Every Line & Every Other Line
Bruce LaBruce \ Cathy Busby \ Brendan Fernandes \ Suzy Lake \ Arthur Renwick
Curator’s essay by J.J. Kegan McFadden
“It is the face that has the privilege, endlessly observed, of expressing itself on its own expression. The minute play of the facial actors (eyes, mouth, brows, chin, nose) makes the meaning and states it.” Paolo Fabbri. “The Passion of the Face” from The Arcimboldo Effect: Transformations of the Face from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century. New York: Abbeville Press, 1987; 260.
As an exhibition, EVERY LINE & EVERY OTHER LINE brings together the work of five Canadian artists dealing, in one way or another, with portraiture. However, this is not a simple show involving pictures of people or friends, lovers, strangers. These portraits, directly and circuitously, consider the face as a site of colonization, a document of control, a space of power. EVERY LINE & EVERY OTHER LINE seeks to investigate how these artists have chosen to concentrate on the mouth in their portraits and what each artist is offering by focusing their lens this way. Exhibited in concert, we can ask what the mouth produces in terms of truth, consequence, renewal, aging, beauty, lies.
In gathering works by Cathy Busby, Brendan Fernandes, Bruce LaBruce, Suzy Lake, and Arthur Renwick the aim is for a conversation to occur pertaining to how each face acts as a politicized site — that of manipulation but also revolution. Are these mouths censored or celebrating? Whose histories are spoken, and whose are left silent? What are the ways we can read a face, and what will it tell us?
… the face is, above all, the ‘passion of revelation’, the passion of language. […] it can be a mask of closure and disdain or a passionate openness to others, a gaze that bears witness to our being together, ‘the only location of community, the only possible city’. – Giorgio Agamben, Means without End (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000, translation by V. Binetti and C. Casarino) p 91.
Since 2002, Cathy Busby has been using the realm of public apology as a site for investigating conceptual portraiture as well as the compiling of an archive of confession. In her series, Sorry, Busby uncovers and highlights celebrities, CEOs, politicians, religious leaders, and everyday people in states of apology as captured by various media sources. By (re)photographing, or screen capturing, their mouths during these apologies and printing them much larger than life, she pinpoints how the act itself is so easily transferable, especially in our hyper-digital world. This research, in turn, acts as a portrait of a global community using the trope of the apology. A loaded example for Busby has been Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology to the Aboriginal peoples of Canada for “failing them so profoundly” with regard to the atrocious history of Residential Schools. However, as the artist is right to point out, since the apology Haper’s Conservative government has been systematically cutting funding to Aboriginal groups. This year in particular is important when discussing this history, as the government, through avenues such as the Omnibus Bill / C-38 among others, saw the scaling back or the complete withdraw of funding for certain Aboriginal agencies, especially those working in capacity building and front line advocacy. For the billboard outside of AKA Gallery and PAVED Arts, Busby has produced the text work, Budgets Cuts (2012), which clearly names a number of Aboriginal, First Nation, and Inuit groups whose funding has been compromised or eradicated since the 2008 apology. This extension of her Sorry series allows the artist to question what, if anything, has changed over the last four years. In so doing, Busby’s project inhabits various environments simultaneously: private to public, local to global, sacred to profane, and of course the spoken to the widely-published.
“The language of action is spoken on the body … He is therefore able to associate the cry he hears from another’s mouth, the grimace he sees upon that other’s face, with the same representations that have, on several occasions, accompanied his own cries and movements. He is able to accept this mimesis as the mark and substitute of the other’s thoughts.” – Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. (New York: Vintage Books, 1973) p 115.
In direct opposition to the tightly-cropped mouths as seen in Busby’s work are the full, yet contorted, faces present in the series, Mask by Arthur Renwick who is of the Haisla First Nation. In this context, and especially in relation to Busby’s repentant leaders, these studio portraits of Indigenous actors and artists offer a counterpoint allowing the face as a location for protest to occur. Created by way of intended mimicry of racist stereotypes, these large format photographs capture both an intended awkward playfulness and its underlying sadness. A response to such typecasting they encounter, the Aboriginal people act out for Renwick’s lens, and in fact do embody certain depictions associated with their cultures: Monique (2006), with one hand pulling at her lip to reveal a row of teeth, and the other hand obscuring her eye while manipulating her nose calls to mind wooden and leather masks used in West Coast ceremonies. Michael (2009) similarly compresses his face from the forehead to the chin with both hands, turning his eyes into slits and pulling his mouth down, exposing his tongue. These acts of studio performance blur the traditional portrait while toying with the history of colonial photography, which sought to document a supposed dying race prior to their extinction. For Renwick, Mask doubles as both a celebratory comment on the living culture of his friends and associates, as well as a protest to those who continue to misrepresent them.
I’ll move my lips like almost everybody that doesn’t know how to pray does when they make themselves out to be holy. I’ll move my lips. – Celestino antes del alba, (Cuba: 1967), translated as Singing from the Well (New York: Viking, 1987, translation by Andrew Hurley) p 54.
In her series, Beauty at a Proper Distance, photo-conceptualist veteran Suzy Lake adopts mainstream advertising media techniques such as glossy print commercials and billboards for beauty products, only to subvert them by picturing her own aged mouth, complete with post-menopausal hair. At a distance, as the title suggests, the red lipstick and provocative open mouth in the triptych In Song (2002) reads as enticing and perhaps an embodiment of the sexually laden advertisements for cosmetics and other feminine products. However, once sufficiently drawn in the viewer is faced with the truth that women of a certain age produce more testosterone and less estrogen resulting in menopause, culminating in postmenopausal hair growth, among other realities. With a long history of incorporating her body throughout her practice, often in unsuspecting ways, Lake now uses the same tools she has always had at her disposal and exploits what they offer in a brand new way. She has had to wait for this opportunity, and is taking full advantage of it. By focusing on her mouth, and the hair surrounding it, she delivers a reading of how women’s bodies are at once targeted (as commercial trade) and betrayed (for existing as they are) by popular media.
You may nail your mouth shut, you may cut out your tongue, can you keep yourself from existing? Will you stop your thoughts. – Jean-Paul Sartre. No Exit, act 1., Sc. 5, (Gallimard, 1947). Inès reiterating to Garcin that they cannot ignore one another.
In a self-portrait that was in fact shot by another (Ricky Castro), the Canadian filmmaker / photographer / writer / author of homocore punk fanzines, Bruce LaBruce, channels a style more closely related to Hollywood headshots than the product-driven marketing of Lake’s inspiration. Of course what the silver screen has done is turn artists into commodity, and the untitled 10” x 8” image on cardstock (circa 1992) shows LaBruce from chest up, shirtless, posed with both fists in the frame positioned just below his chin, in irresistible defiance of consumption. His face is half in shadow, forcing a double take from the audience to realize his lips have been sewn closed. LaBruce’s eyes stare intently right out of the frame. The precise crisscrossing of the thin thread forces his lips almost into a pout. The artist’s famous punk aesthetic shines through in this nod to celluloid parlance: greased back hair, rings on almost every finger of his closed and readied fists, the tattoo of a young Jody Foster circa Taxi Driver on his left shoulder. In this instance, LaBruce’s gesture of sewing his mouth shut references the identical action taken by the American artist and AIDS activist, David Wojnarowicz (1954 – 1992). In the 1990 documentary, SILENCE=DEATH by Rosa von Praunheim, New York City’s artists respond to the epidemic that has devastated their community and includes a segment of Wojnarowicz with his mouth sewn shut in an act of outrageous response to the lack of significant and official attention paid to the reality he was facing. A few short years following this performance, LaBruce restages it in homage-cum-publicity still, only this time the audience and context are different. Instead of a struggle to address the AIDS epidemic, in LaBruce’s case (as a pornographer, queer punk rabble-rouser, and media savvy artist) the action is inferred with irony, and lends itself to a debate on censorship but also the truth that he is no spokesperson and perhaps has no grand defense other than of his own art. This is not the studio-endorsed campaign of a matinee idol, but does remind us that in this world, your likeness is always mediated. Earlier this year Russian artist Petr Pavlensky sewed his mouth shut as well, this time in solidartiy with the political prisoners, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Maria Alekhina of the feminist punk performance collective Pussy Riot. On February 21, 2012, five masked women rushed the pulpit of a Catholic church to perform a punk prayer, pleading with the Virgin Mary to drive the conservative Putin and his corrupt partners from the church. Subsequently, three of the women were arrested and officially charged with felony hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. In August the three members of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in jail following a lengthy trial, while another two fled the country, and more still went underground.
A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth. – John Singer Sargent
In order to read the two-channel video work by Brendan Fernandes, Foe (2008), as a portrait, it requires some brief back-story. Born in Kenya and of Indian heritage, Fernandes immigrated to Canada as a child in the 1990s. On one monitor, we see the artist videotaped receiving a voice lesson from a dialect coach in order to learn the inflections connected to his associated regions: East African, South Asian, Central Canadian. He is reciting a particularly distressing passage from J. M. Coetzee novel, Foe, which was written as a sequel to Daniel Dafoe’s 18th Century novel, Robinson Crusoe. The video shows Fernandes attempting the lines describing that one of the characters, Friday, has had his tongue cut out. As the native character, embodying the other among colonials on the island, we are to question whether or not Friday is simply an imbecile or one who is without speech. On the adjacent monitor is a single shot of a shoreline at a time of rolling tide. Together, the stuttering, frustrated mouth spitting out the repetition of lines with the alternating inflection and the coveted, escapist and secluding water articulates multiple positions and calls attention to the correlation between place and agency; acknowledging the two are not mutually exclusive, and that experience is not to be dilluted.
There are so many lines. Lines we cross, or are crossed by and divided along. There are pick up lines and (political) party lines. There are the lines we recite without even realizing it. Everyday-lines we rattle off to acquaintances, friends, lovers, and to no one special in particular. There are also the lines we tell ourselves: Everything will be ok. Things will turn out. That wasn’t so bad. Next time it’ll be different. Sometime ago, the world’s knowledge, more or less, was put online. Then there are the physical lines … crows’ feet at the corner of our well-worn eyes. Similarly, laugh lines and other wrinkles across our faces. The lines left by scars — received accidentally in clumsy endeavours, inflicted through hostility, those left following surgical procedures or moments of self-inflicted inquiry. There are territorial lines, margins and shorelines. A shadow is also a line. A script is full of lines. A chorus line. A tattoo is an image inked into the skin, executed using a series of tiny punctures that make up a line. These lines exist, and will not be going anywhere anytime soon. There is every line & every other line.
J.J. Kegan McFadden
Director / Curator
platform centre for photogrpahic + digital arts
EVERY LINE & EVERY OTHER LINE is organized and ciruclated by platform centre for photographic + digital arts (Winnipeg), where it was first presented from 18 March – 07 May 2011. PLATFORM acknowledges the support of Manitoba Arts Council, Winnipeg Arts Council, The Winnipeg Foundation, and The W.H. & S.E. Loewen Foundation.
Born in Detroit, Michigan, Suzy Lake immigrated to Montreal in 1968 where she began teaching at the Montreal Museum School of Art. She was one of 13 artists to co-found Vehicule Art Inc. in 1972. Lake is considered to be among the first female artists to adopt performance, video and photography to explore the politics of gender, the body and identity in Canada. Lake was the subject of a major mid-career retrospective organized by the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography in 1993, and was one of 119 women in the historical feminist exhibition: WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution 1965-1980. Lake’s early work was featured in Identity Theft: Eleanor Antin, Lynn Hershmann and Suzy Lake 1972-1978 at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in 2007. Lake is currently preparing for an exhibition titled Political Poetics at the University of Toronto Art Gallery in May 2011.
Born in Kenya of Indian heritage, Brendan Fernandes immigrated to Canada in the 1990s. Fernandes’ interdisciplinary work recontextualizes images, objects, texts, and tropes associated with Africa and the African Diaspora, challenges hegemonic claims of authenticity, and uses them to reveal the multiple and contingent nature of cultural identities. He investigates the concept of authenticity as an ideological construct that both dominant and subordinate cultures use to their own ends. Ideas of “authenticity” shape cultural experience, and thus, the formation of identity. In his recent work he explores the dilemmas and codes that language create through ethnicity and sub-culture, where he is specifically looking at how vernacular can be learned and then forgotten once removed from its place of origin. He also considers the duality, hybridity, and nonsensicality coded in language through Dada where comprehension is negotiated through chance, but can also be associated with ideas of the primitive.
Bruce LaBruce is a Toronto based filmmaker, writer, director, photographer, and artist. He began his career in the mid eighties making a series of short experimental super 8 films and co-editing a punk fanzine called J.D.s, which begat the queercore movement. He has directed and starred in three feature length movies, “No Skin Off My Ass” (1991), “Super 8 1/2″ (1994), and “Hustler White” (1996). More recently he has directed the art/porn features, “Skin Flick” (2000)(hardcore version: “Skin Gang”), “The Raspberry Reich” (2004)(hardcore version: “The Revolution Is My Boyfriend”), the independent feature “Otto; or, Up with Dead People” (2008), an “L.A. Zombie” (2010). LaBruce has also made a number of popular music videos in Canada, two of which won him MuchMusic video awards. Publications written by, and about, LaBruce include a premature memoir The Reluctant Pornographer (Gutter Press, 1997), and Ride Queer Ride (Plug In Editions, 1998, edited by Noam Gonick). The exhibition, Bruce LaBruce POLAROID RAGE, Survey: 2000-2010 opened in Portugal earlier this year.
Photo-based artist Arthur Renwick (Haisla) was born in Kitimat, British Columbia, in 1965, received fine arts degrees from both Vancouver Community College (1986) and Emily Carr University of Art + Design (1989) in Vancouver, and received his master of fine arts (1993) from Concordia University in Montréal. In addition to having received numerous Ontario Arts Council and Canada Council awards, Renwick won the K. M. Hunter Artist Award in 2005. Renwick has recently shown several of his Mask portraits in an exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada called Steeling the Gaze: Portraits by Aboriginal Artists, followed by presentation at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, France, in a show titled Photoquai. The Centre Culturel Canadien in Paris hosted a concurrent exhibition, UNMASKING: Arthur Renwick, Adrian Stimson, Jeff Thomas, curated by Martha Langford. In January 2010, sixteen Mask works were exhibited during a solo exhibition at the Richmond Art Gallery in Vancouver, B.C. to coincide with the Olympic Games. In August 2010, eight Mask works were exhibited as part of Hide at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The series Mask, was recently acquired by the National Gallery of Canada.