You would have thought that representing Canada at the 2005 Venice Biennale would have changed Rebecca Belmore’s life forever. Thrust onto one of the art world’s pre-eminent stages, the Vancouver-based visual and performance artist would no longer work away in semi-obscurity; she was now one of the country’s true art stars.
"Not really," Belmore says, filling a café in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood with great, rolling laughter. "C’mon. I’m working as hard [now] as ever."
She’s currently showing her largest exhibition, Rebecca Belmore: Rising to the Occasion, which opened June 7 at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Fountain, her Venice video installation, is making its North American premiere here, along with 19 other works. They range from the show’s title piece — a beaver house dress from the late 1980s — to Storm, a sculptural installation made specifically for the new show.
The photographs, sculptures and installations in Rising to the Occasion are all an outgrowth of her performance art, which shows a fascination with the human body, as well as her urge to provoke and shock.
Thematically, the exhibition rests largely on Belmore’s experience as an aboriginal woman (she is of Anishinabe descent). Her clear-eyed critiques of Canadian society bring urgency to the often abstract discourse of contemporary art. In a piece like 2008's Fringe (pictured above), a backlit photograph, her study of the female form clashes with a surreal and terrifying use of traditional native beadwork.
Rising to the Occasion (1987–1991)
Completed just after Belmore graduated from the Ontario College of Art & Design in Toronto, Rising to the Occasion is a powerful example of her practice, illustrating the importance of fine design, materials and period precision. It is also a searing vision of colonialism and its impact on Canada’s First Nations.
Belmore wore the dress in a parade/ performance piece, Twelve Angry Crinolines, designed to commemorate (and satirize) the Duke and Duchess of York’s 1987 visit to Thunder Bay, Ont., near her hometown of Upsala. The result, Belmore explains, is part Victorian ball gown, part Canadian beaver house, with a wood dam on the buttocks ("carrying the weight behind," she says), a tiara/headdress of rusty metal, a deer antler and an electrical cord (the braids flung skyward). Looking at the dress now, Belmore says it was indicative of her anger. "I think it still stands as a work, because we [aboriginals] still have this relationship with the Crown — with the great mother, the Queen."
In Wild, a performance and installation designed for the 2001 centenary of the Grange, an estate in downtown Toronto, Belmore takes over the mansion’s master bedroom. She is seen sleeping, staring and just lying silently in bed. She’s ensconced in a seemingly pristine, historically accurate room. Yet something isn’t quite right. Belmore has, in her words, "redressed" the bed.
"It actually blends in very well," she says, noting that she herself doesn’t appear in the Vancouver Art Gallery version of the piece. "But the bed obviously doesn’t belong there." There are beaver pelts on the canopy. And, as she points out, the bedspread is decorated "with a lot of black hair." There’s something creepy about Wild, even a little grotesque. And as with so many of Belmore’s pieces, the title here is crucial, as an entry point and as a compass to the work’s themes.
White Thread (2003)
"This is actually a photograph, even though it looks like a performance," Belmore says, examining an image of White Thread, part of a series of photographic works that appear in Rising to the Occasion. World events, especially the war in Iraq, spurred Belmore to create this piece.
"I was thinking about the whole struggle to survive, to resist, to maintain," she says. "Specifically, this pose in White Thread. The model has to hold that position. She can’t move at all. She’s bound. And she’s going to be like that for an hour."
It’s the image’s beauty, however, that strikes the viewer first – the deep red, the neat fabric. But it soon becomes clear how uncomfortable the model must be. It’s a classic Belmore tactic: drawing the audience in, throwing them off balance, capturing "beauty and non-beauty struggling in the same place."
In this photograph, part of a triptych of images set in a cloud of plain, white cotton, the model is actually suspended off the wall, Belmore says, "holding this awkward position." Belmore’s pictures are like still-lifes yanked out of a performance piece. In this case, however, she hired a photographer and a model for the shoots.
"When I’m making a performance, I can’t see it, because I’m inside it. But now I get to be outside and to think about what it looks like. And that’s maybe where I start to make things beautiful, but still at the same time try to speak about issues that I care about."
The Great Water (2002)
"If I was speaking my aboriginal language, that’s maybe how I would refer to Lake Superior, or further, the ocean." Belmore is looking at an image of The Great Water, a spare, haunting installation from the Vancouver Art Gallery survey. Here, an overturned canoe is covered in a sprawling black canvas, grommets running down the edge. We see the canoe’s long, rippling wake, deep black fabric everywhere.
Belmore explains: "The flow and folds within the individual trail itself make the viewer think about water: the beauty of it, its strength, its power and its potential to be dangerous."
Water reappears in Belmore’s Venice project, Fountain, a video shot on an industrial beach between the Musqueam Nation and the Vancouver International Airport. The film is projected onto a curtain of water. In the scene, Belmore wades into the Strait of Georgia, a pile of burning logs nearby. She moves frantically, filling a bucket with water, struggling onto the shore and throwing its contents toward the camera. As the water hits the screen, it turns to blood.
Fountain took Belmore more than a year and a half to complete. She was racked by fundamental questions: What to make? Why? For whom? Three years ago, she said of the project, "My place is that of a North American aboriginal woman who found her way and is bringing her version of a ‘fountain’ to the floating city of Venice."
Today, however, Belmore sees many more layers. "Because Venice was an international site with a global audience, it doesn’t matter that they know where I’m from, or that I’m aboriginal. What matters is that they think about water and they think about blood. It’s very simple."
Perhaps. But as with so many of Belmore’s works, the First Nations context is inescapable. Indeed, Rising to the Occasion is itself an extended chicken-and-egg debate. What comes first: art or ancestry? Universal truths or those gleaned from one specific culture? Ultimately, you don’t need to decide. In Rebecca Belmore’s world, this conversation never ends.
Rebecca Belmore: Rising to the Occasion runs until Oct. 5 at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Greg Buium is a Vancouver writer.