Dominique Blain

Centre International d'Art Contemporain de Montréal (CIAC)

Since the ’70s, Dominique Blain’s art has explored the fine line between information and propaganda, between politics and art. In a work exhibited in “Écrans Politiques,” (Political screens, 1985)—at Montreal’s Musée d’art contemporain—Blain presented Stars and Stripes, 1985, a photosilkscreen work on canvas that used Pop art montage effects to present a two-fold attack on war’s exploitation and objectification of humanity, particularly women. Divided by a red cross in its center, its uppermost sections portrayed a regiment of duplicate images of bathing beauties from a ’50s Miss America pageant. The lower half reproduced patterned images of World War II fighter planes.

In an untitled installation shown at C.I.A.C.’s “Cent fours d’art contemporain,” (One hundred days of contemporary art, 1989), Blain’s self-styled polemic focused on the art system itself. Sand bags were arranged around three sides of the installation much like those erected by soldiers in World War I to protect official monuments. Looking into this space the viewer could see a large photo of dead bodies, fragmented into four parts, covering the floor of the exhibition space. Obviously, the work was pointing to the higher value attributed to official art works than to human life itself.

As with Jenny Holzer’s electronic billboard truisms, Blain’s work uses propagandistic effects as art. While the underlying ideologies that are the subject of Blain’s oeuvre are worthy of examination, when they become the artist’s only concern they run the risk of simply duplicating those ideological biases purportedly under attack. The question then becomes, Who exactly is Blain addressing? In presenting all of humanity’s foibles in black and white terms, Blain’s work remains as caught in the ideological web as the perpetrators she leaves unnamed, as susceptible to manipulation as her manipulated subjects. We are never sure where the art begins and the propaganda ends. Though the artistic statement may be under attack in our conservative times, rather than replicating the language of propaganda and politics, the most powerful countermeasure may be for it to explore other more creative and less didactic avenues.

Missa (Mission, 1992), Blain’s three-part installation at C.I.A.C., still played with formal, media-generated imagery, with the same unrepentant candor of her earlier works. In the first installation room, one was simply presented with an old office chair, spotlit in an otherwise empty space, in which one could sit between a pair of speaker parts suspended from the ceiling at ear level, and listen to the sounds of a crowd chanting unintelligible slogans. The effect was at once innocuous, accessible, and annoying, as cloying and monotonous as media politics itself. Her second installation consisted of rows of 56 perfectly aligned pairs of military boots polished a shiny black, one from each pair hanging from black strings, seemingly marching nowhere, or everywhere. The third room contained an Iwo Jima–type flag temporarily supported by sandbags, with the word “CREDO” emblazoned on it. A giant fan in the foreground caused the flag to flap to and fro. Blain states: “The more naive among us thought they were witnessing the end of ideologies. As the chorus in the first room reminds us, in this end of century theatre, absolutes, ideals, not men, are the masters of tragedy.”

As Blain’s recent show made clear, if artists wish to get beyond merely perpetuating these same blinkered myths, to express life’s inherent uncertainties, they have to use art as more than a pretext for confirming facile analyses of ideological hegemony.

John K. Grande