In their collaborative performance on the closing night of Surrogates, artist-in-residence Charlene Vickers and Chad MacQuarrie activated the gallery space with a dynamic sequence of improvised gestural actions and musical accompaniment. Incorporating an eclectic range of props, Vickers’ performance is rendered as a series of acts through which she explores moods and modalities ranging from the deeply personal to the social, and from the satirical to the sincere. MacQuarrie and Vicker’s intuitive working relationship is evidenced in the seamless connection linking MacQuarrie’s guitar to the tone and atmosphere of Vickers’ sometimes-elliptical referents and her expressive motions. Simultaneously functioning as a response to the exhibition as well as a manifestation of ongoing discourses and concepts the artist has been developing independently.
Upon demarcating a path between two images, including Wall’s 1986 Storytellers and a black-and-white postcard of a woman in a canoe, Vickers’ transmutates and transports the space of the audience through what she terms the ‘Jeff Wall portal.’ This designation foreground the discursive parameters Vickers questions and problematizes. Vickers’ traversal of the delineated realm established herself and the audience as present in and transcending the space of artistic and visual discourse established by Wall and his contemporaries – a discourse that has functioned to occlude certain narratives as much as it has engendered new ones. Although the artists to whom it has been applied hotly contest the designation of the ‘Vancouver school’, the very existence of the term reveals the extent to which such artists, including Wall, Rodney Graham, Stan Douglas, Ian Wallace, Ken Lum, and Roy Arden, and their visual practices have dominated the city’s artistic identity on local, national, and international scales. For many years, photoconceptualism’s predominance in the international art sphere left little space for contemporary artists working in other mediums and paradigms to co-exist. The Vancouver School’s hegemonic control over the city’s distinctive vocabulary displaced and erased those who lay outside the restrictive and narrow-focus of art historical discourse. Within this constructed mythos, the continued presence and artistic production of contemporary First Nations artists was roundly dismissed as archaic and unfailingly traditional, and unresponsive to contemporary times. In transporting the audience through the ‘Jeff Wall portal,’ Vickers’ addresses the illusion of both a radical ‘break’ with past traditions while also asserting her own active and dynamic presence within the space purportedly established by Wall and his contemporaries.
The cones Vickers distributes amongst the audience after constructing the portal invite the audience members to augment their visual and aural acuity in order to participate in new modes of sensorial experience befitting the realm she has made present. Within this realm, Vickers reasserts her presence through a poetic gesture that sees the artist caress the contours of her body. As her hands brush the surface of her face and arms, the movement suggests ritual washing and cleansing, and implies rebirth and renewal; her gentle caresses of the surface of her body operate as a process of re-familiarization and self-actualization. Accentuated by MacQuarrie’s ethereal notes, Vickers’ sensuous pace is punctuated by an instant that sees her digging into her own torso, pulling at her flesh as she hunches her body (personal moment). It is an act that speaks the difficult and often painful process of self-realization, and the internal torment that frequently accompanies such processes.
A particularly poignant moment was Vickers’ encounter with Rodney Graham’s Diptych from 2015. With her brush in hand, Vickers traces the sign of the cross over the surface, then outlines the shapes within Graham’s image. Through this gesture, Vickers rejects the disinterested contemplation that characterizes the aesthetic experience in favour of a more personal, and ultimately embodied, response. Confronted with Graham’s self-portrait and the narratives and artistic practice he commemorates, Vickers’ asserts both her presence and absence in the domain of the Vancouver school of photoconceptualism while also challenging the hermetic singularity of the art object. In so doing, Vickers articulates alternative modes of engaging with and living through relations to art and objects - ways that ultimately deconstruct the separation between object and viewer and emphasize the experiential nature and presence inherent in the object itself.
Though improvised, the definiteness with which each act is performed and layered upon previous gestures suggests the culmination of a long period of reflection on the role of performance and the body, and the narratives and meanings that can be communicated through gesture. Early feminist art practices in the sixties and seventies turned to performance in order to regain control in the struggle over women’s bodies and lives; in a similar vein, Vickers deploys performance to reclaim the agency and autonomy denied to her and her contemporaries. Wall’s portal, constructed with his photograph of a staged tableaux of First Nations youths, exemplifies the manner in which indigenous representation has been co-opted and determined by non-indigenous artists. Just as feminist performance sought to undermine and challenge the assumptions and systematic restrictions imposed on women artists by a patriarchal art system, Vickers similarly seeks to develop modes of self-representation outside of the narrow parameters accorded to First Nations artists and individuals within a colonial settler state.
- by Weiyi Chang