'Everyone is temporarily able-bodied': This Halifax exhibit brings together aging and disability

Bodies in Translation: Aging and Creativity is aiming to create a new identity around "aging artists."

Bodies in Translation: Aging and Creativity is aiming to create a new identity around 'aging artists'

The Bodies in Translation exhibit. (Steve Farmer)

Artists later in life have frequently adapted their working methods to meet changing physical abilities. Take Matisse's paper collages or David Hockney's iPad paintings, for example. But while the field of disability arts is growing, few curators and writers are talking about where it meets the concept of aging.

Bodies in Translation: Aging and Creativity is an exhibition at Halifax's Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery that takes this intersection as a premise.

Curator Eliza Chandler, a professor in disability studies at Ryerson and former artistic director of Toronto's Tangled Art + Disability Gallery, was well-versed in disability studies before this project — but less so in aging. Chandler, a graduate of Halifax's NSCAD University, developed the concept for the exhibition — part of a research project by the same name — with Dr. Katie Aubrecht, a colleague and professor at Mount Saint Vincent University who works with research on aging, and gallery curator Ingrid Jenkner.

"There isn't really an aging art...It's not like disability art [which is] sort of a bubbling community. I don't really know many people identify as 'aging artists,'" Chandler says. As they began the curatorial process for Bodies in Translation, she was unsure how many artists would respond to the call for submissions, addressed to Maritime artists aged 65 and older. "I thought maybe no one would apply, [but] there were tons of applications," she laughs.

Onni Nordman's Among the Chancellors (detail). 2017, monotype. (MSVU Art Gallery)

The curators looked for work that not only dealt with themes of aging, but also looked at what each artist was thinking about accessibility. It's another key element of the exhibition.

"Bodies in Translation's commitment is to make all of our work follow a pretty high standard of accessibility, but also creative understanding of accessibility, so even though the show is not explicitly about disability, we wanted to make sure the gallery was implementing accessible curatorial practices," Chandler says. Having worked with establishing accessibility guidelines in her work at Tangled Art + Disability, it's an area she is well-versed in.

In disability studies, we have the saying that nobody is able-bodied — everyone is temporarily able-bodied, because if you live long enough, you'll become disabled.- Eliza  Chandler, curator and professor

"In disability studies, we have the saying that nobody is able-bodied — everyone is temporarily able-bodied, because if you live long enough, you'll become disabled," Chandler says. "We often age into disabilities, so eventually all of the accessibility requirements that the disability community has put forth [will] also address the aging community."

Chandler references a guide to accessible curatorial practices developed by Washington's Smithsonian Institution, considered to be an industry standard. The practices they implemented for the MSVU exhibition included developing an accessibility guidebook for the show — hanging work at lower heights, captioning videos, exhibiting touchable works and developing audio descriptions for each piece.

Cecil Day's Grasses. 2016, zinc plate, stonehenge paper, zinc plate, stonehenge paper, Charbonnnel ink. (MSVU Art Gallery)

Separate from the typical audio guide that gives background information about a piece, audio descriptions detail the works to people with vision impairments. In this case, the descriptions are created by the artists together with curator Ingrid Jenkner and recorded by each artist.

"Anyone could listen to a headset and hear the artists describe their work, explain their work," Chandler says. "I thought that was one of the best parts of the whole show, getting to hear the artists talk about their work...Photographer George Steeves displayed six photographs of aging people, and to hear him describe his relationships with the people and how close they were, it made me appreciate the photographs in a way that I don't know if I would have if they were just random people he had no connection with."

Other artists confront aging and accessibility in other ways. A video work by MJ Sakurai, "Vintage Plumbing and Wiring," talks about sex for seniors, while textile artist Anna Torma's "Red Fragments 1" includes a textile piece traded back and forth with an elderly aunt in Hungary as she was dying. Printmaker Cecil Day is exhibiting etching and linocut plates from her prints for blind and visually impaired viewers are able to experience the work.

George Steeves's Self-Portrait in Mirror. 2001, selenium-toned silver gelatin on fibre-based paper. (MSVU Art Gallery)

"That was a nice addition that's not following any standard of accessibility, but it was her creative response and generosity to include that," Chandler explains. Day's work in the show "doesn't explicitly reference aging, but in the way she describes and writes about her work, she talks about how her process of printmaking has changed with the onset of arthritis."

Having worked to develop and implement accessibility policy in other locations, Chandler is heartened to see how the conversation around disability has evolved since her own time studying in Halifax a decade ago and excited that the gallery plans to continue using best practices for accessibility in future shows to engage both aging and disabled audiences. "I think if you implement a practice, most people make use of it eventually."

Bodies in Translation: Age and Creativity. Featuring work by Cecil Day, Michael Fernandes, Karen Langlois, Onni Nordman, MJ Sakurai, George Steeves and Anna Torma. Until November 12. Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery, Halifax. www.msvuart.ca

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