Critics’ Picks

Fringe, 2008, color transparency and light box, 32 x 96 x 6 1/2".


Rebecca Belmore

Vancouver Art Gallery
750 Hornby Street
June 7–October 5

Rebecca Belmore’s midcareer retrospective at the Vancouver Art Gallery neatly displays three tendencies in her art, each of which gives rise to questions about the relation between politics and form. First, Belmore’s work has a strong formal element, often having to do with color. Her photographs of a woman wrapped in cloth suggest, alternatively, swaddling, a papoose, a straitjacket, and even Harry Houdini. In the works Untitled 1, Untitled 2, and Untitled 3 (all 2004), the wrapping is white cloth: The figure is contorted or hanging upside down. In White Thread, 2003, the swaddling is red, a seam of white appearing throughout. Belmore is an aboriginal (Anishinabe) artist from central Canada, now based in Vancouver. Her take on colonial politics here, and elsewhere in her work, is transmuted into the play of red and white.

In such pieces as Fringe, 2008, a backlit transparency, we have a second tendency: the pictorial, and the disquiet it can arouse. The work depicts a woman lying with her back to us, a giant suture running diagonally from left to right, crossing her spine; beads hang on thread from the wound. The viewer is inevitably made aware of his or her own body in relationship to the one in the photograph.

Third, other works present their production as a feat of endurance. In Fountain, 2005, made for the Venice Biennale, a short film is projected onto a “screen” of running water. In the film, Belmore emerges from the ocean and, gasping for air, hauls a bucket out of the water and flings a red liquid at the camera. And in Untitled (Blanket for Sarah), 1994, thousands of pine needles are inserted into wire mesh in an act of mourning for a native woman who froze to death on the streets of Belmore’s community.

Again and again, Belmore’s remarkable work engages issues of land claims, racism, and colonialism and leaves viewers with an important question: What is the relationship between such content—its political meaning—and its form of artistic production? Is there a parallel to be drawn between difficult and painful production—the suffering artist—and a difficult and painful history? Or is Belmore’s endurance a purely formal matter, one related to her roots in performance? It is to Belmore’s credit, and indeed to that of this important exhibition as a whole, that such questions, which can never be fully answered, here are raised.