Thursday, June 14, 2007

Visible Art, Invisible Lives

I am collecting my thoughts on art and usefulness. I was ready to write a whole snarky entry about a performance video I saw at the Brooklyn Museum’s Global Feminisms show. The piece is by Rebecca Belmore, a native Canadian artist (I have come to understand that her First Nations background is important to her definition of herself and her art, which is why I include that information). Her piece is called The Named and the Unnamed. Here is the aforementioned snarky entry that I had begun to write about it:

“What is the point of this shit?”

This is the question I asked myself while watching a video of a Canadian woman expending considerable effort freeing the skirt of her red dress from the wooden board to which she had just nailed it. It was hard work, pulling the skirt from the nails, and it caused much ripping and sweating and groaning from the Canadian. Then, the minute she finished yanking the skirt from the final nail, she walked a few feet over from where she had been standing, and started nailing the tattered remains of the skirt onto another board just so she could wrench it off again.

It is not the artifact itself that seemed pointless to me--there was a kind of beauty in the repetitive action, the sight and sound of the ripping material, the saturated red superimposed on the drab urban squalor in the background. Its projection over a scattering of illuminated tungsten light bulbs added to its pleasing visual effect, as did the black words scrawled across the arms of the artist. If beauty were the purpose of the piece, I would not hesitate to applaud it as an unqualified success.

But that’s not why she did it, this Canadian artist. Beauty was the intentional and somewhat unimportant byproduct of a statement she wanted to make. Rebecca Belmore (That’s the artist’s name) wanted to—commemorate? memorialize? draw attention to?—the disappearance of some other Canadian women.

And then I started reading about these disappearances, and my will to critique sort of deflated. It really is a pretty gruesome story. Some 54 prostitutes disappeared from Vancouver’s Skid Row, the Downtown Eastside, between 1983 and 2001. The police did not even get involved until 1998, and did not make an arrest until February of 2002 when they arrested a pig farmer named Robert Pickton. His ongoing trial for the murder of 27 women began in January of 2006.

I don’t know. Originally I was struck by the time and effort that this Rebecca Belmore wasted in making this piece. Wouldn’t she have done more good by funneling those resources into a more direct action? She could have volunteered at a women’s shelter or a rehab center or raised money for the victims’ families. But she is an artist, the argument goes, not a social worker or a fundraiser or a politician. Her role is to commemorate, memorialize, draw attention to an issue. But, to what end?

Artists did not cure AIDS, for example. They wrote about it, painted about it, performed about it, sang about it, filmed movies about it, did anything they could think of to commemorate, memorialize draw attention to it. But cure it? Did they help anyone? Well, they helped themselves, undoubtedly, since AIDS directly affected so many in the art community. But Canadian junkies don’t go to art shows. Prostitutes are not healed by performance art. What about homophobes? Do they go? Policy makers? Do Republicans go to galleries?

It’s a confusing issue, kids, ain’t no question about it. Maybe I myself stand as reason enough for Belmore to have made the piece. I saw it, I remembered it, it inspired me to look up the story of the missing women, inspired me to write about it here. Maybe it will inspire you to read about the women too. And to—what? Feel something about them?

Many of these women’s disappearances went unnoticed for a long time, often years went by before they were reported missing. That is the saddest part of the story for me. It is heartbreaking to imagine a life so solitary that its end concerns no other living soul. And still, right now on this earth we all share, there are people alive and alone; people whose solitude is so complete that their status as alive or dead makes little difference to anyone but themselves.

I am reminded of something said to me once...

I lived in Chile for a year after I graduated college. I met many Chileans who had spent some ten, fifteen, twenty years abroad, in exile. The idea of exile and torture and political upheaval was, of course, incredibly thrilling to me—an American bored by my country’s stability. I was like a teenager jealous of her friend’s trouble at home. Drama, after all, is the fascination of suburban youth.

I remember a conversation I had with one woman who had spent the eighties in either Switzerland or Sweden—the countries have very similar-sounding Spanish names and I never could remember which was which. I was commenting on how unnerving I found the Chilean habit of openly staring at strangers in the street. She responded by saying, “Yes. I noticed when I was in Switzerland (Sweden), everyone looked down, looked away. Nobody looked at me there. I felt as if I’d become invisible, like I’d disappeared.”

Rebecca Belmore got me to notice her, and through her I noticed these 54 lost girls. Because of a piece of art, people previously invisible to me had become visible.

Maybe there is a hope for art, after all.



UmassMenus said...

I think the line between artistic political value and activism value converges and diverges based on what each person is trying to accomplish.

I want to make a punk rock band that defines a lot of the uneasiness between races and class structures, showcase them on stage, and be considered part of the dialogue on measures to make our country better.

But is my musicianship and lyrics as important or correlative to my actual activism in society? Am I just doing it for the fame? Is my music in itself providing someone to identify with these problems, thereby my music is an influence on confronting and fixing these issues.

I know that most of my work is all related to volunteering. I volunteer a lot, and I randomly blog people a lot. I hope this shows through my music and my daily mindset.

I feel the answer lies within each of us. I know people who are adamant about change and do nothing but drugs. I know people who create incredible music about proletariat movements and intellectuals, but barely touch ground with the common people who would need to listen. I know people who are activist, they are artists, and they are community leaders. What I don't know if there is a generalization that you can level someone's work, someone's activism, and whether each is able to define itself on a level deemed positive to help society.

Good post.

Anonymous said...

Ilana, I appreciate your essay. Thinking about things is always positive. For instance, thinking about things might have been useful if you could have understood that the boring stability in your suburbia-rich country is due to all the poking, meddling and harm that the USA has done everywhere else in the world, in special the South America. I don't know if you share this same truth with me. Chile suffered so much, and still today the history is told very differently in your stable country. No doubt evil is done anywhere in the world, in Chile as well by powerful chileans, but in the USA giving the other side of the story is very frowned upon, because moderate there is almost the same as extreme left or absolute paranoia. So getting to your point, of what was exactly the artist's point? I see in the end of your essay you seem to have understood that she had a point anyway, but if we are concerned about art being more pragmatic and actually solving problems, we are the ones doing something pointless, maybe looking into our own lives, the way we live them and the forces that actually influence them (like our governments) are the only pragmatic thing to do. I hope this wasn't too unpleasant.