October 22, 2018

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Opinion

Altered states

Artists remix state propaganda and official history to question national identity and power

Christian Jankowski’s Heavy Weight History</p></p>

Christian Jankowski’s Heavy Weight History

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/7/2016 (823 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

National identity is less fixed than we imagine, and state power is less complete than governments let on.

The ties binding nations — geography, language, ethnicity, ideology and religion, shared interests, values and animosities — can all come undone and routinely do. The state is tasked with broadcasting images and narratives that can contain these layered alliances, but cracks in the matrix inevitably show through.

The State opened Canada Day at Plug In ICA and coincides with the gallery’s Summer Institute, led this year by indigenous curator Jaimie Isaac and Sobey Award-winning Cree artist Duane Linklater, who appears in the show. The four artists examine state narratives for signs of weakness or ambivalence. Their interventions — variously pointed, reflective, poetic and funny — open up space to consider our own relationships to power.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/7/2016 (823 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

National identity is less fixed than we imagine, and state power is less complete than governments let on.

 

Independence Day by Maryam Jafri</p>

Independence Day by Maryam Jafri

The ties binding nations — geography, language, ethnicity, ideology and religion, shared interests, values and animosities — can all come undone and routinely do. The state is tasked with broadcasting images and narratives that can contain these layered alliances, but cracks in the matrix inevitably show through.

The State opened Canada Day at Plug In ICA and coincides with the gallery’s Summer Institute, led this year by indigenous curator Jaimie Isaac and Sobey Award-winning Cree artist Duane Linklater, who appears in the show. The four artists examine state narratives for signs of weakness or ambivalence. Their interventions — variously pointed, reflective, poetic and funny — open up space to consider our own relationships to power.

Based in New York and Copenhagen, Maryam Jafri rearranges the photographic record of 20th-century independence movements to create a meandering, thematic timeline. Strikingly similar images of new-nationhood from across Africa and Asia reveal patterns of uprising, negotiation, pageantry and power. Far from evoking a revolutionary spirit, however, hindsight and Jafri’s reordering show old, oppressive regimes repeatedly toppled in favour of homegrown facsimiles.

In 2010, Vahap Avsar acquired thousands of photos commissioned by a Turkish postcard company in the 1970s and 80s. Selected for awkward staging and unwitting juxtapositions, 12 of the images are reproduced as stacks of postcards in the gallery. Judging from his unmarked white Renault, the man standing on mountain overlook might be an ordinary traveller or a secret agent, we’re told. A uniformed commando reads a postcard high above Lake Egirdir. A shabby military procession moves down muddy streets in an area riven by ethnic and political conflict. Unnamed subjects regard anonymous photographers (and one another) with apparent suspicion, as if other parties (not pictured) might be looking on.

Livelier but no less complex, Christian Jankowski enlists professional weightlifters to literally upset symbols of Poland’s turbulent political past. Shown on a four-panel Jumbotron in front of wooden bleachers, the half-hour Heavy Weight History perfectly mimics the tenor and tropes of televised sports as the 11 athletes strain to lift multi-tonne bronze sculptures commemorating socialist Ludwik Warynski and former U.S. president Ronald Reagan, among others. Between rundowns of vital stats and personal bests, the announcer matter-of-factly weaves in details of Nazi and Soviet occupation, earnestly commending the difficulty of the task (which is obvious) and its significance (which is less certain). When the team fails to budge a monument to West German chancellor Willy Brandt, he dejectedly allows, "This is the weight of history, perhaps it overwhelmed them." It’s hard not to feel for them.

Tacked lightly to the walls, Linklater’s arrangements of framed documents, draped fabric, and plastic sheeting are the exhibition’s most abstract and personal works. One, border, alludes to the 1794 Jay Treaty between the United States and Britain, which guaranteed free trade and movement for aboriginal people. Canada disavows the treaty, while the U.S. nominally observes it on the basis of blood quantum. Framed letters attesting Linklater’s ancestry are swathed in plastic and caution-orange satin, as if mothballed for later use. A stained chart of Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics, a Norval Morisseau poster from the National Gallery and a sleeve of photographs picturing the artist high above land-artist Robert Smithson’s mammoth Spiral Jetty get a similar treatment.

Linklater’s open-ended propositions, like all of the work in the show, help frame "The State" less as a monolithic power than a pervasive "state of affairs" that we all navigate, even when its effects are hard to gauge. As part of the backdrop for Linklater and Isaac’s Wood Land School, the exhibition suggests that, with perspective, altered states and alternate courses of action might still be possible.

 

Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.

 

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