhibition in 1969 was Assistant Director at the University of Regina's Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery in Saskatchewan. From 1972 it was he, with fellow Greenbergian New Yorker Karen Wilkin as Chief Curator, who steered the EAG's course for the next fifteen years. In other words, until Fenton's resignation in 1987 it was Clement Greenberg himself who metaphorically occupied the symbolic seat of authority in Edmonton's art institutions. It was both by and through Greenberg that their version of history in this contested period has been privileged and that the high modernist project of Northern colonization was, for a time, effectively consummated.

from the catalogue Sixteen Hundred Miles North of Denver


Text: © Charity Mewburn. All rights reserved.

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