Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Day 6: Fragmented Lives

Since the early part of the 20th century our identities have been partial and incomplete. I imagine the last unitary human beings populated Victorian manses. Their mail was delivered several times a day, they had more culture than one could shake a stick at and several servants to take the edge off an otherwise brutal, short and ugly sojourn through the world.

As performance art approaches the event horizon of real life it must make evident its own incompleteness. This isn’t a new idea. Robert Filiou mapped out the terrain and Yoko Ono made it into a maxim 40 years ago. But watching Robin Brass’s performance last night at CRAB Beach (Create A Real Beach) I was taken by the intentional incompleteness of her performance.

Many pieces at the festival contain significant elements that are hidden or obscured from the audience. Li Yilin’s piece in the alley next to Hastings Street is an example. He placed small pieces of paper into the cracks of telephone poles. He climbed a ladder to find the cracks high on the poles. We in the audience could not see the paper nor were we informed what, if anything might be imprinted on those tiny bits of yellow paper.

Again in Him Lo’s piece on Saturday night we weren’t told why he had painted his body in black acrylic paint or why he was wearing a white shirt and tie while holding a mop.

In the first example, the images on the bits of paper were supposedly pictures of Canada’s most wanted criminals. In the second, Him Lo painted himself black to symbolize depressive episodes and he wore the white suit and tie because his late father wore these. His father also worked as a janitor.

I learned these facts by talking with people at the events and to the artists after the performances. Members of the audience who did not have the opportunity to speak to the artists or someone-who-was-in-the-know were just shit-out-of-luck.

Robin Brass began her performance minutes before sunset by setting out on the grass four playback devices and seven picture frames each covered with a blank sheet of paper. From a sack, she spilled out onto the grass behind the line of frames a pile of old audio-cassette tapes and real-to real videotapes. These she proceeded to un-spool, gathering together a tangled mass of shiny Mylar.

The playback devices, two cassette players, a CD player and a mini-cassette player provided a soundtrack of voices of old men and what I thought to be the sound of horse’s hooves on hard ground. The words spoken were unclear.

She unveiled the seven photos, which were old photos of groups of encampments of teepees and of Native Americans in ceremonial dress; other photos seemed to be of family groups, others were of army or policemen.

Undistracted by the landing and taking off of the Helijet at the heliport just behind her, Brass brought the piece to a conclusion by turning one of the photo frames away from the audience so that it faced toward the pile of tangled Mylar and a thick stack of paper. She sat on the paper and threw herself backwards onto the mass of tangled tape. One by one with all the photos she repeated this action and the piece ended. It was dedicated to her sons.

It was only in talking to Brass after the performance that I learned a number of interesting facts. (I had been drinking a bit before this conversation so please forgive any errors, omissions, elisions, confusions, conflations, miscomprehensions, exaggerations, misrepresentations or general stupidities.) Her father was an archivist and historian who died suddenly some years ago. The stack of paper that sat on the grass was a copy of his historical research of four Native American communities in the Qu’appelle valley. The audio playback was of his interviews with elders and song keepers of those communities.

The four communities were forcibly and deceitfully brought together in the late nineteenth century to become one of Canada’s “model” reservations. These models were subsequently used to inform the creation of the South African apartheid system.

Further the photos showed us people of those communities some of whom were related to Brass. The great aunts and uncles and cousins of Brass’s sons to whom the piece was dedicated.

These facts, which provide a rich context to the work, remain unknown to those who witnessed the live performance. It’s only through a direct engagement with the artist that the work’s meaning unfolds. A bit like real life.


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