The theme of the Kelowna Art Gallery’s summer show, Bearing Witness, is art that speaks to issues of oppression, brutality and genocide.
Bearing Witness is organized and circulated by the Vancouver Art Gallery, with the generous support of The Killy Foundation and Odlum Brown. All works are from the permanent collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, and have been selected by the VAG’s senior curator of historical art, Ian Thom.
The notion of an artist making art that is a social or political comment on current events and/or issues is one born in the modern era. Beginning in the 18th century, as artists in the West were released from the bonds of patronage by the church and the aristocracy and became free to starve in their garrets, they began to bear witness to the events of their time. The earliest examples of political art include the Spanish Franciso Goya’s suite of prints The Disasters of War (1810-20) and his The Third of May, 1808: The Execuction of the Defenders of Madrid, completed in 1814. The French artist Theodore Gericault felt compelled to paint a version of a shipwreck of a slave ship and the ensuing deaths of most aboard in his gigantic and powerful Raft of the Medusa, from 1818-19. Edouard Manet, a contemporary of the Impressionists, was anti-Napoleon and painted his Execution of Maximilian in 1868-9, a year after this event occurred in Mexico.
The 20th century saw a great unleashing of protest art, with the Dada movement of the 1910s and ’20s being rife with seminal examples. One of the most famous anti-war works of art in the 20th century was, of course, Picasso’s Guernica, painted in 1937, his depiction and comment on a brutal incident of the Spanish Civil War.
Seen against this historical backdrop the 41 works by 27 artists in this show demonstrate a variety of modern approaches, media and stylistic means to take on the challenge of producing this kind of work. For example, one long wall in the gallery is devoted to showcasing most of the photographs in the exhibition. These 13 works range from images from the golden age of photo-journalism of the 1930s, to modern documentary photographs. Many of the subjects in these images are hard-hitting.
There are strong selections of several pieces by each of the late New York artists Leon Golub and Nancy Spero, who were married to each other for many years and sometimes collaborated on projects. Golub focused on mercenaries and armed conflicts; Spero explored the free-form use of the female body paired with bombs, explosions and helicopters, for example, and her work operates on primal levels.
The focal point of the show, however, is the stunning installation of seven stele-like wooden objects by Cuban-born artist Magdalena Campos-Pons, created in 1992 (see photo page A17). Each of these has a diagram of the arrangement of captured people in the holds of slave ships from the time of the African slave trade. The work sends a chilling message about our concern for efficiency in our genocidal treatment of humanity, a trait that came to the fore again with the Holocaust.
There are two etchings by Picasso in the show, a wonderful large photograph by the Canadian photographer Ed Burtynsky of the area in China preparing for the 2002 Three Gorges Dam project, and several works by various artists that deal with the subjugation of women.
There is even one work in video, a projection piece from 1997 called Black Spot, by the Irish artist Willie Doherty, that seems like just a time lapse exposure of a city neighbourhood as day turns to evening, and then into night. But eventually we realize that the footage is from a big-brother surveillance camera, something most of us would be happier to live without.
It’s not what you would call light or summery fare, but the work in this show packs strong aesthetic punches, despite the tough subjects being explored. It is a tricky undertaking for an artist to produce work that functions as social commentary. It is hard to hit the right emotional note so that one does not trivialize or aestheticize one’s subject. It begs the question of whether any artist can ever really convey the horrors of war and oppression through an art object.
The exhibition continues until Aug. 19.