View of “Rebecca Belmore,” 2023–. Photo: Akeem Nermo.

View of “Rebecca Belmore,” 2023–. Photo: Akeem Nermo.

Rebecca Belmore

Hacer Memoria (Try to Remember), 2022, an outdoor installation by Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore, features nine Brobdingnagian garments crafted from industrial tarp and arranged on the facade of the Polygon Gallery; each one has been printed with a different letter so that they collectively spell out the word HEREAFTER. Belmore’s orange and blue robes face east, past a public square and restaurant, as though confronting the unceded ancestral lands of the Coast Salish peoples—comprising the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish tribes—which became sites of accelerated deforestation and gentrification fueled by Canada’s rapacious real estate industry. A wall text informs the viewer that HEREAFTER refers to Pope Francis’s Hacer Memoria, delivered last July during his visit to Maskwacis, Alberta, as a form of apology to the Indigenous peoples of North America for the Catholic Church’s brutally abusive residential school system—a series of reprogramming camps that, horrifyingly, stopped operating only in the 1990s.

The blue shirts spell out HERE, the word an uncanny play on the (spatial, geopolitical) here and the (historical) now of North Vancouver, where the gallery is based. HERE evokes the tent cities and homeless camps that absorbed those who couldn’t afford shelter in a city whose ideological identity rests on the mythology of social justice, while its wildly irresponsible political leadership fails to curb the interests of developers and speculators, i.e., people who’ve made many forms of human life disposable because of unaffordable housing. The word AFTER, written out with the orange garments, structures narrative time, reminding us that the housing and homeless crisis—and the scarcity on which it is founded—is mediated by the state apparatus. The resulting story tells us much about the continuity of how the state-market system handles those who won’t or can’t get with its program by rendering them utterly expendable. The carceral-orange clothing summons the residential schools’ attempt to “kill the Indian,” as well as the homogeneity expected of contemporary Canadian “citizens.”

While art has been the repository of profit’s accursed share, or massive surplus, since at the very least the de Medici era, it takes on especially cruel irony in the specific geopolitical site of psychotic real estate dysmorphia that is present-day Vancouver. Any shades of solipsism—the very historical processes of capital extraction and accumulation through real estate’s dispossession of native life and through precarious settler forms of life are the very conditions for the possibility of the installation at Polygon, a nonprofit enterprise that received generous funding from property developer Michael Audain—are swiftly dissolved by Belmore’s implicit retort that one may indeed dismantle the master’s house with his tools. In this, the artist bravely reinstates the very notion of “site specificity,” once thought to be the cornerstone of installation, but long forgotten in the recuperation of this form’s critical thrust. The lines in the sand of social struggle are, the work seems to suggest, everywhere. It begins on-site and ripples through the social field as insistently and persistently as the tarp garments flapping in the wind, generating an eerie concert summoning spirits. Belmore’s work dares to bite the hand that at once feeds and harms, nurturing the contradictions of the city in a kind of structural Munchausen-by-proxy syndrome. Hers is a gesture that is sure to be a refreshing gift to local culture.