Rebecca Bellmore became the first Native artist to represent North America at the Venice Biennale, and her “Mixed Blessing” sculpture is currently on display at Art Mur in Montreal. (Daniel J. Rowe The Eastern Door)
By: Stephanie E.M. Coleman, The Eastern Door’s fashion diva
So what if I told you that last weekend I was in the same room as a zebra and a manatee, and off in the corner the closet door was melting and sliding onto the floor?
I promise I’m not lying, dreaming, or writing an article about experimenting with hallucinogens. The zebra, the manatee, and the closet are all sculptures featured in Life Size, a contemporary art exhibit celebrating the 20th anniversary of the gallery Art Mûr in Montreal, on view until December 17.
Showcasing a vibrant and fantastic selection of contemporary sculpture, installation and 2D work, the exhibit spans multiple floors of an industrial loft-style building. As you walk from room to room, the true-to-life scale of the artwork makes you feel as if you “entered a painting to become an element among the composition,” as gallery co-directors Rhéal Olivier Lanthier and François St. Jacques emphasize in their curatorial statement.
From animals to interiors, you have the thrilling feeling of being able to sneak behind the ropes of a display and become a part of it, exploring an alternate reality in real time.
With this thrill comes another unsettling sensation, where you begin to question your everyday experience of reality in light of the sometimes surreal possibilities presented to you through the artwork.
This sensation is particularly intense when you encounter the works of Onkwehón:we artists featured in this important exhibition.
One of the largest private contemporary art galleries in Canada, Art Mûr regularly hosts exhibitions featuring contemporary works by Indigenous artists, such as Storytelling, the second edition of the Contemporary Native Art Biennial in 2014.
Life Size is no exception and includes powerful pieces by Nadia Myre, a member of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg Nation and the 2014 Sobey Award winner, and Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore, who in 2005 was the first Native artist to represent a North American country at the Venice Biennale with her video performance, Fountain.
As Biennales are basically the World Cup of the international art scene, it’s considered an enormous accomplishment for a contemporary artist to be invited to show their work in these events.
For Belmore however, with the honour comes the tension of an Indigenous artist representing Canada rather than Anishinaabe identity. She has the task of carving out this new space in the international art world, representing her people as well as the colonizer.
At Art Mûr, Belmore’s work Mixed Blessing addresses this tension that she lives daily. A lone figure kneeling with head bent to the floor and long black hair cascading from beneath a black hoodie, you notice immediately the isolation of the figure though surrounded by other works in a large open room.
Appliquéd on the back of the hoodie in the form of a cross are the phrases “Fuckin Artist” and “Fuckin Indian” in black. Where the two phrases intersect they share an N, which stands out in bright red.
The bright red N is like the space where two spheres intersect in a Venn diagram- this is the space that Belmore inhabits, included in the spheres of artist and Indian, yet branded in each sphere as separate, apart.
A single string of reds beads hangs from the forehead of the figure, immediately recalling bloodlines and identity.
The hair spilling out from around the figure anchors her to the space and claims it as a territory, if only temporarily. Belmore makes us aware that “Beyond this space – its materiality and making – there is a harder reality that must be constantly attended to.
The question of whether I ever get tired of representing “my people” is invariably posed regarding my art practice: I never tire of being Anishinaabe is my silent answer,” as she describes it in her artist statement.
Myre faced another aspect of a reality crisis while at a residency in the Gaspésien peninsula. In idyllic surroundings by the ocean, Myre found herself “in a state of guilty anguish about my profession and the relevance of it all amidst the global crisis of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war torn homes,” as she writes in her artist statement.
This excruciating gap between her reality and that of refugees prompted her to create the piece Gathering Sky. An abstract digital print, this work appears to be a net cast against a blue sky or an expanse of water.
You can imagine the futility of the exercise of trying to harness the elements using a net, the overwhelming vastness of the challenge and the inadequacy of the tool.
Myre writes that, “This work speaks to the impossibility of being human and living within these contradictory moments. How could you possibly gather sky and what does that mean?”