While working on Group of Seven Awkward Moments, I found myself looking for examples within Canadian society that exemplified the word “awkward. All the images in the series are imbued with a slightly twisted sense of humour that resonates with Canadian audiences, almost as much, ironically, as the iconic paintings the work is based on.
With some of the research however, it became apparent the word “awkward” was not applicable. The horrors that took place in First Nations residential schools and orphanages like Mount St. Cashel, Newfoundland, speak of atrocities that eradicate all humour.
I am in the process of completing the “atrocities” and working towards an exhibition entitled “A People’s History”. The series is about horrific events committed in Canada against our most vulnerable citizens; the disadvantaged, the uneducated and the young. At the time of each violation the victims were either ignored, disbelieved, or considered expendable.
Of enormous assistance to me as I consider doing this difficult work are the essays in an exhibition catalogue from Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery / Recent Art edited by Norman L. Kleeblatt. The publication and exhibition focused on contemporary artists who used Nazi imagery to explore the nature of evil.
Like the artists in the exhibition, I find myself compelled to make work about documented crimes against humanity. Research coupled with my imagination direct me as I consider what conditions were at play that allowed these atrocities to occur. This work focuses on crimes that occurred in Canada; a country that views itself, and is viewed by others, as inherently “good”. One of goals of this series is to challenge this myth.
The art that was exhibited in “Mirroring Evil” was profoundly different from traditional exhibitions about the Holocaust, which focused on the horrible plight of concentration camp victims. Instead, these artists invited the viewer into the world of the perpetrators and produced work that muddied the lines between “us” and “them”. Zbigniew Libera’s “LEGO Concentration Camp Set”, that encourages his audience to imagine making tiny little gas chambers and crematoria to play with, is but one example.
In “A People’s History”, I too am attempting to make work that allows identification, for the briefest of seconds, consciously or not, with both the victim and perpetrator. I feel it is essential to blur the distinction to remind the viewer of the amazing/disturbing range of human capability, as a means of prompting empathy, and as an acknowledgment of the darkness that exists within the human psyche.
In making work about someone else’s trauma, the utilization of toys takes on added significance. The events depicted are clearly ones I have not experienced, but through the use of toys, I am able to play “make believe”; acting out the crimes in my studio and “documenting” them with my camera. In making this work I do not intend to mock or diminish the traumas that occurred. Rather, my intention is to consider what took place, why it took place, why it took place here, and reflect it back to all of us for whom it resonates. From this angle, perhaps we can begin to understand these events, and maybe learn something about ourselves that we may not like; that we need to address.