How is a museum like a morgue? The bodies inside have tags on their toes. That’s the feeling I get walking through these pristine displays of bones and stuffed birds in the black-walled basement of the Beaty Diodiversity Museum on UBC campus. There’s a sense of being in the storage vaults of a collection rather than being in a showroom.
For example, these dinosaur bones are not assembled into some spectacular crowd-pleasing giant. Instead the bones are randomly tossed into a box that evokes an archaeologist’s dig—the raw materials of a collection without layers of interpretation shaping the viewer’s response.
That’s not all that makes this museum different. Bulrushes and other swamp-loving plants naturally purify water and so there’s a channel of blue-green algae leading to the museum, winding its way through tall unmowed grasses and piles of compost.
Outside the entrance to the museum, students preoccupied with messaging, pass fields of grass, swamp and brambles of trees. This urban wilderness makes everyone more relaxed, even those who don’t quite know they’re walking through it.
What’s a museum without signage? Good communication uses striking details with comparisons to familiar things to help us grasp the wonders of whales and other creatures. This fun fact is placed near the blue whale skeleton hanging in the foyer.
In keeping with the sense of being behind closed doors of a research facility, the curators have arranged long cabinets with pull out drawers containing specimens and explanations of current projects by faculty of UBC biology department. The focus is on relationships between creatures living in a shared environment rather than on individual species. You’d need to spend some time to appreciate the scope of the inquiries. The quick glance we had was fascinating.
The Audain Museum in Whistler is itself a work of art. Designed by John Patkau Architects, the L-shaped building stands on stilts. It’s entered by a bridge that floats above a garden.
A long sun-drenched corridor links the entrance to the exhibit halls. All art inside is by artists from British Columbia, starting with traditional native artists and moving to contemporary native artists, photographers with billboard-sized images, generation of the group of seven and younger artists. All the big names are here: Bill Reid, Robert Davidson, Emily Carr, Jeff Wall, Brian Jungen.
When I’m in art galleries I like to take pictures of details. For instance I like how the crowded spiky seeds on the chestnut tree contrast with the delicate half-finished flowers and outstretched artist’s hand in the Lukacs image and the clothesline in the Emily Carr next to the red-mouthed totems.
Emily Carr painted this native village in 1912, one year after her 16 month study tour of France, where she was exposed to experiments in modern art. Emily’s style is fresh and assured, using broad strokes, bright colours and strong well-defined forms to depict these time capsules of village life. In the image above, she uses repeating totem poles to add rhythm and vertical thrust to the receding street. The dramatic presence and animal vitality of the totem poles capture our attention. Yet what’s most striking is how the poles are so intimately situated in the midst of houses, children and clotheslines.
An interesting side note to the Carr exhibition: while in France, Emily exhibited her work alongside the paintings of Henri Matisse and Marcel Duchamp in the Salon d’Automne, Paris. She was a daring young artist stretching her wings at the exact moment that they were also testing the limits of their craft–young lions together!
I wish I’d had time to take pictures of cars and street signs, but I had less than a day in the city. When I heard there was an off-site work by Austrian sculptor Erwin Wurm, I thought immediately of his fat car series.
Wurm’s one minute sculptures, where he asks people to balance an awkward pile of stuff–it’s impossible to hold the pose for longer than a minute–are also interesting. I was eager to learn what he had in store for Vancouver. Here’s his off-site work: two empty suits dancing.
I started this blog with masks so I’ll end with masks.
All artists balance tradition and revolt, political and personal, and this tension is evident in these unusual and challenging works.
In the work above, the garbage bag becomes a temporary mask obscuring the mask inside. It makes me think how objects and relationships of great value to some are too quickly discarded by others. In a review (Canadian Art, May 2019) of Beau Dick’s New York exhibit, Devoured by Consumerism, Julian Brave NoiseCat writes: “One of Dick’s last works, produced in 2016, was the carved yellow cedar Towkwit Head, wrapped in a black garbage bag, with a painted eye and horsehair brow peeking out from a hole in its crude cover. Towkwit is a feminine spirit who cannot be killed. In ceremony, a Kwakwaka’wakw spiritual leader cuts off her head, sets her on fire, resurrects her and repeats the process over and over again.”
“Our whole culture has been shattered,” says Dick in the documentary film, Maker of Monsters. “It’s up to the artists now to pick up the pieces and try and put them together, back where they belong. Yeah, it does become political. It becomes beyond political; it becomes very deep and emotional.”
It may be insensitive to say this, but I feel the same way as Beau Dick, my culture has been shattered also. To illustrate what I mean, here are pictures from three museums visits.
I travelled to Whistler, British Columbia recently with my wife Kathleen. This was a different vacation for us. Much of our time was spent outdoors. We’d come off season, just before the ski hills opened, but it worked out well for us as we mixed family time with small doses of nature and got a better appreciation of where Kathleen’s son Jay lives and why he’s there.
While I was there, I took a few photos. My current art project starts with close-up details of nature, but I also step back and record a wider view, the way filmmakers construct reality. One of the hardest things to photograph is sunlight, to appreciate how life depends on the light and energy of the sun. Light is the first element of art, as is shadow. A mystic might say we journey from a life of shadows toward the light.
I had feared living amongst a ring of mountains might get claustrophobic. The reality is they’re always changing, especially if you’re on the move. I get glimpses of them on our peregrinations around lakes and forests and along stretches of highway, power lines and ski slopes.
I’m reminded of Hokusai’s One Hundred Views of Mt Fuji, a travelogue of 19th century Japan, showing the country through a series of pictures. In each picture, the landscape and activities change, except for one element, the mountain in the background. As I travel the back roads and hiking trails of Whistler, I get the idea that I could do a similar project, featuring Canadian mountain peaks.
The Sea to Ski highway has conveniently placed viewing stations. We stopped at Horseshoe Bay for lunch. It’s a lovely spot, picturesque with its views of ocean, busy with ferry traffic to outlying islands. In my nature shots, I often like to include traces of human intervention. These cranes gave a sense of scale to the mountain. One senses how precarious it is to build on these steep slopes, combined with the imperative to balance human activity with appreciation for the wonders of nature.