Rebecca Belmore

The centerpiece of this midcareer survey of Rebecca Belmore’s work was Fountain, 2005, a video installation she created for the Canadian pavilion at the Fifty-first Venice Biennale. Known for the intensity and physicality of her performance work, Belmore is also a talented sculptor with a restrained aesthetic rooted in Arte Povera and process traditions. In the ambitious Fountain, a video of Belmore struggling in the ocean off Iona Beach just south of Vancouver is projected onto a sixteen-foot-wide waterfall running along the back wall of the darkened gallery. In the video, the Anishinabe (First Nations) artist ultimately gathers herself and walks up the beach toward the camera, only to cast at the screen a pail of “seawater” that turns out to be blood. The shimmering, flowing water casts over the bloody projection a haze suggestive of a dream or vision.

Not as elegant and ethereal as it sounds, the waterfall runs down one piece of Plexiglas, through which the video is projected onto another behind it. An inelegant contraption, it is out of character for an artist so attuned to the materiality of her work. Fundamentally, the waterfall’s literalization of Fountain’s central motif is not as resonant as it is decorative: a special effect less integral to the video than forced upon it.

However, to walk through the other four main galleries of the exhibition was to see just how tautly realized Belmore’s work can be. Her strength as a sculptor is evidenced by The Great Water, 2002, an elegiac marvel of effortlessness: A canoe tipped on its side is shrouded by a massive black canvas, the slumping folds of which evoke dark waves swamping the vessel. In another room lay Storm, 2008, also striking in its directness: a nine-foot-long cedar log split in half lengthwise and splayed upon the floor. Laboriously attached, with hundreds of nails, to one side of the log is a thick fringe of desert camouflage cloth. Created in reference to Making Always War, a 2008 performance at the University of British Columbia during which Belmore produced and erected a similar object, the piece deftly melds fetish, totem pole, and war memorial into something evocative of a broken figure. Not quite a performance relic, Storm is a commemoration of a commemoration, an example of Belmore’s complex entwining of performance with object making.

In Belmore’s performance work, the universalized vocabulary characteristic of Fountain—archetypal gestures of struggle, marking, and cleansing—is more pointedly grounded in specific, often tragic, events. One example of this blunt work is Vigil, 2002, one of five video-documented performances screened on a monitor hidden away in an alcove of the central gallery. Commencing with the artist’s scrubbing of a sidewalk in Vancouver’s desperate Downtown Eastside neighborhood, Vigil is an angry and sorrowful tribute to the sex workers and addicts, many aboriginal, who have vanished from those same streets. Belmore shouts the names of the missing, each time drawing a thorny rose through her mouth, then repeatedly nails the red dress she is wearing to a post and tears herself free until the dress is destroyed. Her foregrounded presence in the work—even if a traumatized or struggling presence—must be considered in context of the marginalization, following the attempted annihilation, of the First Nations cultures of Canada. Belmore’s symbolic wounding, entrapment, and exposure of her body in attempted solidarity with those whose bodies have been destroyed make poignant a chasm that cannot be bridged. Her alternately narcissistic and self-abusive performances thus operate in critical dialogue not only with the demands upon artists of aboriginal backgrounds to somehow be representative “aboriginal artists” but also with the polemics of the presentation of the female body.

Trevor Mahovsky