Monday, 16 June 2014

EMILY CARR AND THE NASS VALLEY

MUSEUM MONDAYS

BY ALEXANDRA JEFFERY

This week for Museum Monday I'd like to direct you to a Globe and Mail article about a new Emily Carr exhibit being put on by the Nisga'a Museum located in the Nass Valley in BC.

Nisga'a Museum
The exhibit, called "Emily Carr’s Return to Ank’ida," seeks to bring only a few Emily Carr works back into the context in which they were created. Carr visited the Nass Valley in the late 1920s as part of a sketching tour that was a prolific period for her art and an exploration of Native culture.

Forsaken (1937) is on loan from the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Photo.
The article raises several issues which I would like to draw attention to. Firstly, while the trip was a success for Carr, not everyone enjoyed her visit. The idea of Emily Carr as a "not nice" "guest" of the area is rather incongruous with her status as a preeminent Canadian artist. This aspect of these works, which the director seems to want to tease out, are so important. I think in terms of art and Canada there is such a small canon of art and artists, not only that but much of the art is somewhat formulaic and often represents very specific subjects. Within this tight space, I wonder how easy it is to bring these facets of the work to the fore, and whether this challenge (if we can call it that) makes a difference.

Secondly is the idea that in the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Royal BC Museum these works have very different meanings than when they are displayed in the Nass Valley. In these large metropolitan museums they become assimilated into the rest of the body of Carr's work, and individually they lose their facets. I really appreciate this idea of recontextualizing the works and understanding them in a different light. I believe that this is a process and a concept that need not only apply to art.

One of my favorite items the article highlighted was the fact that the accompanying publication was not published preceding the opening of the exhibit. I think all to often exhibit catalogues become simply souvenir objects without some of the same nuances as the exhibit and without the surrounding atmosphere of the exhibit captured. This is an indication I think of what is possible to change about museum practices and what is possible when we reconsider objects and artworks.

So short post for you this week, but I'd like to hear your thoughts on this.

Ankeda, The Pole of Chief George Kindealda (1928)
Photo

5 comments:

  1. Love your thoughts on exhibition catalogues and their inadequacy in terms of capturing the valuable nuance and context of the exhibition itself. I'd be interested in learning about the history of the exhibition catalogue as a genre... why did it start? For whom were they originally intended?

    But, with regards to your thoughts: do you think catalogues serve a purpose? Do you think there is potential for a different, more effective medium to accompany exhibitions?

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    1. I was actually just reading a chapter entitled "Art and Theory" in Tony Bennett's The Birth of the Museum (1995) last night that directly discusses the use of an exhibition’s complementary materials, such as exhibition catalogues and similar textual supplements. I’d recommend reading it! It’s a very short chapter, and it directs one’s attention to the issue of contextualization within art museums. While this is not its only argument nor is this the completeness of the argument, Bennett touches on the use of such literary materials to supplement the ‘invisible’ knowledge that would be known by only certain individuals – the elite, of course. So perhaps this is demonstrative of the beginning of this exhibition catalogue development, yet I am not sure how it speaks to its temporal dimension in traditionally being produced prior to the exhibition opening. Perhaps by producing it only upon gaining responses from the exhibit, it will potentially ‘democratize’ the medium? And yet, I would assume that this depends heavily on the response they do receive – perhaps many alterations won’t occur and the reader will but unaware of such conditions. While Bennett’s chapter is not about the birth of this medium nor do I know in which period it developed, I have always understood exhibition catalogues as (often pricey) reproductions of the art on display along with additional essays that add further contextualization and discussion to the artworks, from both the curators and specialists in the field. In fact, they would often provide more information that the exhibit necessarily provided. Thus, they provide a permanent record of the exhibit and its message. To what extent is the exhibition catalogue to be the medium documenting the exhibition’s reception?

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    2. Thanks for your reply, Nicole. In my original comment, I was so close to writing, "This seems like something Tony Bennett will have written about." Clearly those instincts have proven correct!

      I think your point about the temporal aspect of exhibition catalogues is fascinating. I think it would be interesting to develop a sort of participatory catalogue, whereby visitors - or perhaps a small committee of visitors or community groups - produce the catalogue, rather than the catalogue reflect the position of simply the curator. I think this ties into your question, "To what extent is the exhibition catalogue to be the medium documenting the exhibition's reception?" It could be a fascinating publication that documents the exhibition, yes, but that goes beyond to add the context of public reception, reaction, and discussion. I wonder if such a publication could even result in an extension of the public impact of an exhibition, because it's post-exhibition publication could conjure memory and revive discussions, ultimately creating a deeper and longer interaction with the material.

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  2. I was struck, Alex, by your comment that “I think in terms of art and Canada there is such a small canon of art and artists, not only that but much of the art is somewhat formulaic and often represents very specific subjects.” What do you base this claim on?

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    1. Ah I see how this is a problematic statement. I should have clarified that this is the canon as I perceive it. What I meant by "small canon" and "formulaic" is that much of the art I associate with "Canada" depicts nature or, wild Canada. Artists like Emily Carr, the Group of Seven, Paul Kane, Robert Bateman, etc. Of course I know that all Canadian art does not follow these footsteps, in fact much of it doesn't. However, my perceptions of what forms "Canadian Art" generally conform to these specifications.

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