Aqui – Ali, A Natureza e o Corpo Canadianos (Here – There, The Canadian Nature and Body)
“(…) Canada as a state of mind, as the space you inhabit not just with your body but with your head. It’s that kind of space in which we find ourselves lost.”
Margaret Atwood, Survival (1972)
In the kernel of edification of a country’s national identity are found both its limitations and boundaries. In the case of Canada, and its vast political landscape, before and after the European invasion, but also (and primarily as a metaphorical figure) environmental, a key source of concern is still felt today. As we speak, 150 years have passed since the borders were revoked and the Canadian Confederation triggered the expansion of the four provinces, which together establish the limits of the edges of the country. Centro de Investigação Artística de Lisboa, Hangar, with support from the Canadian Embassy in Lisbon, and under the curatorship of the writer, programmer and researcher Jesse Cumming, has presented us with a dynamic exploitation of blurry concepts, wrapped up in identity politics and within the postcolonialism narrative.
Screened in the past month of November, the audiovisual program Uma Linha Desenhada: Fronteiras e Limites em Filmes e Vídeos Canadianos perpetuated the inaudible with a collection of videos, installations and short films which tried to unify the past and the present, appealing to the senses of the inquiry that is still inherent to the concept of ‘divider’, to the dialectical strains of the colonialist imaginary. Highlighting the work of Sofia Bohdanowicz, Michael Stecky, David Rimmer, Shelley Niro, Joyce Wieland, Scott Miller Berry and Dana Claxton, the program anticipated the emotion expected when it comes to communicating a sociopolitical message that pliably speaks of multiculturalism in Canada, replicating, in the evolution of the program’s body, the memory of the body of the historical and colonial process that the country has lived through. And, akin to a collage book which aims to tell the story of an individual – mind, body and soul – the geography of a place is built and widespread in the appropriation of the realm of the moving image: the collective sensory texture, the metalanguage of projection, the divider formatted in each individual project, the factual element that reveals the skeleton of a country defined by its non-definition.
Dwelling on that line, literally or not, mirrored in the emotional map of Canadian anthropology, the discourse begins with the work of one of the most promising and accomplished directors in Canada’s modern day. Modlitwa (A Prayer) (2013), by Sophia Bohdanowicz, the first part of a trilogy of short films that looks at the creative’s grandmother, before and after her death, documenting the daily routine of the matriarch. As the woman reads, eats, talks on the phone, Bohdanowicz takes us to the excavation of the notion of the concept of ‘life’, of its ephemerality when put in contrast with the transition to death, whose border does not allow any sort of return. In its private and family contemplation of shared sequences, the film closely glances at the questions to which Chantal Akerman has devoted her career: Where does our home truly lies? And is a meditation in real time what explores the limitations of life or, instead of that, can it be a single process in which one can witness the heroism of the one who lives?
Likewise, despite stylized, emerges the claustrophobia and anxiety that the journey told in A Stranger on the Land- A Ghost Story (2012) of Michael Stecky highlights. The wind hovering around at excessive speeds, the silence that echoes in the impenetrable darkness of the empty streets, all this take the viewer to the gelid temperatures and to the desperation felt by a man lost in the Arctic during a snowstorm. Meanwhile, the video sequences of surfaces lighted by the snow bike bring to the foreground what Modlitwa analogically creates, the limbo. The feeling of containment, the permanence in a state which leads to frustration, is here induced and added to the previous film.
Following the tone and the absorption of a world intermingled in two is found the feeling in the image of the woman who works in a factory, in the three-dimensional study of movement Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper (1972) of the awarded David Rimmer. In the analysis of color and tone, of the celluloid as a large sheet of cellophane that the woman unfolds and incessantly turns again and again, the process to which the film is subjected during the projection is replicated by Rimmer, and repetitively expanded and enhanced until the woman is depicted as a photochemical object. Therefore the silhouette that endures is the one that relates the phantasmagoric trait of the image with the social commentary that such golden process arises. In the end, the abstraction of the curled movement is reduced to spots floating on the screen. The woman is a means of transport, which, when exacerbated by Rimmer, transcends the notion of border cleaning in social language, which ethnographic variations give room to. The passage of time, and the memory that comes from the process, corresponds to an urgent warning to decolonization.
And here one finds the two following exercises. In the contribution of Shelley Niro, Niagara (2015), a video of water in the Niagara Falls, New York, which uses embedded text in the image to reveal a memory of the past, the affectivity of a place almost sacred to the six Haudenosaunee Nations, is referred to as a “border”, says the artist. This depiction of space that connects the indigenous past to this postcolonialist present, of the shelter provided to indigenous peoples by the Americans, is a memorial, a cocoon that invokes the discovery of the meaning of identity. Likewise, the essay of appropriation of an object with a white shirt in The Shirt (1994), of Dana Claxton, functions as a vehicle of expression that goes beyond the physical into the psychological. The shirt which, in its zenith, after having been washed again and again, is, before the eyes of Claxton, transparent. Therefore, through the physicality of the voice of an indigenous memory, the process of decolonization is elevated to a permanent state of discovery of heritages that both artists, Niro and Claxton, are committed to find. It is in the transparency of the message, in a past that suffered from colonization, that a union may be materialized, so they say.
The same symbolistic attempt is comforted in the articulated and charismatic discourse of Joyce Wieland with Rat Life and Diet in North America (1968). Identified by Jonas Mekas as “one of the most original movies” of the end the 60s, Wieland structures her political satire and the role of Canada using animals – mice and cats – in her parable. A tribute to Maya Deren, the experimentalism of the film is a sample of the projection of subjectivity in the bodies of the subjects, animals in this case, which, in their humanism, engage in the thresholds of society. And of Canada as a place of the acknowledgment of humanity with all of its non-identity, and all the identification issues of its quest for one.
Yes. Quest. Quest is the right word for what is shown in the third and conclusive part of the body of the program. If Cumming begins by revealing us the temporal lines of borders that are extreme poles, he ends the program by plunging into nostalgia, projecting the memory of the past as the body experience of the future, of what is about to come. In Untitled (eleven years) (2015), Scott Miller Berry writes a posthumous letter to his mother, in which he begins to pose the question “will it be possible to stay inside and outside of ourselves at the same time,” if “what we share and hide” will be, besides our limbo, our liberation as human beings who share eternity between them. The movement of having to leave, and therefore overcoming a barrier, to return to ourselves, where our intention to live and decide on wanting to live can be inferred. Exploring the genre of film-diary, where a celebration of life in death is originated, Berry positions his power in the act of speaking about the encounter afterward. Under the notion of ‘home’, which we only encounter after having been forced to leave.
And having reached this ‘home’, Cumming concludes his commentary. In Dalsza Modlitwa (Another Prayer) (2013), now on the death of her grandmother, Bohdanowicz screens images of the film, with which this program has started, on the walls of the now empty house of the matriarch. As a testimony to love and devotion, and as a request to rewind time, the director expounds the eternal presence of her grandmother’s soul in the house where she used to live. There are no more walls, no more lines that may be outlined and delineated between ties once created. This materialized home is one of gratitude, and that house a metaphor for our creation. There is no one here and one there. And Jesse Cumming knows this better than anyone. There is Canada. And, yes, in the decolonization we can start to understand ourselves as a whole, as transparent as the water that falls and hits the rocks. After all, aren’t the permanent things the ones that shine more intensely?