A Relevant Reminder: Contemporary Conversations and Social Consciousness

Manon Gaudet

“So while our art cannot, as we wish it could, save us from wars, privation, envy, greed, old age, or death, it can revitalize us amidst it all.”—Ray Bradbury, “Preface,” Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Within You (1992), xi.

They come in waves—the moments when I question the path I’ve chosen for my life. I do not mean to seem overly philosophical by beginning this way, but rather to be brutally honest. Since I began to study art history in my second year of university, I have more than once asked myself why I do what I do. More often than not, the standard answer—because I like it—doesn’t hold enough weight with me. Especially when Amnesty International knocks on my door and asks me to join them in saving a political prisoner from daily torture. I close the door and return to my research, in which I study long dead people with arguably little relevance to contemporary social issues. Luckily, my moments of insecurity are regularly interrupted by moments of clarity.

Participating in the Contemporary Conversations exhibition has produced many such moments of clarity. The second residence salon that Cayllan and I hosted was entitled “Contemporary Conversations: Migration, Meaning and Identity.” We focused on three works in the Heymans’ living room that we felt spoke to an overarching theme of identity and otherness. By considering Hung Liu’s painting, Transforming (1995), Nick Cave’s sculptural Soundsuit (2008), and Stephen Wilkes’ photograph Corridor #9, Island 3, Ellis Island (1998), we initiated a conversation about the formation of individual and collective identity in multicultural countries like Canada and the USA. We felt that each work dealt with the formation of identity through various lenses, including migration, diaspora, race, culture and gender.

As residence curators, our curatorial role in the Contemporary Conversations exhibition has not been conventional. We did not select the artworks or decide on their locations. Instead of composing labels to narrate the exhibition, we had the opportunity to verbally construct narratives with groups of diverse individuals. In a way, the residence salons have been like community consultations. The different voices that have responded to the artworks in the exhibition—be they economists, immigrants to Canada, Supreme Court justices, business leaders, or students—have enriched my understanding of the artworks and reinforced to me the importance of consultation in the creative curatorial process.

In the spirit of the Chatam House Rule invoked at each salon, I cannot assign ownership of opinions to any one individual; however, the conversations have been too rich not to share.[1] Before each salon, Cayllan and I sit in a cab on our way to the embassy, fretting about the silence we fear is inevitable. Yet, every time we finish giving our introductions to the artworks, we are surprised by the way the conversation carries itself. It’s a humbling treat to hear people respond to the artwork and the themes we have identified from their own life experiences—be they professional or personal. For instance, Hung Liu is a contemporary Chinese-American artist, whose work draws on her socialist realist training as an art student in China. She disrupts this widely recognizable style through an effect of dripping, in which the paint seems to slowly wipe off the canvas. After studying in the U.S. for a number of years, Hung returned to China where she stumbled upon a treasure trove of archived turn-of-the-century photographs of Chinese prostitutes. Hung saw dignity in these women, despite their sexually objectified positions, and began to use them as source material for her paintings.[2]

While Transforming depicts an opera performer rather than a prostitute, our conversation quickly turned to the sex trade, immigration and prostitution. An economist in the room shared that she was instantly struck by Hung’s painting, as it reminded her of walking everyday by the same aboriginal woman standing on a street corner in Winnipeg. After years of smiling and saying hello to this nameless woman, the woman finally stopped the economist and asked, “why do you always smile at me?” She continued: “I have stood on this corner for five years and no one but you has ever acknowledged my existence.” The economist shared this story to highlight the invisibility of certain marginalized people in our society, and expressed her gratitude to an artist like Hung for reminding her of this.

This was the first moment of the afternoon that reminded me why I study art history. While not always obvious, art fundamentally can make a difference in the right context—even if all it does is remind us of something we already know. The second moment of the afternoon that reminded me of the importance of the arts was a challenging response to a comment about the role of art as visual protest. A cultural professional responded by saying that no matter how scathing or challenging an artwork is, the question is whether the work can make a difference if it is considered inaccessible to the general public. He referred to a large margin of the population who are disconnected from national institutions because they feel out of place and unwelcome. The conversation flowed back and forth and I was reminded of an earlier conversation I once had about the value of the arts. A cultural heritage preservation officer once told me that while working in Haiti to save churches and artwork after the 2010 earthquake she was often asked, “how can you help preserve a mural when two doors down there are people fighting for their lives?” She told me that she didn’t really have an answer until a Haitian man told her, “without our heritage and our culture there is no point in living—we cannot go on.” I shared this story during our conversation. It sparked a discussion about the importance of community involvement in cultural institutions. The art that national institutions contain may be challenging, but it is the cultural professionals’ job to make it an accessible part of a nation’s community and heritage. One participant at the event suggested that a wonderful advertising campaign to encourage community involvement might be to replicate (in a superficial sense only) the conditions of Haiti—to remove the works from the walls of the National Gallery of Canada, in order to remind the public why they hang there in the first place.

And so, when asked to reflect on my experiences as a residence curator, I am obliged to admit that one of the most rewarding parts was being reminded at each event why I am here in the first place. I can’t single-handedly save someone’s life or free him or her from political imprisonment, but I can do my part to promote art that reminds us why life is worth living and worth living freely.

[1] “When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatam House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity or the affiliation of the speaker9s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.” “Chatam House Rule,” Chatam House: The Royal Institute of International Affairs, http://www.chathamhouse.org/about/chatham-house-rule

[2] “Hung Liu,” Nancy Hoffman Gallery, http://www.nancyhoffmangallery.com/artist/display/6/Hung-Liu