The Canadian Art Database

Charlotte Townsend-Gault

Have We Ever Been Good?
Rebecca Belmore: The Named and the Unnamed

The Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia, 2002

From the catalogue
[ 4,860 words ]

The Named and the Unnamed consists of a sequence of tableaux which picture violation. They do so in quite simple terms, drawing on a polyglot repertoire of symbols: the lightness of air, the heaviness of water, the purity of white, the incomprehensible blackness of death, red the ever-troubling passion that threatens purity and causes death. But violation implies an inviolate moment, before the white quilt was sullied, before the canoe capsized and was swamped by black waters. The Named and the Unnamed also implies a disruption: an historical and epistemological disruption between humans and the world they inhabit. A large part of the fascination that aboriginal people hold for others is their supposed connection to a pre-modern, pre-industrial past, before the sacred was expunged. Many people, sensing the disruption, greatly desire such connection. Much contemporary First Nations art is either ironic or heroic about the ensuing confusion of expectation. But was there ever such a past, or have we ever left it?

The social philosopher Bruno Latour contributed to the wrangling about the conditions of modernity with the key question Have we ever been modern? His answer was 'no'. Latour argued that the nature / culture binary is a product of the fiction on which modernity is based: the fiction that humans can set themselves apart from, and control, nature. If we recognise today's hybrid connectivity between politics, technology, science and nature, we can better see the links between our own cultures and those of others, between past and present. Latour arrives at his conclusion in terms that are not very different from those of Chief Robert Joseph in his recent discussion of the 'interconnections' between sea and sky worlds, mortal and spirit worlds; or of Taiaiake Alfred on the necessity to perpetuate pre-contact indigenous 'regimes of conscience and justice that [have] promoted the harmonious co-existence of humans and nature for hundreds of generations' (1999:6).

It is invidious to put the onus of such cosmological ideology onto one set of installations, or the work of one artist. But, the risk might be worth taking anyway, since The Named and the Unnamed does not play as a post-colonial accounting, complete with racialised praise and blame, uncritical advocacy, self-chastisement, and smug complicity. It circumvents this terrain, and attempts something more difficult, something even more problematic: the unaccountable.

The minimalist disposition of the pared-down components of Belmore's installations is misleading. Minimal art attempted to expunge the references of forms and materials to anything beyond themselves. Here the allusions to red and white, to yielding softness and rebarbative grit, to a solitary eagle feather, are allowed to flourish and expand. The idea that things, and colours, have 'lost' their symbolic value is countered. And then these components are not just disposed in space, they are disposed in what they, the colours, the materials and forms, mark out as moral space. Good and evil are shown to be at work, in opposition to each other. But the question is also ventured: has it always been like this, a Manichean world for everyone? Or, was there once some different, better time, when the eagle was not dying? In short, to adapt Latour's memorable query, have we ever been good?

Artist or Anishinabe Artist?

Native artists in Canada over the past two or three decades have been expected to be embodiments of tradition, seers, perfect spiritual beings, and all-purpose spokespersons for the moral high-ground. This proved an untenable guide for reading native art and the hermeneutics has moved on. Yet it is exactly the precariousness of their position, caused by the tangle of aestheticised politics and desire, which certain artists of native ancestry like Belmore and Brian Jungen contrive to make compelling. They have also given a sharper edge to the agenda for contemporary indigenous cultural expression in Canada than its equivalent south of the 49th parallel. 'You're always ahead of us,' James Luna has said. Although at its most effective Belmore's aesthetic is taut, reductive, and unsentimental, it becomes evident that for her there is no sharp divide between aesthetics and ethics. The Named and the Unnamed carries this self-critique within it.

From the assertiveness necessary to be noticed as a contemporary, art-school-trained, native artist, Belmore's stance has shifted to the assurance of being 'just an artist.' It was in the late 1980s that she announced herself to a timorous and largely ignorant public as being A High-tech Tipi Trauma Mama. Although the original performance was not seen by a large audience, the title alone says it all. Its sardonic refrain A plastic replica of Mother Earth has echoed through her career, puncturing the portentousness that comes with the territory has served her well. Belmore has always been clear that she is not 'a traditionalist.' She was raised rather as 'a small-town Indian' in Sioux Lookout, which is in the Anishinabe territory of northern Ontario. She maintains a keen eye for the traditions of contact, including language loss, racial stereotyping, and the commodification of sewing. She shows zero tolerance for the ludicrous or lethal compromises made between authority and those who a paternalistic colonialism entrusted to their 'care.' Artifact 671B, her performance in support of the Lubicon Cree's boycott of The Spirit Sings during the Winter Olympics in Calgary 1988, put her own self — native self — on display. As an exhibit she labelled herself not with a name, but a number, one of those inscrutable museum codes, or perhaps the Ontario Liquor Control Board's code for a cheap red wine. It belongs in a small group of contemporary works that have sharpened the pointed end of First Nations artists' political engagement in and with the Canadian state. These include Robert Houle's Everything you wanted to know about Indians from A to Z (1985), Bob Boyer's Blanket Statement (1988), Yuxweluptuns Scorched Earth: Clear-cut Logging on Native Sovereign Land, Shaman Coming to Fix (1991), Ed Poitras's Morningstar Manifesto (1990), Dana Claxton's I Want to Know Why (1994) and Theresa Marshall's Band Stands (1996).

Ten years after Artifact 671B, Belmore again made her body the surrogate for others' suffering. This is also the tradition worked since the late 1960s by performance artists such as Marina Abramovic and Carolee Schneeman. In a performance dedicated to the young native man Dudley George, whose death in the stand-off at Ipperwash remains unresolved, Belmore wore a sweeping red dress and stripped a young tree of its leaves and twigs, systematically dismembering it with her own hands. Then she stripped herself naked. Nevertheless, self-abnegation before causes, however desperate, is not enough if your ambition is to be 'an artist' unqualified by ethnicity.

There are recurring themes and usages in Belmore's work, and this full-on corporeal involvement is one of them. She habitually cites James Luna as her mentor. Luna in turn cites Bas Jan Ader as amongst his more influential instructors at the University of California, Irvine. In a piece that Luna has never forgotten — I'm too sad to tell you (1970-71) — Ader focused a camera on his face and eventually wept. Ader, who was no more than a competent sailor, also enacted his own death-wish when he set out to sail across the Pacific alone. In the public declaration of the breaking of a private taboo Luna seems to have found the permission to expose and make a fool of himself, playing the dead Indian, to show up collective folly. In his famous Artifact Piece, Luna made fools of his viewers. In breech-clout, with some significant possessions, he lay as if modelled, or dead, in a museum vitrine. In Take a Picture with a Real Indian, he does much the same thing. Three life-size cut-outs of Luna, variously garbed, offer a choice of Indian images to the enthusiastic participants who responded to his invitation during the 1991 Whitney Biennale in New York.

With such a lineage, and with the work of Abramovic, Schneeman and Jana Sterbak's Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic (1987), as possible influences, there is characteristically an act of penitence in Belmore's performances. The repeated references to the pain of the traumatised body link closely to her interest in embodied knowledge, in memory and story telling and, as many of her performances attest, in working out who the stories were for. In 1992 she made Mawu-che-hitoowin (A Gathering of People for Any Purpose) which publicised First Nations stories, but also First Nations subjectivities, in a user-friendly way. Ayumee-aawach Oomama-mowan (Speaking to Their Mother) (1991), is a huge wooden megaphone that enables direct address to the earth, exactly as any speaker might want it, tempered personal ambition with a discernment of the needs of other performers and different audiences. Its combination of hubris and embarrassment (without the comforting irony of 'plastic replicas'), suggest that 'Mother Earth' continues to be a dangerous figure; with more to her than pan-Indian schlock. These works are part of her long-standing engagement, since leaving the Ontario College of Art, with audience problems. She wants, sometimes, to reach those for whom the mores of gallery going have little value. But she is no less interested in the demands of those habitués of the art world for whom the urgencies driving identity art in the late 1980s and early 1990s have inevitably been replaced by others.

As with bodies, and audiences, counting nature in to any human calculation has also been a long-running constant. To use one of Latour's phrases, Belmore does not 'bracket nature out,' she brackets it in such a way that it is part of every calculation. A rather literal reading of Wana-na-wang-ong (1994) and its enclosing screens, offers a vole's eye view and the smell of a dense webbing of roots and mosses, as brackets. Temple, at the Power Plant, (1996) — a massive, translucent, wedge of plastic bags filled with water from the city's various water Sources — was both stern lecture about and worship of the element with which Toronto, like any city, is unheedingly implicated.

While scholars debate the history and business of spectacularising natives, Belmore just gets on with being a spectacle, ever more recursively. However, there are some persisting liabilities for native artists and their sympathisers. Their work is prone to ready valorisation by sensitive description, but they are scarcely allowed to work from their own home base, as the grounds on which to be legitimated. Everything they do, including strategic essentialising, including withholding or protecting knowledge, is seen and judged through liberal tolerances. The predicament threatens action. So, how does Belmore insist that these distillations are also active principles, how does she activate them?

Public Secret

When Belmore was ready to talk about her idea for this exhibition, The Named and the Unnamed, in September 2002, about two weeks before it was due to open, she gave the curators a matter-of-fact account of what we would be looking at in the gallery. But in the interstices of the account lay the unspeakable, and that day we didn't speak about it. Whether this was because she wanted, as the very old saying goes, the work to speak for itself, or whether it's awkward to explain 'being a recipient of a spiritual gift,' as Luna phrases another old idea, remains an open question.

Belmore, habitually circumspect, always says that she is in awe of the power of words to shape experience, regretting her inability to shape hers in Ojibwa. She wanted to make work about what was troubling her most, the disappearance of more than fifty (the number remains imprecise) women from the streets of Vancouver's downtown East Side, and the criminally desultory response of the authorities to the horrible plight of the least powerful. She had tried to find a way of 'speaking' about the unspeakable, to declaim the secret that had been known but unspoken for an unconscionably long time.

We had all just watched the video of Vigil, the half-hour long performance acted out at the corner of Gore and Cordova Streets on June 23, 2002, two of the tawdry streets that are common sites of abduction. The performance included all the elements of a classic ritual: establishing a bounded, liminal space, cleansing — a purification which puts the protagonist in a vulnerable or dangerous position, their body marked out in some way or identified by special clothing — endurance, repetitive action, release; a closing sequence with the returning to the 'real' world. In Vigil the women's first names are written in black marker all over her arms as cues, prompting Belmore to yell them out at the top of her voice, and after each name to draw a rose, with its thorns, through her closed lips. In the performance, crimes against the body, the native body, the woman's body, are embodied in, enacted by, or inscribed on her own body, as if in an act of atonement. The names also draw attention to the fact that the kin-based, named, relationships of native communities were overlaid, where they were not replaced by the property relations of capitalism. Place names, plant names, people's names — all overlaid, all changed. In closing, Belmore, now in jeans and t-shirt, leans up against a looming black pick-up truck, with all the male signifying options, that has been there all the time, parked at the periphery of her action. James Brown's It's a Man's Man's World booms magnificently out from the truck's stereo: 'This is a man's man's world / but it wouldn't mean nothing, nothing / without a woman or a girl.'

The continuous projection of the video, its looping repetitive re-enactment also the re-enactment which characterises trauma, was to become a kind of shrine or memorial to The Named and the Unnamed. The title fixes the secret, because the named were unnamed for so long, and because the unnamed remain unnamed. Everything else in the exhibition would grow out of it, she told us. It has been a notorious 'public secret' in Vancouver, not neglected by its artists. In 1978 Paul Wong made Murder Research, about his chance observation of a murder scene in a back alley from his studio. In spring 2003, Stan Douglas, another artist of penetrating local vigilance, was showing Every Building on 100 West such streets look, and how they are seen. By the time we were talking, the newspapers were full of the crimes. Apparently the secret was out. And a court case was about to open.

Public secrets are everywhere, like the bad faith of power. Michael Taussig defines the public secret as 'that which is generally known, but cannot be articulated' (1999:5). He continues, writing of the atrocities of Colombia's police state: 'Wherever there is power, there is secrecy, except that it is not only secrecy that lies at the core of power, but public secrecy' (1999:7). Taussig proposes that it is through the act of defacement, of desecration, that the (public) secret makes itself apparent. Desecration, spoiling, defacement, were all implied, as was the sluggish indifference of authority to more than twenty years of disappearances. Belmore was making a connection between the violence against these unnamed, apparently unimportant, women — sex workers, addicts, many of them First Nations, all of them relatively powerless — and the exercise of 'the power of the nation.' What prevents grandiloquence, or bathos, on such large topics is the focus on the local tragedy on Vancouver streets. The other tableaux amplify this focus, picturing links to other public secrets, as they play out in the public imaginary, as they make themselves felt.

Feeling Clearly

There are moments during the fifty minute loop of Vigil, when fabric, pulled and stretched to a point of unendurable tension against the full weight of a woman's body, rips, and then relaxes. Repeatedly, attention is drawn to the way the material behaves. It is an empirical experiment, demonstrated for all to see, felt on the body. Not representation, this is the phenomenology of stuff under stress. But the phenomenology of driving nails through fabric into wood, of nailing and tearing, cannot deflect the metaphors from crowding in: this is bodily stuff, this is the fabric as flesh; the alluring red dress of the scarlet woman; these are trauma's re-enactments; these are tests of endurance, sacrifices — the Sundance, the crucifixion. An almost too-familiar overload of culturally conflicting allusions and irresolvable epistemological confusions threaten to overwhelm us in a splat of emotion. Except that Belmore is in control. She is focussed on the fine-grain of the physical, of touch and of sound. And then the sensations segue into ethics, clearly. Aestheticised identity politics are nowhere to be found.

Manichaean Aesthetics

This work pictures a world where good and evil operate simultaneously, and must battle it out, a Manichaean world. Strategic essentialism has been much discussed and frequently deployed in recent work by members of indigenous and other ethnic groups in Canada. Belmore's work shifts from that arena into a shared ethical realm. Instead of the habitual moral relativism, Belmore seems to propose something closer to a philosophical moral realism: the claim that there are moral facts and properties independent of people's beliefs and attitudes. The work doesn't feel like a lecture on the coloniser's moral depravity and the moral victimisation of the colonised. It also avoids the Trojan Horse effect, smuggling moral censure into the enemy's Institution — in this case public art galleries in Canada — so that the enemy appears to be hosting its own un-doing. This effect is usually just a delusion anyway, and it is business as usual afterwards. Belmore's is not this kind of ethics. She makes some fairly clear assertions about good and evil, and pays less attention to shifting ambiguities. The question that is left hanging, like the eagle feather — a floating signifier if ever there was one — is whether this is an aboriginal ethics.

The chair, which stands for its owner or for the life stories of its owners in Mawu-che-hitoowin, here becomes a throne of blood. Like evil that left defenceless women and children dead in the snow at Wounded Knee, Belmore's censure of the abduction and probable murder of so many women shows that this exercise of evil makes no racial discrimination. It is done through asserting universal applicability for colour symbolism and for universals — earth, air, and water. The expanse of white, soft, quilting — inviting and comforting — reads as purity violated. White violated by blood red; the shock of the cut against the calm of the sleeping woman.

Death in Canada

The narrative line moves from blood on the snow to The Great Water. It is a tragic drama of catastrophe and abandonment; the tropes of its telling — canoe, canvas, blackness — sharp and compacted images, waiting to be un-packed. Since their action has been arrested they compose themselves into a monument, with drapery. The canoe becomes a funerary urn of sorts.

The idea of Canada is constructed, amongst a few other things, by the history and cultural allusions of the canoe. But it was constructed in a quite literal sense by the exploration, trade and settlement that this native invention made possible. This was an invasion that swamped and capsized the canoe. The capsized canoe is likely to invoke Tom Thompson, the black canoe to invoke Bill Reid. There is also the Mi'qmaq canoe in cement, part of Theresa Marshall's work Elitekey (1990). Much of the vast literature on coping with the wilderness pays homage to the native genius that makes 'wilderness' precisely the wrong word. It also characteristically detects, and trades on, unsettling echoes of the 'imaginary Indian.' Margaret Atwood's story Wilderness Tips, which takes its title from a guide to surviving in the wild, asks whether 'tips' is a noun or a verb. With extraordinary consequences, it turns out to be a verb.

Belmore's own recent work Wild showed that there is still a charge to be derived from pitting 'wild' against 'civilized'. She installed her wild / native self in The Grange, that acme of Canadian nineteenth-century civilization. In a live re-working of Luna's Artifact Piece, Belmore herself lolled in the master bed, all caparisoned with long, black human hair, another kind of black torrent, the felt dimensions of the colonial encounter. The hairy bed seemed a refreshed, neo-surreal version of Meret Oppenheim's furred cup and saucer, Objet (1936). But here was no china, and Belmore was personifying not an artifact but the living wild.

The Great Water is the second tableau of the sequence, both narrative and monument at the same time. The historical and cultural allusions of this capsized black canoe are arrested and extended by the black integument of the canvas. The narrative movement from black water pouring over the canoe to the framing edge of this gush of canvas which is the limiting tidying hem of grommets. It suggests Canadian classics of wilderness coping, or the classic limiting strategy of the bounded reservation system. In marked contrast to the gentle breathing, the air-borne movement of the next room, The Great Water is funereal in its stillness, in its blackness and its drapery. Belmore's compulsion to use the feel of material, its phenomenology as well as its cultural references, is here again compounded with use of colour. Only the highest quality canvas will drape like this and hold an even darker blackness in its folds. It represents water at night, the thick darkness that surprised Belmore again last summer out on the water on a moonless night which gave her an idea about her own death, a sense of what the unknown feels like. And, she points out, Johnny Depp in Dead Man makes it look like a seductive way to go as he floats away dying in a canoe. As for culture or canvas — the tent, the groundsheet is the classic protection against nature. It has also been, for quite some time in western art history, the perfect medium on which to represent nature, contending with it at one remove. Latour writes of modernity's failure to do what it set out to do, tame nature; and it seems it would never have occurred to the indigenous inhabitants of this continent to attempt the impossible. This tableau with its elegant economy of means and tightly, tidily, controlled excess, could well prompt further reflection on the inseparability of nature and culture.


'Nothing is what it appears to be, everything is cause for suspicion,' writes Taussig, of his first principle in probing the public secret. The violent violation of some better, purer, other — strongly implied by the two previous tableaux — is probed again in State of Grace. It is dependent on a symbolic reading of air, the third element of the sequence after earth and water. Value is made evident in devaluation, the sacred in that which has been desecrated. This is a 4' x 5' black and white photograph that looks down on a native woman, whose beauty cannot be incidental, lying peacefully with eyes closed. All but her head, shoulders and arms, are covered by a field of rumpled whiteness, as disordered as the 'duvet' of blood on the snow is smooth and ordered. Whether the woman is sleeping or dead, her image has been animated by the air currents that sift gently through the room, simultaneously defaced and brought to life. The photograph has been systematically sliced into a fringe of vertical ribbons, rather as light and air slice through a Venetian blind, and so in a sense destroyed. But the image shimmers gently in currents of air, for the very act of destruction has given it life and breath. As Taussig says: 'It is the cut of de/ facement that releases this surplus, the cut into wholeness or holiness that, in sundering, reveals, as with film montage, not only another view via another frame, but released flows of energy' (1999:3). The confident assertions about the colours of good and evil, of life and death, are absent. Here is an image in a much more ambiguous 'state'. There is no comforting resolution in State of Grace despite its title. Is it rather that acts of violence, difficult to contemplate, which have been mediated in such a way that they can be contemplated? Taussig again has the words: 'an inspired act of defacement, beautiful in its own right: violent, negating and fiery'(1999:2).

A Feather

There is something else moving in the air in the large room where State of Grace gently sighs. The two minimal fragments of Song cohere into another dense meditation: a single eagle feather responding in its own way to the air currents in the room, and some words about the death of the eagle. It is back to the empirical: how does a feather behave when suspended from a high ceiling on a 12-foot filament in a controlled current of air? It just twirls gently. An unforeseen consequence of the natural lighting in the Belkin Gallery was that four shadowy feathers bobbed behind it on the wall. This was compelling to watch, looking up about half a metre above most people's heads, but what does it mean? Is it a totally vulnerable remnant, hanging by a thread, or a symbol of persistence? Is the eagle now as vulnerable and exposed as those to whom it previously offered (symbolic) protection? Floating signifiers have no answers.

Something of an answer is provided in the other part of Song — a discreet little shelf with a stack of cards (recycled paper) each printed with the words:


you fled

even the eagle dies

Belmore came across this snatch of a Sioux lament in N. Scott Momaday's The Man Made of Words. And again there is sewing: a line of machine stitching, in either red, white or blue, runs up the side of each card. The threads are left loose and visitors are invited to take one each. This kind of decorum towards the visitor recalls the cedar tea that was on offer in Wana-na-wang-ong. It also involves the audience however fleetingly, giving them something to taste, something to touch.

As Minimalism, Song attempts precisely what works made with and about air in the 1960s by minimalists such as Michael Asher and Hans Hacke eschewed. Rebecca Horn's techno-animation of feathers also comes to mind. But Belmore's interest lies elsewhere. The bird has been the symbol of many imperiums and she says that she heard 'The Eagle has landed' not as appropriation but as corroboration of the absolute potency of the feathered creature. This permission to extend, rather than to protect, the indigenous references makes it easier to recognise that it is they who have been directing and shaping the indictments of the preceding tableaux.

The Named and the Unnamed leaves no scope for moral negotiationism. Rather, moral 20/20 vision is enabled through distilling some uncompromising tropes, with the whole thing — performance, video, installation, structured on a subtle, if simplified Anishinabe cosmology. This work is — dares to be — about good and evil. It is about the corruption of power and bad faith. By being anchored in the sensory and the specific, these huge cloudy topics do not quite get out of hand and squeak in under the banality barrier. The work is not so much social text as sensory tableau — palpably critical. In an undidactic way the colours, directions, elements, make themselves felt. The long distraction from the sensory loops back to bodily knowledge; makes the floating signifier not so much final irresolution as active principle.


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From the catalogue

Text: © Charlotte Townsend-Gault. All rights reserved.

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