Book me a space in heaven, please!

To be in hell is to drift … to be in heaven is to steer.

George Bernard Shaw, Don Juan In Hell.


At 8:20 p.m., the body artist Chris Burden entered a large gallery of the Museum of Contemporary Art, did not look at his audience of 400 or more, set a clock for midnight, and lay down on the floor beneath a large sheet of plate glass that was angled against the wall. So commenced on April 11 [1975] a deceptively simple piece of conceptual art that would eventually involve the imaginations of thousands of Chicagoans who had never heard of Burden, would cause the museum to fear for Burden’s life, and would end at a time and in a way that Burden did not remotely anticipate.

As I read this entry from Roger Ebert’s journal, I am standing on a sidewalk in downtown Ottawa, waiting for a bus.

I arrived at the stop at 5:17 p.m. No one else is waiting; I’ve just missed a bus.

[Burden, lying on the floor,] was wearing a Navy blue sweater and pants, and jogging shoes. He let his hands rest easily at his sides and looked up at the ceiling, blinking occasionally. He could not see the clock.

The audience perhaps expected more. There was a pregnant period of silence, about 10 minutes, and when at the end of it nothing else had happened, there were a few loud whistles and sporadic outbursts of clapping. Burden did not react. At various times during the next two hours, audience members tried to approach Burden with advice, greetings, exhortations, and a red carnation. They were politely but firmly kept away by the museum attendants. A girl threw her brassiere at the glass; it was taken away by a smiling guard. At 10:30 p.m., when I left, the crowd had dwindled down to perhaps 100.

There are three bus routes I can take home at the end of a long work day. I prefer this one, because it drops me off closest to my door. On the other hand, it is unreliable during the afternoon rush hour. At other times of day, I never have a problem. But 5:17 p.m., and I’ve just missed a bus? It’s a bad sign.

I consider taking one of the other routes, and decide against it.

I stand. I wait.

At 1:15 a.m., I went to the pay telephone and called Alene [the museum’s publicist]. She said Burden was still on the floor. I said the hell with it and drove back downtown to the museum. Burden had not moved. […]

“He doesn’t move except for what look like isometric flexings,” Alene Valkanas said “He flexes his fingers sometimes, and once in a while you can see his toes flexing.” Burden seemed removed to a great distance. He was not asleep. There was no way to tell if he was in a meditative trance, or had hypnotized himself, or was fully aware of his surroundings. After an hour, I left very quietly, as if from a church.


Crucified raven

With the arrival of European settlers, Native American communities had transformation forced upon them. In some cases, traditional knowledge has been lost. Or it has skipped a generation or two, and a new generation is now trying to reclaim it.

Where traditional knowledge has been retained — or reclaimed — it has undergone a transformation. Inevitably, there is a process of syncretism at work:

the union (or attempted union) of different systems (especially in religion or philosophy).

Don Yeomans, Creator, 2008Don Yeomans, “Creator”, 2008, photographed by Trevor Mills

The photo and the accompanying text (excerpted below) is from a catalogue for an exhibit at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg (just north of Toronto). The catalogue is titled, Challenging Traditions: Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast.

The artist, Don Yeomans, has a Haida father and a Métis mother. Yeomans works within the stream of Haida tradition — but transformed as necessary to express his personal artistic vision.

“Creator” revisits a theme Yeomans originally explored 23 years earlier. The 2008 version adopts a more positive attitude toward Christianity than the original carving had:

The 1985 work depicts a raven held to a stainless steel cross. Above the raven is the title Creator. A superbly carved piece of yellow cedar, the work is a deeply felt meditation on what the church has done to First Nations people. The raven is beautifully rendered but, pinioned to the cross, is helpless, unable to fly away or assume a different form. The contrast between the harsh steel and the natural wood implies the imposition of a different order on the world of the First Nations.

The revision, shown here, depicts the raven on a wooden Celtic cross. The work is somewhat gentler, and the elegant Celtic knot forms provide counterpoint to the curves of the ovoid and feather shapes on the body of the bird. Yeomans describes how his thinking changed in the time between the two pieces:

When I had initially conceived of the idea, my notion was that the Natives gave up their culture, gave up their ideology for technology. But it was a superficial observation on my part, and I realized that Christianity had a lot to offer…. I’ve seen things in my life since then, like my father becoming a Christian, and how that transformed him as a human being and made him a better person. I felt the need to go back and respect the religion, make the cross more ornate, give it as much focus as the bird.1

Thus the second version of “Creator” expresses a relatively positive view of Christianity. Even so, I think this work of art is subversive.

As a religious symbol, the cross commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth:  a historical event with salvific consequences (so says Christian doctrine). The only person who can properly be represented on a crucifix is Jesus. Any other representation is subversive of Christian history and theology.

What does “Creator” say about the relationship between Christianity and the Haida religion? The following three possibilities come to mind:

Salvation Army thrift store receives an unlikely donation reports that a Salvation Army outlet in Houston, Texas, has received an unlikely donation:  six works of art by the surrealist, Salvador Dali.

The Salvation Army is so very, very traditional. Salvador Dali … isn’t.

Here’s a detail from one of the donated works:

Le Jungle Humaine, detail

The donor stipulated that the proceeds of the sale must be used in a program which rehabilitates adults with addictions.

ABC has video online. I got a chuckle out of the shopper saying, “I don’t know what is the meaning for this.”

You have mail

You have mail — from Vincent van Gogh:

letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo, with sketch

Actually, the letter was sent to Vincent’s brother, Theo, in 1882. reports, “over 35 original letters, rarely exhibited to the public due to their fragility, will be on display” in January, 2010, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

The letter sketches that Van Gogh frequently used to show a work in progress or a completed work are a fascinating part of the correspondence, and many will be shown alongside the paintings or drawings on which they are based.

O to have such an excess of talent that a “sketch” in a letter is a bona fide work of art in its own right!

Pastel glow

Happy Easter!

Easter Egg candles

Ilona is so craft-y!

First Nations art: a hopeful development

Kent Monkman, Icon for a New EmpireKent Monkman, Icon for a New Empire


TORONTO.- From images of Apache kids with skateboards to traditional tribal graphics, Remix: New Modernities in a Post-Indian World explores the challenges of being indigenous and an artist in the 21st century.

Opening at the Art Gallery of Ontario on April 4 and continuing through August 23, Remix features the work of 15 artists from Canada, the United States and Mexico. This generation of artists doesn’t feel compelled to reflect a traditional tribal identity in their work. Instead, they are developing a post-Indian articulation of the aboriginal identity, one that features new ideas and challenges old perceptions.

Artists tend to be at the cutting edge of historical developments. Perhaps this generation of native Americans will take a novel, “remix” approach to the social challenges faced by their communities.

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