Thursday, September 22, 2011

"We are elegant"

Last Thursday when I first saw the YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES installation at Centre A, my reaction was: who are these cynical opportunistic artists, who refuse to give a shit about the DTES, who instead twist and turn the logic of their gallery hosts to demand the perks of the business class? As the days have gone by, and I’ve seen other artists at the Live festival attempt to engage the site of Main and Hastings, Young-hae Chang's (Korea) and Marc Voge's (U.S.A.) take on the matter seems more and more savvy and apt, providing a subtly corrosive comment on art, artists and curators, showing us how they are situated within a unique and disturbing social context.

It’s just words projected on to a gallery wall and a ambient soundtrack that lasts about 12 minutes. It’s worth a look.

Heavy Industries’ refusal to engage the street life of the DTES is contrasted with the work of Japanese artist, Sakiko Yamaoka who completed two actions which took her up and down Hastings and the surrounding streets.

The first involved a handful of participants who went from locale to locale, about ten in all, throughout the neighborhood. At the Sun Yat Sen classical garden, in front of the Japanese House and at the corner of the Carnegie Centre, our little group posed for photographs and video documentation of the action.

Yamoaka had interviewed older Japanese women in Vancouver and had harvested from them gestures which these women considered as representative of the word “elegant”. At each of the locales, the group posed in these gestures. Leaning our heads to one side, shaking hands and laughing, or in what I imagined to be the stylized gestures of the geisha, Yamoaka placed our hands and torsos to gain the desired effect and a photo was taken.

We carried two primly drawn signs which announced to the world that we were elegant.
The photographing and videotaping of the performance immediately caused a problem with the people on the street. There is a lot of illegal activity on the Hastings Street and people are loath to have their pictures taken, for the obvious reasons.

Curiously Yamoaka seemed oblivious to this problem, suggesting that the group pose in front of the Carnegie Centre so that she might get a photo of the building with us posing before it. Even as people approached demanding explanations and suggesting that the tape would need to be erased, we continued. Even as the two guys in the corner at the gardens shot up, we continued making our gestures and getting the photographic documentation necessary for some future exhibition.

Apart from the danger of confrontation with irate people on the street, the performance also elicited a profound sense of disquiet within the participants. So much so, that as we continued, more and more melted away, unwilling to participate further.

The incapacity of the action to engage the local community while using (at least partially) the spectacle of their lives as the background of the action elicited a profound sense of humiliation and shame. It struck to the core when an old codger walked past, glanced at the sign and said, with the cynical wisdom of the street “You certainly are!”

The next day, after some discussion, Yamoaka presented another performance. This time she concetrated her action exclusively on Hastings between Main and Corrall. Thankfully, there were no photographers or videographers to accompany us.

In this second action, a small group of participants carried the two “We Are Elegant” signs. People on the street were asked to provide us with a word, which we asked that they write on the signs. They were offered a bar of soap or a flower for their trouble.

Apart from one brief confrontation, this performance went much better. After an explanation of what we were doing, people were generally happy to contribute a word and walk away with a flower. Few people took the bar of soap and when the bucket of flowers was empty, the action ended.

Several of those flowers made their way to an impromptu sidewalk memorial on Hastings created for the woman murdered last week at the Regent Hotel. Her photo sits amongst candles and offerings of flowers, jewelry, cigarettes and food. Each offering is small, it’s what people have here, and the site is made of many many contributions. It’s a powerful moving tribute by the community for this woman, who spent her last days here, who died violently at the site of one of our elegant actions.


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