Photo-Based Works from the Permanent Collection
29 July – 27 September 2000
at Centennial Square
Curated by Ruth Kerkham
This exhibition explores the various ways that our society’s interpretation of cultural and personal symptoms has been contaminated and suggests that such contagion effectuates a predisposed categorization of “well-being” in terms of economics, medicine, education, law, relationships, spirituality, sexuality, gender and race.
Symptoms articulate the indisposition of the human body and the malaise of the prevailing milieu, be it reflected in constructed scientific, political or religious institutions, or the often pernicious effects of these powers on our bodies and the natural environment. As such, a salubrious component of symptoms cannot be denied, as it voices a need for active change and restorative care. What happens though, when these symptoms themselves are contaminated; when the very call for cure is infected or skewed?
In order to respond to a symptom, a diagnosis needs to be determined. While the Greek word diag_nios means “to recognize”, a diagnostic that recognizes symptoms without acquiescence to the interpretive element of this science is inevitably flawed. Take, for example, Freud’s diagnosis of hysteria, which he labelled as a “disease of women” without recognizing the misogynist bias of his theories. Dora, a young Viennese woman, was sent to Freud by her father for the treatment of hysteria diagnosed on the basis of a suicide note she had written. Alarmingly, what these two men failed to consider was the fact that Dora had been traded by her father as a sexual appeasement to his mistress’s husband. Such beguiling identification of disease ignores the necessarily hermeneutic and holistic character of dependable diagnostics.
If predilection occurs in the recognition of symptoms then it stands to reason that our prescriptive responses to disease and societal ailment quite readily miss the mark. Our desires to heal, clean and preserve, whether motivated by compassion or self-righteous abhorrence, can at times destroy the very core of human dignity. It is not coincidental that the word “leprosy” is considered to be synonymous with social and moral corruption, or that the Latin word for health (sanitas) is so closely linked to the word for holiness (sanctus). For centuries religious belief in holistic well-being (incorporating body, mind and soul) has been misinterpreted to suggest that disease is a result of evil and that it is a form of punishment meted out by a higher Being. While we might assure ourselves that we are enlightened beyond such sophomoric injunction, discerning scrutiny of our contemporary societal patterns might suggest otherwise. Subtly underlying many of our socio-political inclinations is the belief that certain people deserve what life affords them, be it poverty, illness, discrimination, or general hardship. Too often we think (if not state) that, for example, welfare recipients deserve to be evicted, prostitutes deserve to be raped, gays deserve to be HIV positive or that immigrants deserve to be shunned.
The act of cleaning is an attempt to restore something to its “original” state, inevitably alluding to religious processes of purification. Within this paradigm, then, what is deemed unclean can justifiably be disregarded, and what is polluted has to be ceremoniously disinfected. In secular terms “disinfection” often takes the form of draconian government bills that attempt to purge society of its “unsavory” elements.
Feminist techno-science theorist Donna Haraway uses the image of the vampire to disrupt these obsessive desires to cleanse and purge. She acutely points out our stereotypical assumptions as to who the vampire is and what type of pollutants she or he might induce:
...the vampire is the figure of the Jew accused of the blood crime of polluting the wellsprings of European germ plasm and bringing both bodily plague and national decay, or ... it is the figure of the diseased prostitute, or the gender pervert, or the aliens and the travellers of all sorts who cast doubt on the certainties of the self-identical and well-rooted ones who have natural rights and stable homes. The vampires are the immigrants, the dislocated ones, accused of sucking the blood of the rightful possessors of the land and of raping the virgin who must embody the purity of race and culture.
The artists in this exhibition subvert such a concept of “purity” and reveal the danger of categorizing certain people as “tainted.” By mitigating the stringent labels that we enforce upon others, they begin to disinfect the symptoms themselves, so that the true viruses of our society can be identified and interpreted in a way that allows authentic healing to begin.
Upon walking into the exhibition space one comes across objects that disrupt stagnant views of religion and its perceived imposition of sanctity. Al McWilliams’s work often recontextualizes Christian icons, questioning the socialized gender roles of the institutionalized church. Taken from a thirteenth century sculpture depicting the biblical story of the fall from paradise, the fragmented representation of an arm in Cross (1990) is ambiguous in terms of identity: one cannot be sure whether the arm is that of Adam, Eve, an angel or God.
John Massey and Becky Singleton’s Afterlife Series (1995) unravels preconceived notions of life and the afterlife by humorously producing a “parodic inversion ... of reality.” No Nonsense becomes full of nonsense as it mischievously turns authoritative ideas of the afterlife on end. Sandwiched between the whimsical representations of life and afterlife is the pain of life’s tears which are thickened beyond the cleansing property we associate with transparent fluids. Instead, oozing tears of blood in Life Magazine red, this pastiche caricature of sadness reverses the cathartic process of crying by insinuating the unsanitariness often associated with blood. As Elizabeth Grosz suggests,
Acquiring a social representation as a clean fluid, as waterlike, transparent, purifying, tears take on a different psychological and sociological status than the polluting fluids that dirty the body.
This concept of defiled body fluids continues in the exhibition, but is shuffled into a separate room, as if to mimic our acts of ostracization symptomatic of ignorant dispositions. In this secluded space Stephen Andrews’s facsimile, Part II (1991) reminds us of the heavy weight body fluids carry in the spreading of AIDS, and how the infected face rejection both sexually and medically. In Carolyn White’s Mattress Suite #5 a beautifully quilted mattress stained with the unidentified discharges of an unknown body, confronts us with our own corporeality that is conveniently hidden between the sheets. Photographing mattresses found on the streets, White forces the viewer to consider how the private and often secretive space of the bedroom is absent from the lives of the homeless.
The representation of space plays a significant role in this exhibition as space, or the lack thereof, is often indicative of certain structural malfunctions. Sylvie Belanger juxtaposes our expectations of what disorder and serenity might mean as she allows us to gaze out of a triptych of church windows onto the maps of entangled city streets. The relationships between cities and the natural environment are often held in tension, and this sense of troubled association is evident in the works of Robin Collyer and Roy Arden. Arden’s images of the pulp mill dump at Nanaimo, British Columbia, expose the detrimental effects of an economy driven by resource extraction. While the images appear to be a lifeless aftermath of consumerist greed, a dangerous liveliness still exists in the form of chemicals used in the process of making paper. As such, this toxic mass has the potential to explode at any point. In Collyer’s Christianburg (1994) the relationship between urban and natural space is presented with a twist, as is the notion of control. While human beings’ control over the land typically destroys, here nature is rendered as undefeated as it begins to overwhelm the rusty, forgotten cars.
Ken Straiton’s photograph taken in West Berlin deals with issues of control and public space. The image portrays the confinement of a monument (something that typically commemorates certain social ideals and values) and yet we are reminded of the inevitable trappings of ideologically constructed ideals themselves. Take, for example, the nineteenth century ideal of progress and expansion that afforded the building of numerous railway tracks. In Hall Creek (1986) Glenn Rudolph inverts the control over the land in this now fallen project – while mountains were blown up to make room for these trajectories of steel, in this photograph it is nature that takes over abandoned aspirations and dreams.
It is precisely a taking back of control that Christine Davis accomplishes in Logos (1993), where she stands her ground, as a woman, in the typically masculine realms of Christianity, mathematics and rationalistic modes of thinking. The word “Logos” refers to the Christian concept of the “Word of God” and in its Greek origin it also refers to reason. With her bare feet planted on a dictionary of mathematics, Davis destabilizes our often fraudulent definitions and processes of categorization.
It is such categorization that provides a segue into our stereotyping of others as seen in Louise Noguchi’s Compilation Portrait #27 (1997) and April Hickox’s Ear and Rose (1994). While Hickox disrupts our stigmatization of “disabilities,” Noguchi questions our notions of culpability and innocence in terms of race. By creating a woven visage from her own portrait and a mug shot of an actual criminal, Noguchi provocatively positions herself as the convicted. While systems of justice are supposed to protect us, immigrants, ethnic minorities and those with disabilities know only too well that the definition of “us” is often skewed.
Ken Lum opens up this sense of “us” in What is it Daddy? (1994), as the ambiguity of the words and the work as a whole resist any fixed annunciation or interpretation. Visual clues suggest that the anxiety in the piece might be due to poverty, and yet the work speaks beyond this particular situation. As such, even viewers who have never experienced apprehension as a result of economic strain, can potentially relate to the general sense of worry and agitation present in the piece.
Through size, and its reference to a billboard, Stan Denniston’s work Untitled (billboard #2) (1998) alludes to annunciation. On the left hand side storm clouds build up, creating an expected surge of possibly ominous energy. On the right a neglected civil defence siren awaits its opportunity to declare danger, but its attempts are frustrated and it is rendered invisible at a time where threat has seemingly dissipated. While a siren punctuates the landscape of every western United States town, its now passe presence leaves little room for the expectation of war.
In North America’s relatively healthy current social climate the more subtle annunciations of potential threats are seldom noticed, let alone heeded. At times we anticipate what symptoms might be telling us and thus too easily misread them, or we believe that there are no symptoms at all, basking in a false sense of security. When the symptoms themselves are contaminated due to prejudice, ignorance or insensitivity, astuteness is needed so that our diagnostic processes recognize what a sense of well-being and healing might really be. It is precisely such discernment that the artists in this exhibition demonstrate in their decontamination of symptoms.