View of “Rebecca Belmore,” 2018. From left: Tower, 2018; tarpaulin, 2018.

View of “Rebecca Belmore,” 2018. From left: Tower, 2018; tarpaulin, 2018.

Rebecca Belmore

In a rare self-portrait by Rebecca Belmore, the artist stands at a distance with her back to the camera, unrecognizable in a bright-orange work suit, its fluorescent X demarcating her shoulders against a huge expanse of plastic tarp. Safety vests appear throughout her photographs as uniforms for the artist as worker, but they also serve a signatory function: On land treaties with the British colonial government, indigenous leaders often marked their names with an X. In wearing this sign in the Canadian landscape, Belmore asserts her presence as both resident and author, marker and maker, whose role is to confront the impossible.

It’s fitting, then, that Belmore’s solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario was titled “Facing the Monumental”: The name served as both the show’s theme and its mandate, given that it was the first survey of Belmore’s thirty-year career at a major Canadian museum. Organized by the institution’s curator of indigenous art, Wanda Nanibush, a fellow member of the Anishinaabe Nation, the show activated the symbolic and material resonances within Belmore’s oeuvre, which interrogates the physical manifestations of politics on the land, linking local sites of resistance to a transnational politics of decolonization.

Though Belmore is best known as a performance artist, the show illuminated the recurring sculptural motifs in her works, particularly her use of red thread, nails, and contemporary music. The Named and the Unnamed, 2002, documented Vigil, Belmore’s performance of the same year, in which she screams the names of some of the sixty-six women who had gone missing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighborhood. Belmore then dons a red dress, nails its hem to nearby telephone poles and throws her weight against the fabric until she is freed. Eventually the dress is destroyed, left hanging in skinlike shreds, and the artist leans against a black pickup truck, whose radio begins to blast James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” To be transfixed by Belmore’s rage, its tender and ceremonial manifestations, is to become witness to a scene of violence you’ve passed by hundreds of times, never realizing you were a bystander to a crime.

Fountain, Belmore’s contribution to the 2005 Venice Biennale, also applied a sculptural, embodied vocabulary to video, taking water not only as its subject but also as its medium. The single-channel video shows the artist wrestling with an object in the ocean, but its shape is difficult to discern through the rushing streams of water that constitute the screen. The rapidly falling water is thunderously loud, but Belmore’s gasps pierce the din. A bucket, painted red but heavily worn, is finally pulled from the water and brought to shore, its contents thrown onto the camera, where they land as a sticky red substance.

Belmore’s work with earth counterpoints her work with water, both being elemental materials with life-or-death importance. Tower, 2018, is a stack of more than a dozen shopping carts turned on their sides. Reaching for the ceiling, they were anchored by a landslide of dried clay. The work is rich in contradictions: The shopping carts connote the homelessness that attends the “condomania” plaguing cities, while the tower evokes power, both Trumpian and biblical. The falling earth might offer land to the landless, or might suggest the earth giving way: a by-product of relentless digging, excavating, and developing. From one side, the carts look like chain-link fencing meant to keep us out, but from another angle the handles become ladder rungs. Belmore courts the phallic here, but her monuments are always ready to undo themselves by transforming into something else.

This tension was particularly evident with Biinjiya’iing Onji (From inside), 2017. The life-size marble tent was hand carved from a huge block of stone, its undulating fabric based on drapery seen in the sculptures of the Parthenon, the emblem of democracy, which it faced in its original installation for Documenta 14 in Athens. A space of refuge, it also evokes the current migrant crisis, memorializing the failures of democracy. What happens when the provisional becomes permanent, when the temporary is made monumental? Such transformations are foundational to the operating logic of colonialism, and to Belmore’s bold interrogations of its conditions.

Gabrielle Moser