Douglas Coupland – Canadian Quintessentials


Douglas Coupland, Souvenir of Canada, 2005

I would advise any patriotic Canadian to take a few hours out of their day, head to the local library (or favourite torrent site), and get their hands on Douglas Coupland’s 2005 film Souvenir of Canada.  Douglas Coupland is best known as the witty author of Shampoo Planet (1992) and Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (1991)two of his thirteen novels which explore modern society, consumerism and materialism. These themes shine through also in Souvenir of Canada, a film which relates Coupland’s personal search for the “Canadian identity” by way of his 2005 art installation “Canada House.”

The film is sweet, accompanied by an often insightful narrative by Coupland himself, and it manages to capture some of the quintessential markers of the patriotic self-identity held by most Canadians. The search for a “Canadian Identity” seems to be an ongoing challenge, permanently riddled with confusion, multiplicity, and clichés (although I do love my hockey sticks, Mounties, and maple leaves). Yet Coupland manages to approach the topic in a manner which captures something of both his personal, and the universal, Canadian experience.


Humour is key to this film’s poignancy – Coupland recalls learning about the  “Ookpik” in elementary school, and tells us about the ambitious cross-Canada road trip he undertook in his twenties with his then-best-friend, with one lone audio-tape (the rest forgotten at home).  Over the course of the trip, both the friendship and the audio tape suffer, the audio tape eventually winding up trashed on the side of the road, having been flung from the car in a moment of desperation following thirty hours of playing on repeat.

Canada House

Douglas Coupland, Canada House, 2005

Coupland’s construction of Canada House is what makes the video most fascinating, and since the installation no longer stands today, Souvenir of Canada is its last remaining remnant.   Coupland begins his project by searching out what he considers the perfectly Canadian house – one which reminds him of the house he grew up in as a child, shown to us in snippets of his old family videos. After settling upon a Vancouver CMHC house which had been slated for demolition, he empties it of all its contents, and paints every surface bright white – because what is more Canadian than snow, after all?


Coupland then proceeds to assemble a collection of material items – empty Kraft Dinner boxes and jerry cans, vintage Canadian beer cans, old Canadian hunting magazines, convincingly realistic sculptures of Canadian geese, and plaid-upholstered couches – which he, from his own personal experience, relates to Canada.  He goes further than simply collecting items – he creates some.

Buoy Lamps

Buoy Lamps built by Douglas Coupland

A hand-made drawing of Terry Fox’s leg hangs in one of the upstairs bedrooms, and the garage is filled with imitation electrical towers constructed from old hockey sticks.  Another room is filled with tall lamps, built from stacks of discarded buoys found on the shores of Georgian Bay.  One small wall is dedicated to a kindergarten-esque draw-your-own-maple-leaf exercise in which all Canada House guests were encouraged to participate.

With Canada House, Coupland undertakes a very successful exploration of how personal and national identities are formed and intertwined – where our sense of Canadian identity stems from, and how we can reference it.  He focuses upon the material object as a means of constructing and/or accessing identity, and illuminates the private relationships that individuals may have to these objects – which we can call cultural consumer objects.

Douglas Coupland, Canada House, 2005

Items like Tim Hortons cups, Kokanee and Moosehead beer cans, Windsor salt boxes, and so on connect upon an individual, nostalgic level to personal experiences and childhood memories that are unique to each person – memories of Tim Hortons after hockey practice, or drinking a beer with dad.  They become inexorably entwined with habit and memory, arguably two of the core anchors of an individual’s self-identity. And yet, the very fact of their commodified, mass-produced presence in Canada allows for very similar ties to be formulated simultaneously by any number of Canadian citizens who also encounter these objects and images in their lives, allowing for shared facets of experience and self-identity.  These cultural consumer objects thereby inadvertently acquire a value which makes them akin to national Canadian symbols such as the beaver or the maple leaf, and thus worthy of appearance in the quintessentially “Canadian” art of Douglas Coupland’s Canada House.


Sarah Tacoma – Fragile Ground at NF Gallery

The Path Leading, Sarah Tacoma

Last Thursday, May 12th, at the opening reception for Contact 2011: Fragile Ground at Norman Felix Gallery, I had the chance to meet and interview the fabulous Ontario-based artist Sarah Tacoma.  Sarah has eight wonderful pieces in the show, most of which are large-scale, panoramic landscape photographs taken in northern Canada.

Some of Sarah’s admirers

These “dreamscapes,” as she calls them, are meant to capture nature in such a way as to “draw attention to the beauty and fragility of Canada’s north and its people.”  Sarah mounts her large images on a sturdy frame of birch board, and coats most of them with a thick, shiny layer of resin.

While I am not usually a giant fan of landscape photography, Sarah’s approach manages to create almost a new genre out of it – one which I absolutely adore.  Her work creates a delicious, tactile juxtaposition between the coarse, naturalistic sides of the birchwood mounting, and the glistening resin glaze which here and there drips ever-so-delicately off the smooth surface of the piece and down its roughened sides. The landscapes themselves are genuinely spellbinding, for they seem to offer privileged glimpses of lonely, beautiful, and remote vistas that feel at once peacefully mellow and wildly free. They provoke a very personal sense of nostalgia, as though they gently recall half-remembered dreams, or hint at long-lost memories from childhood. I found myself swept away by the romantic wistfulness and natural authenticity of Sarah’s work, lost in the daydreams from which her art seems to be woven.

The Dreamers, Sarah Tacoma

Sarah described to me the process involved in applying resin to her pieces, a task which apparently is not only challenging and painstaking, but in fact can be life-threatening if done improperly.

Horse, Sarah Tacoma

The thick, poison-fumed resin must be applied like viscous molasses, spread carefully and evenly over the surface of the piece from behind the protected visage of a gas-mask.  It must then be heated to a very specific temperature using a blowtorch, which is the most delicate part of the process. Under-heating the resin will fail to harden and set it, meaning it will simply slide off the surface like a sheet of melting snow, while over-heating it can in fact cause the entire thing to burst into flames.

Sarah recalls having made both mistakes before, citing one instance of over-heating as a happy accident, and explaining that she felt the marring caused by the flames actually added a new level of interest to her piece. Personally, I can’t say that I would be likely to consider any artistic product of mine worth the all-consuming, near-death terror caused by my piece exploding into flames beneath my hands – but I suppose that would be why I write about these things from the safety of my laptop, and leave death-defying risks in the name of art to braver souls than I.

Flowers, Sarah Tacoma

Most recently, Sarah has begun to experiment with a new medium in order to steer away from the risks associated with resin – she is opting instead for the eco-friendly, baby-safe (yes m’am!) medium wax. By covering the surface of her pieces with a thickly mottled coating of wax, Sarah creates a hazy, blurred, and distant effect apparent in her piece Flowers (pictured above). It is quite common for photographers to experiment with varying degrees of blurriness and sharpness in their images, and most use either computer programs like Photoshop or simply their camera’s settings to achieve this. Sarah’s method however is a creative, tactile, and authentic approach to achieving a very appealing version of this effect. She deliberately applies thick layers of melted wax in certain areas to create a cloudy, distant appearance, while leaving other parts almost entirely exposed and well-defined. As a result, the viewer somewhat feels as though they are observing the scene through a pair of rose-tinted, rain-speckled glasses.

Cedar Forest, Sarah Tacoma

If you like Sarah’s art (and how could you not?) be sure to check out her website and see the rest of her lovely work! Also check out the Norman Felix fan page to see pictures from our Contact 2011 opening reception.

Sandy Saad – Purloined Stories

On April 27th 2011, the Doris McCarthy Gallery of UTSC hosted the opening reception of the MVS Curatorial Studies Graduating Exhibition, “Purloined Stories.” The show, curated by young, Toronto-based Sandy Saad, featured large-scale paintings, videos, and photographic montages by Canadian artists who have created contemporary adaptations of famous historical political pieces. The massive size and bold graphics alone were stunning within the petite gallery space.

Kent Monkman, Sunday in the Park, 2010

Guests were offered sushi and wine, and many were magnetically drawn to the panoramic landscape and colourful characters of Kent Monkman’s Sunday in the Park (2010).  This surrealist vista is based upon Bierstadt’s Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California (1868), although the breathtaking, fantastical scope of Monkman’s glimmering landscape could almost be a theatrical landscape still from Avatar (Cameron, 2009). The painting is populated by flamboyantly-clad characters positioned in a layout that mirrors Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-86).

Georges Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884-1886

However, while the characters in Seurat’s painting are faceless and anonymous, so banal and idealized as to almost blend with their surroundings, Monkman’s characters have…well…character! Dressed in glamorized drag costumes, some also sport mutated variations on aboriginal headdresses, and together they pose for a painter – Monkman’s “alter ego” Miss Chief Eagle Testicle. Kent Monkman, a Toronto-based artist of Cree descent himself, creates work that deliberately challenges the mythologized and romanticized conceptions of aboriginal culture initially developed during the colonization of the Americas. These mythologies, which have perpetuated into the present day, involve the suppression and ultimate erasure of aspects and personalities that Monkman embodies within this painting.

Adad Hannah, Raft of the Medusa (100 Mile House), 2010 – Film Still

The piece I found most interesting was a high-def video installation by Adad Hannah entitled Raft of the Medusa (100 Mile House) (2010).  This five-minute video (which you can watch on his website) displays a cast of costumed characters posing against an artificial backdrop in a re-enactment of Theodore Gericault’s sensation-inducing painting Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819).

Theodore Gericault, Raft of the Medusa, 1818-1819

This painting was responsible for provoking a scandal in nineteenth-century France, for it brazenly depicted the grisly aftermath following the shipwreck of a French naval frigate called the Méduse. Due to a shortage of emergency lifeboats, about 150 people found themselves stranded upon a starvation-wracked, corpse-strewn, and cannibalistic raft, and only fifteen survived a fortnight of isolated carnage and madness.  The accident itself was caused by the incompetency of the ship’s captain – a man who had been appointed for political reasons, despite being unfit for the job. At the time, many held the monarchy of Louis XVIII to be responsible, although his actual culpability is now considered highly questionable. Gericault chose this controversial, embarrassing (for the government), and horrifying event as the subject of an uncomissioned painting, deliberately depicting the raft’s prisoners in a moment of futile hope, clambering desperately upon rotting corpses to reach out at a lone ship sailing by in the distance.

Adad Hannah, Raft of the Medusa (100 Mile House), 2010 – Film still

Hannah’s recreation of Gericault’s painting, and his choice to make it a video, has quite a fascinating effect.  His video, as well as its accompanying stills, are shiny, colourful, and fresh-looking – the people (even the corpses) appear youthful, airbrushed and beautiful, brightly lit and sharply defined. This apparent re-casting of a horrific event characterized by brutality and bloodshed in this way seems to be a self-contradiction. Gericault’s painting had served to heighten the horror, the pallid skin of the corpses and the misery of the suffering survivors, creating a gloomy and grisly atmosphere intended to elicit a visceral sense of empathy and simultaneous revulsion in the viewer.  However Adad’s characters, clothed in contemporary garb, adrift on teal-turquoise seas, are unconvincing and palpably fraudulent – the story they are supposed to be telling seems removed and unrelated, and viewers find themselves instead studying the subjects of this artifice, searching for tell-tale signs of fraud and pretence (which are readily presented for the finding). The viewer sympathizes with the models in the video, as they sway, or adjust slightly to become more comfortable, considering how it would feel to have to hold a pose like that for five minutes, rather than sympathizing with the characters that the actors should be representing – those individuals stranded amid starvation, dehydration, cannibalism, and madness, on a hopeless raft in the middle of the sea.  In this sense, the The Raft of the Medusa’s story is indeed “purloined” or “robbed” almost entirely of its original meaning, with its iconography appropriated and its resulting product somehow entirely isolated.

Adad Hannah, Raft of the Medusa (100 Mile House), 2010 – Film still

What emerges from this experience is the realization that Hannah’s piece is not in fact a depiction of the shipwrecked Méduse’s survivors, but instead is an appropriated and purposefully artificial re-creation of Gericault’s painting, designed to provoke self-consciousness during the viewing process.  To raise questions about the artist’s intentions, the purpose of the subject matter, the veracity of the story being told, and the truthfulness of re-appropriation practices in general.  There is a great essay about Hannah’s work and interpretation to be found here.

Liberty Lost (G20 Toronto), Carole Conde & Karl Beveridge, 2010

Liberty Lost (G20 Toronto)(2010) by Carole Conde and Karl Beveridge was another great piece included in the show, loosely based off of Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830). Conde & Beveridge have been christened the “social conscience of the Canadian art world” by Canadian Art Magazine, and their work often contains contemporary political criticisms.

Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830

David Buchan’s piece Always (1993), Jakup Dolejs’ Tribune (2006), and Ho Tzu Nyen’s 2009 video projection Earth composed the remainder of the show.  These pieces are interesting in their own right, and for the new perspectives they create or illuminate in relation to the classic art historical pieces they reference.  Saad’s show was a resounding success in my eyes, and if you have a chance to stop by and take a look before it ends on May 21st, I would highly recommend doing so!  Check out some pictures from the event on the Varley Gallery’s page here.

Aganetha Dyck – Apisculpture

Aganetha Dyck, Queen, 2007 | Beework on figurine of Queen Elizabeth II  (Photo Credit:

In recent years, there has been a growing concern for the welfare of a tiny, yet extremely important, species of insect that graces our planet – the bees.  Apiculturists (beekeepers) have been reporting strange incidents in which entire hives of their bees vanish without a trace, leaving none of the usual evidence of a predatory attack, nor the tell-tale corpses which would reveal disease to be the culprit. The cause of these disappearances has been widely debated, and explanatory theories range to include global warming, radiation from cell phones, pesticide use, and poor bee nutrition. Whatever the reason, apiculturists, biologists, and food scientists agree – the continued disappearance of bees on a massive scale (we are talking millions of bees here), referred to as colony collapse disorder, has the potential to wreak havoc upon our planet and our survival. It is estimated that thirty to fifty percent of the world’s edible crops are pollinated by bees, and without the fulfilment of this vital role, these crops could not survive, and a widespread famine would result.

Aganetha Dyck, Closest To Her, 2007  (Photo Credit: Michael Gibson Gallery Website)

The bees have long been a favourite collaborator for Aganetha Dyck, a Canadian artist born near Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1937. Dyck, whose artistic statement expresses a fascination with “how knowledge is transported and transcribed between humans and other species,” has been working together with swarms of bees since 1991 to create fantastical pieces that combine the creations of humanity with the creations of nature’s pollen-bearers.  My favourite series of Dyck’s, entitled The Masked Ball, features a number of delicate, beeswax-adorned and distorted porcelain figurines which had been “treated” by the bees for periods of time ranging from one to sometimes six years.  Initially revealed in 2008 at the Michael Gibson Gallery in London, Ontario, this series was not Dyck’s first bee-collaborated work – she had previously experimented with bee-treated shoes, clothes hangers, and hats – however I find it to be her most beautiful and poignant work.

Aganetha Dyck, The Masked Ball Series: Promenade Princess, 2008 (Photo Credit: Michael Gibson Gallery Website)

Much of Dyck’s work with the bees speaks to the relationship existing between humanity and the bee species, and this series is perhaps the most literal expression of a relationship that is complex and multifaceted, but ultimately rests upon mutual interdependence. Not only do we rely upon bees to maintain the ongoing continuation of our food supply, but actually the bees rely largely upon humans for their current survival as well. Right now, about 95% of bees are tended by apiculturists, with only 5% existing in the wild. This intensely interdependent relationship however is a tacit one – and overshadowed in most people’s minds by more acute memories of painful beestings or allergic reactions.  Bees are thus most often associated with discomfort rather than fondness, and perceived as menacing rather than nurturing characters.

Aganetha Dyck, The Masked Ball Series: The Veiled One, 2008 (Photo Credit: Michael Gibson Gallery Website)

To some, the images of these sculptures appear creepy and alarming, bringing to mind nightmarish wax museum horror stories in which the human “wax sculptures” are actually corpses or living persons that have been immersed in boiling wax by the mad sculptor [think Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), and House of Wax (2005)].  These images also elicit a vague discomfort associated with the disturbing notion of being physically overtaken and eventually swallowed by a foreign attachment – in this case, honeycomb – and mentally losing oneself in the process. A malignant tumour grows and eventually encases its bearer, infiltrating their consciousness and slowly turning them into a (physically or psychologically) unrecognizable monstrosity. We have seen it before – with Dr. Octavius/”Octopus” from Spider-man 2 (2004), and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Frodo/Gollum and the ring.

On the other hand, The Masked Ball functions to highlight the productive aspect of the human-bee relationship, illustrating its mutually creative potential by exhibiting the product of combined interspecies work.  The finished pieces are graceful, for the bees often follow and extend the curves of each sculpture with their wax, in a sense continuing and expanding upon the work of the original human sculptor. The manner in which beeswax adorns these small human figurines is both decorative and protective, and creates the most literal metaphor of an idealized human-bee relationship. The bees swarm these delicate human figurines not to attack or destroy them, but to build upon, protect and beautify them.

Aganetha Dyck, The Masked Ball Series: The Whisper, 2008 (Photo Credit: Michael Gibson Gallery Website)

Dyck herself expresses a genuine care for the bee species, explaining that she has “tried to see how close I can get to the bees, and understanding them.” She describes how they have a unique “warmth and a sound and a feel if you let them crawl on you,” and that she feels profoundly “home” when she is with them. Her artist statement highlights her interest in communicating with bees, and learning from them, thereby exploring the possibility of “interspecies communication”.

Dyck’s interest in bees hinges also on a larger, and more currently relevant issue than interspecies communication.  In her words, “I am interested in the small, in the really tiny of the world. We’re going so fast, because we have so many people to feed and house and so we just bulldoze ahead. It’s the simplest things that already exist and work so hard for us, that I think we’re kind of ignoring…”

Aganetha Dyck, The Masked Ball Series: The Promise, 2008 (Photo Credit: Michael Gibson Gallery Website)

This concern, for the havoc we are wreaking upon the fragile ecosystems which we share with countless other species, has been expressed increasingly by the more environmentally-aware members of society, promulgated on television and in newspapers, even addressed in the movies.  As Aganetha Dyck puts it, “If somebody said to somebody else, ‘if you could only save one species what species would that be?’ most people would say humans. Most people don’t think we’re a part of nature and that kind of is what we’re talking about here. We don’t often think about where we trod, why we alter things, and what the implications of that are.”  This issue does in fact tie to her fascination with “interspecies communication,” because our mutual reliance with a species such as the bees means that there is a distinct human-animal relationship in existence which needs to be cultivated and nurtured, and so there is an ongoing process of interspecies communication occurring.

Dyck is not the first or the only artist to collaborate with a bee team in the interest of art. Garnett Puett was one of the earliest artists to put a team of bees to work on what he calls “apisculpture,” and Hilary Berseth afterward followed in Dyck’s footsteps creating some hauntingly beautiful and fascinating sculptures that look like other-worldly cities or palaces. While Puett shared a very similar affectionate and respectful attitude towards the bees as that promulgated by Dyck, Berseth’s focus remained instead on the art object itself, with the expressed goal of actually trying to manipulate the bees’ behaviour to produce a particular effect and thereby shape the product of their work.

A “Programmed Hive” by Hilary Berseth, just one in a series of more than seven.

Garnett Puett, Mr. Zivic, 1986 (Photo Credit: The Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum Website)

David Ellingsen – Naked

Photo Credit: David Ellingsen Photography

This series by Vancouver, BC photographer David Ellingsen, entitled “Future Imperfect,” exhibits one of the most fascinating and powerful artistic visions that I have yet encountered. These photographs, which depict high-contrast, colour-muted wilderness landscapes peppered with nude, inert human bodies, are immensely moving and equally thought-provoking. Upon my first encounter with them, I found I was spellbound and unable to keep them off of my mind – I was also impressed by their ability to fascinate me without resorting to the drama of grotesquery or tragedy. Their very simplicity, which I can’t help but think of as “purity,” elicited an instinctive and visceral response in me. Take a look at some of his shots below, and see if they do the same for you. Look closely though, because sometimes finding the bodies is like a creepier version of Where’s Waldo:

Photo Credit: David Ellingsen Photography

Photo Credit: David Ellingsen Photography

Photo Credit: David Ellingsen Photography

Photo Credit: David Ellingsen Photography

The visceral impact that I experience in response to these photos is largely created by the juxtaposition existing in each shot between the delicacy of the soft, white and inert human bodies, and the enormity of rough, wild, and uncontrolled nature enveloping them. The bodies – no different from my own – look as small and fragile as slugs or worms, and as easy to crush. Yet there they lie, almost trustingly, amid the wild tumble of trees and roots, the cold wetness of snow and mud, and the stiff, sharp tangles of grass.

Photo Credit: David Ellingsen Photography

The manner in which these few pale and vulnerable bodies manage to transform their surrounding landscape is incredible. Terrain which might otherwise seem mundane and uninspired in a landscape shot is brought to life – raw, dynamic and dangerous in contrast to the exposed bodies. We cannot help but empathize with the displaced human figures, and as such find that we have a unique appreciation for the texture of the rocky riverbed on which they lie, or the sway of the long, prickly grasses surrounding them.  Even the symmetry of sky and water seems sharper, and the twists of a tree branch more artful.

Photo Credit: David Ellingsen Photography

But what about the humans themselves, their bodies draped so artfully yet carelessly upon rocks and tree branches and grasslands? Are they dead? Newly born? Are they sleeping? They look peaceful…most of the images radiate serenity…yet the images are still unnerving, and leave one feeling rather uncomfortable. Some of the humans look like misplaced sunbathers, lost in an environment that is cold, wet, grey, and overcast. Others look like unblemished corpses washed up on the pebbly edge of a river, or strewn with a haphazard gracefulness across the rocky swell of a hill.

Photo Credit: David Ellingsen Photography

When I initially stumbled upon this series, my first response was awe, and admiration for the unique vision of the artist. Having thought more deeply about it, I realize how strange it is that I this imagery should be considered “unique” at all! The basis of this series is nakedness – the unclothed, unadorned human being in uncultivated, naked nature.  Which is, of course, the most basic and natural state of existence, and the most “naked” of all realities! We are, every one of us, born into this huge wild world vulnerable, coverless and defenseless. But this fact is somewhat lost in our contemporary, civilized Western lives. The “wild world” which we inhabit instead feels more like a measurable, and manageable entity which we control, cultivate, and record. The ever-increasing scope of our technologies, including the internet’s power to connect, see, and inform, puts the world digitally at our fingertips and seemingly into our hands. In our daily lives, the wilderness is reduced more often to photographs and imagery on a screen than it is experienced in the raw. Even our experiences “in the raw” are questionable – we vacation at house-like cottages with manicured gardens, and we camp with sleeping tents, hiking boots, and raincoats. We forget (or ignore) that our own bodies are part of this landscape, and at its mercy – we instead identify more closely with our digital or online personalities, and develop a self-conception as an entity removed from, and in control of, nature.  We become compartmentalized city bodies which reside in clean and human-controlled habitats, travel through the organized, man-made environments of city streets, sidewalks, and parks, often in pod-like, mechanized transportation devices, and are almost always swaddled by the shelter of man-made clothing.

Photo Credit: David Ellingsen Photography

For a city or suburban body, these images of nakedness and wilderness awaken in us a discomfiting recognition of something which is fundamental to our nature, but feels somewhat foreign all the same. Of our vulnerability, and our dependence on the mercy of nature and its ability to provide for us. Of our core, animal beginnings, unprotected and unburdened by technology or clothing. It is a recollection of the irresistible, devastating love and fear we must feel in the face of the untamed wild.

Photo Credit: David Ellingsen Photography

Photo Credit: David Ellingsen Photography

*All images credited to David Ellingsen Photography*

Max Streicher – Clowning Around

Endgame (Coulrophobia) at Nuit Blanche 2010 (Photo Credit: Scotiabank’s Nuit Blanche Website)

To those of you who managed to make it out for Nuit Blanche this year and were able to successfully navigate the sea of drunk people surrounding Yonge and Dundas, I hope that you had the chance to see the Max Streicher’s startling, larger-than-life installation Endgame (Coulrophobia).  “Coulrophobia” is the term used to describe the irrational fear of clowns, and it is upon this phobia which Streicher’s installation plays.

As I strolled down Yonge toward Front street during Nuit Blanche, I encountered a group of people who were staring up at the buildings flanking the street with facial expressions communicating various degrees of horror.  Looking up to see what the fuss was about, I caught my first glimpse of Max Streicher’s Endgame – a massive, deathly pale, grinning clown face with yellow eyes peering out from the blackness of an alleyway, dozens of feet above street level.  Taking a step back, I realized that two more ghostly faces were lodged within the alleyway further up, near the top of the buildings, appearing to hover between them and grinning malevolently out from their dark lair upon pedestrians below.

Endgame (Coulrophobia) at Nuit Blanche 2010 (Photo Credit: Scotiabank’s Nuit Blanche Website)

Now I should point out here that personally, I do not and have not ever harboured a fear of clowns.  While I am not particularly fond of them, and feel more sorry for than amused by the fellow with a large red nose and oversized feet who is probably deeply depressed about his choice of career.  However I found myself thoroughly disconcerted by these disembodied clown faces, and substantially creeped out– which is perhaps why I was so intrigued by them.  Visiting the Nuit Blanche website afterwards to read about this piece was an interesting experience, since the floating heads were described as “happy-go-lucky characters” and the installation referred to as “whimsical, generous” and evocative of a sort of “empathy.”  Perhaps this would be the case in daylight, but it is certainly not a sense I got even remotely at night.  I mean, please, somebody tell me if you think the character above looks “happy-go-lucky”!

The choice of title for this piece is very interesting. Endgame. There are many possible things this could refer to – the end of the game played by the floating clown heads? Are they stuck, lodged in this alley against their will, disenabled from further play?  Or is it supposed to be endgame for the viewers – the defenseless pedestrians whom the clowns are preying upon in some sick horror-show game of their own device?

Stephen King’s It, 1990

Those of you who have been traumatized by Stephen King’s vastly disturbing movie It (Wallace, 1990) would likely subscribe to this explanation, and I believe it is at these very people, who already sustain a secret fear of clowns, that this piece is targeted.  The clowns lurk in a dark (and what would usually be deserted) city alleyway, hidden from direct view, able to spy secretly from the shadows.  We fear the city alleyway, and what we imagine is hidden within its unfathomed depths – criminals (the type which will slit your throat for your wallet), rapists, serial killers, desperate drug addicts, filthy poverty, rabid dogs, and worse even monsters, vampires…and now evil clowns.  The alleyway is an area which is culturally loaded with negative implications, because it is an unseen and unknown no-man’s-land. Streicher astutely recognizes this point, and blatantly exploits it.

Floating Giants, 2001  (Photo Credit: Max Streicher’s website)

There is also a third potential meaning behind Endgame, which could refer to the very materials used in this installation.  These giant balloon heads, which are held in place between the alley walls by their internal air pressure alone, are constructed of vinyl from recycled billboards.  The artist has expressed pleasure in the fact that in his art, corporate ads (which he perceives as profit-driven and therefore selfish) have been re-contextualized into playing a fantastical, fictional, fanciful role, and he has therefore, as he puts it, “turn[ed] propaganda against itself.”  And so, the end of the advertising game is in his art, at least for now.

Max Streicher has produced a number of other intriguing pieces in a similar style, of a massive scale, and made with air-filled nylon spinnaker (the material which boat sails are made of).  Floating Giants features two massive white figures, in swimming/flying positions, suspended high in the air by a combination of helium balloons and large anchoring metal poles.  Their stiff poses and facelessness are eerie, and the Frankenstein-like composition of their seven-meter long spinnaker bodies increases the sense of menace created as they loom weightlessly above.

Trio in a Box is even more disturbing to look at, a piece which features three inanimate bodies attached via metallic stomach tubes to a central, empty cardboard box.  It instantly brings to mind associations with sci-fi movies depicting half-machine humans, and horrifying images from The Matrix (Wachowski, 1999) of millions of unconscious human bodies being nourished via metal tubes while their minds rot in a false universe, and their life energy fuels a world ruled by machines.  The references go on and on, including the oracular Cylon hybrid of Battlestar Galactica (2004), forever chained to the basestar speaking incomprehensible riddles of the future, or psychic Agatha from Minority Report (Spielberg, 2002), the creature with precognitive abilities so acute that she is kept floating in a tub, wired up to television screens for the benefit of the human justice system.

Max Streicher’s installations seem to have taken some inspiration from Claes Oldenburg’s colourful, soft-sculptures of the mid-late twentieth century, combined with a Tim Burton-esque twist.  His work is provocative – it hints subtly at horror and science fiction, while remaining outwardly light-weighted and light-hearted, and creating an enjoyable if uncanny spectacle for the viewer.

Trio in a Box, 2006 (Photo Crit: Max Streicher’s Website)

Neo in The Matrix viewing the field of “human batteries” (1999)

The oracular “hybrid” from Battlestar Galactica (2004)

Introducing Droit de Suite in Canada?

Lady Gaga, the boundary-pushing, shock-inducing, show-stealing pop sensation of our age earned a whopping $62 million in 2009, I recently learned.  James Cameron, the director of Avatar, earned $210 million the same year, and talented actor Johnny Depp earned $75 million.  These three, ranked within the top ten of this year’s Forbes Celebrity 100 list, have made a killing by way of exposure in print, television, radio, online, social media, DVD, CD and performance.  Most visual artists however, even those whose early works now sell for hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars, are nowhere near so lucky.

Mary Pratt, Study for Butter and Honey 1, 2008

Mary Pratt, Study for Butter and Honey 1, 2008

A recent Globe and Mail article by Kate Taylor drew my attention to the currently hot and controversial issue of potentially introducing visual artist resale rights in Canada – also called droit de suite (meaning right to follow).  She opens by introducing the case of artist Mary Pratt, a Canadian painter who is now in her later years, and suffering from health conditions which prevent her from being able to paint – her job and livelihood – for more than an hour or two per day.  Forty-four years ago, Pratt sold a painting for $50, an amount that in today’s dollar would be equivalent to $332.10.  This piece however is currently being priced for auction by Sotheby’s at somewhere between ten and twenty thousand dollars for resale – an enormous increase of 40 to 50 times the value, of which Pratt will see never a dime.

The main bone to pick here is that visual artists – the type who paint, sculpt or draw – produce products that are perceived and valued as unique, one-of-a-kind objects.  Over time, fame combined with rarity can increase the value and price of a work of art, until it is considered “priceless” (or maybe just worth millions of dollars).  The problem is that, for most artists, this increase in value and the giant profits which come with it never trickle down to them.  Their sales are one-offs – in their youth, they produce un-seen, un-heard-of pieces of work, struggle to sell them for what is usually a pittance, and have no further financial claim whatsoever to any of the royalties their pieces then generate.  They end up spending decades repeating this cycle in order to try and build a reputation, which they may finally achieve near (or after) the end of their lives, when they are no longer capable of producing new art and profiting from their “success.”

Lemon Marilyn, Andy Warhol

Lemon Marilyn, Andy Warhol, originally sold for $250 and now valued at over $15 million

C’est la vie, you may say, such is the life of an artist, n’est pas?  But there is a serious inconsistency here, because lest you forget, actors, directors, producers, authors, and performers also create art, but art which continues to generate royalties for the artists, from which they and their families continue to profit  and live off of for years into the future.  An author can print millions of copies of books to sell, without depleting the value of their product, as actors can profit from millions of DVD sales, and singers can profit from the sale of millions of CDs or MP3 downloads.  The value of their art isn’t touched.  The value of an original piece of visual art however, assuming that it is even reproducible, can be so severely damaged by a large volume of reproductions that it can become all but worthless.  The sad truth of the art world is that we are idol-worshippers – we lust for the original and the unique treasure of the art object itself, one which has garnered respect, value, and fame as it has matured, and one which the artist probably relinquished all financial claims to years ago in exchange for pennies.

So what is the solution to this dilemma?

CARFAC (Canadian Artists Representation le Front Des Artists Canadians) has proposed that the best solution would be to implement droit de suite, the establishment of resale rights for artists.  The foundation of their proposal is that in the future, artists could expect to receive between 3-5% royalties from the re-sale of their artwork, given that it is priced at over $1000, and sold via a public institution.  The royalties would be shaved off of the profits made by the facilitating institution (gallery or dealer), and the artist (and their estate) would be entitled to these royalties until the end of their lives, and for 75 years afterward, ensuring that they and their families benefit from the profits that their work was responsible for generating.


Jean-Francois Millet, The Angelus, 1857-59

Droit de suite is currently in practice in 59 states and countries around the world, including Australia, the state of California, the U.K., and France, in which the protocol originated, and the resale royalties range between 2 and 5 percent.  Droit de suite was originally introduced in France during the mid 1800s, following an tragic incident in which Jean-Francois Millet’s widow and children, after his early death, were left to barely survive in the depths of poverty even as his painting, “The Angelus,” was sold for obscene profits for the dealer.  An outcry arose in their defense, precipitating the very first implementation of droit de suite.

Today, this issue is particularly acute in relation to Aboriginal art.  Much Aboriginal art garners substantial profits in the international art market, and there have been a number of cases in which the Aboriginal artist and his/her family continue to reside remotely in isolated poverty while their pieces are being sold around the world for millions of dollars.  In the case of Australian Aboriginal artist Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, a painting which the artist himself sold for $150 increased in value to $205,000, then $500,000 at subsequent auctions years later.  Artist Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, also an Australian Aboriginal, had a similar experience, in which his piece entitled Warlugulong increased in value from the $2,500 he sold it for to almost $2.5 million within thirty years.

Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Warlugulong

Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Warlugulong

Perhaps I have sympathy for this proposal because I am an artist myself. Or maybe because I think that art has a value which isn’t always acknowledged or reflected in the real world, when perhaps it should be.  However I must admit either way that the proposal has its flaws.  As some critics have sarcastically suggested, maybe we should start shaving off royalties for architects, craftspeople, software engineers, and so on, referring to the initiative as an absurd “cash-grab.” Others have suggested that the plan could back-fire and end up discouraging art sales and thereby harming artists.  Some of the more astute objections note the risk that it could wind up actually benefiting the wrong artists and at the wrong times – when they are “superstars” rather than struggling artists.

Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, Water and Tucker

Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, Water and Tucker, now valued by Sotheby’s at $150,000

This being said however, according to CARFAC, even “superstar” Governor General Award winning artists find it “difficult if not impossible to make a living from their art,” while the majority of artists’ incomes average out at less than $14,000 per year, and less than half of artists make more than $8,000 per year, unlike the average software engineer or architect who receives a comfy income in exchange for their creative genius.  And of course, this is all ignoring cases like business whiz Andy Warhol, who raked in impressive millions during his own lifespan.

So what do you think?  If you’d like to share, feel free!  Either way, I hope you take this as food for thought and maybe one day support the forward-thinking initiatives of CARFAC.