Border Zones: Attempting to Reshape the Museum
UBC Museum of Anthropology
January 23 - September 12, 2010
On my walkabout through the inaugural exhibition at the newly renovated Museum of Anthropology, the first gallery I encountered, located off the Great Hall of totem poles, was a container of sorts housing aboriginal culture, cultural production, and cultural belongings of the seemingly other. For me, as a Lakota woman, museums that house “artifact”* are, at the best of times, difficult sites. Certainly with new museum practices there are earnest attempts at reshaping how “colonized” cultures have been represented and studied. Classic anthropological sites becoming sites of contemporary art is a grey zone, and a challenging proposition to accept.
The burning questions Border Zones: New Art across Cultures raises are about the entire field of anthropological museums meddling in contemporary art. Are former and continuing sites of anthropological engagement even places for contemporary art? Can the stigma of the anthro/entho gaze ever be shed in these sites?
Border Zones provides several points of physical entry. One can enter the contemporary art exhibition through the Great Hall of Northwest Coast totems, or through the open-concept study rooms (Multiversity Galleries) with aboriginal and other worldwide collections, which reach the main gallery through the display of Asian artifacts. Either way, the viewer is gaining entry through “artifact”—and perhaps this is where it becomes apparent that as a viewer, you are in a museum of “artifacts.”
The first work I encountered in Border Zones, “law poles” by Ron Yunkaporta, are both beautiful and confusing. If one does not read the didactic explaining what purpose these magnificent poles have, they could simply be viewed as “artifacts” from long ago. The gallery is dark with low ceilings and has a very traditional museum sensibility.
John Wynne’s audio and photo-based installation, Anspayaxw, could be mistaken for a National Geographic research project, but on a deeper reading it became apparent that this work is about what goes on outside of the museum space. The audio consists of tribal members of Kispiox speaking in their language about their lived experiences. The audio with the large photos of the speakers, the spaces in which they were recorded, and other images from the community are hung in sort of a circle. Again, the dark and low-ceilinged exhibition gallery contributes to an institutionalized view of the work.
The river of white boats in Gu Xiong’s Becoming Rivers leads viewers into the rest of the exhibition and into the new wing. It can be read in many different ways. The small, plastic boats/ships could be seen as the colonist’s ship leading you away from research-based work and into a new beginning. Do the white boats represent death in traditional Chinese colours? Are they bringing death, or are they already dead? They are, after all, plastic. Hundreds of the boats are located both inside the gallery space, hanging from the ceiling, and outside on the grounds. They are ephemeral and threatening at the same time.
The new gallery space of contemporary art is packed with works ranging from video installation, pottery, and sculpture to more video installation. The large four-channel video installation by Hayati Mokhtar and Dain Iskandar Said, Near Intervisible Lines, dominates the far wall, yet allows the other works to exist, perhaps because of the soft, pastel hues of the Malaysian coast it represents. With a horizon line in the distance and aqua blue sky, it’s almost like a beachfront property, and one can gaze and gaze into the distance—so much so, it may be a distraction from other works in the space.
Sri Lankan artist T. Shanaathanan’s collaborative work with the local Sri Lankan community, Imag(in)ing ‘Home’, is reminiscent of old-school museum practices of collecting everything from a culture and then displaying the objects behind plastic or glass. These objects are from the everyday and ready made, carrying great depth of meaning in relation to Sri Lankan aesthetics, kitsch, iconography, and experiences as newcomers to Canada. This work, too, was about what goes on culturally outside of the museum.
The work I was most challenged by, in a good way, was Cell, by Edward Poitras. The work considers confinement, justice, brutality, and social autonomy, as well as social responsibility. To know that thousands of aboriginal people are imprisoned in institutions and by a state that wants to make tougher jail penalties for offenders rings true in the small, white cube Edward constructed. Poverty and the structural dehumanization of aboriginal people have fueled the jail industry in this country. In some ways this is the new residential school for those who went from residential school to jail to a healing centre, then back again to jail, and for their children on the same journey, and their grandchildren in juvenile hall, moving to jail, to treatment, to jail, to hopefully figuring it out. There are many intellectual entry points into this work, and the starting point for Edward Poitras was the reality that Leonard Peltier remains in jail. He is in the cell: the controlled and monitored space. The institutionalization of the containment of indigenous bodies, and being numbered as a human being, are larger issues that Edward’s work ponders.
A final work, Abishekam, is a video documentation of a ritual in which a Hindu priest dresses a deity figure. I had to stop watching halfway into the video, as I was not prepared for ritual and felt awkward witnessing something of this magnitude that I didn’t agree to. This action was a museum “first” and really quite a radical move to have a non-museum professional without white gloves touch and even pour milk and other liquids on the statue. But as a ritualist myself, there is a time and place for ceremony, and I’m not sure a museum is an ideal site of sanctity in which to view an ancient ritual on a video monitor. Beside the video, there is a live feed on a monitor of the actual deity in the “artifact” section of the museum. A lovely deity that deserves to be dressed and honored—and perhaps released and placed back into its original home so the people can engage with her manna.
Does Border Zones present post-modern anthropology? Or does it collapse contemporary cultural production with old, classic museum standbys? Are audiences informed enough to critically view both historical and contemporary cultural production and distinguish indigenous cultural production that belongs in the 21st century—such as the law poles—from older works? I am not convinced that old sites of “artifact” can successfully facilitate new ways of thinking about “other,” or that “other” can be presented as both contemporary and ancient within realms of old-school museum structures. What a challenge MOA has for years to come, as it reinterprets how we view cultures and, further, through what critical and cultural lens.
My experience as a contemporary indigenous artist viewing the works was disjointed. Walking through the totems, into contemporary art, then back through artifact didn’t translate into two different modes of production. The lines were blurred, but the in-betweeness was iron clad—a fascinating and dynamic place to be, however complex. For some time now, MOA has been attempting to create a simultaneous space for artifact and contemporary art. Border Zones, however, takes viewers somewhere new and further complicates the study of culture, art, and people.
* My use of the word artifact is for lack of a better word, but to also situate the reality of mixing older cultural production with contemporary work. Many of these items/objects/ entities have great spiritual meaning, and the word artifact does not do them justice: they are cultural belongings with significant histories, purposes, and meanings.