The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia opened its doors to the public on July 16 after being closed for several months because of COVID-19. It was a great relief for me, as I had been starved for actual, not online, art since March.
I am happy to report that the exhibition at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (AGNS) by Vancouver media artist Althea Thauberger, The State of the Situation, was the tonic I needed after months of staring at virtual art on my computer, pad, and cell phone. Normally, I am not a big fan of installation or video art, but Thauberger’s work is certainly an exception to my basic predilection. It is both attractive and thoughtful and, in the case of The State of the Situation, presented exceptionally well. The AGNS exhibition is part of a collaboration of a three-venue examination of Thauberger’s works. The others were at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery and the Contemporary Art of Vancouver.
The AGNS exhibition consists of five of Thauberger’s works. Actually, I saw only four of them, as one, a thirty-minute digital film, Mad, Mad, Mad Filmy World (2017), was not being shown because of COVID-19 physical distancing restrictions. The others are Althea, Lorraine (Index, Card; Index, Nose; Index, Leaf) (2018), L’arbre est dans ses feuilles (The Tree is in its Leaves) (2017), Zivildienst ≠ Kunstprojekt (Social Service ≠ Art Project) (2006), and Kandahar International Airport (2009).
AGNS Chief Curator Sarah Fillmore, who organized and installed the Halifax exhibition, made good use of the space that was allotted to her. Each work has plenty of room to breathe and stand apart from the others. I have read that Thauberger’s work is complicated and difficult to understand. Perhaps I am missing something—I often do—but I certainly beg to differ. I have often written that an artwork first has to be attractive to hold my attention before I pay attention to its content; by attractive I do not mean pretty, but it needs formal qualities as an artwork. Of course, content is important. Content is the story that an artist is trying to tell us. Thauberger’s art certainly has the formal qualities to draw and keep my attention. She has much to say, and she does so with elegance.
Although I am impressed by Thauberger’s mastery of media, I am more impressed by her willingness to collaborate with others, including her subjects, in her artmaking.
Thauberger is better known internationally than she is in her native land for reasons that are beyond me. This is not to say that her work has gone unnoticed in Canada. She has had shows at Vancouver Art Gallery, The Power Plant in Toronto, and the National Gallery, among other venues, but this exhibition, along with its other two parts, is the first extended view of her work in Canada. Born in Saskatoon in 1970, she is certainly a senior artist who has long since mastered her craft. Her work speaks for itself.
Kandahar International Airport is a very large (304,8 x 972,82 cm) digital c-print of a photograph of a group of a dozen fully armed Canadian servicewomen running toward the photographer across the tarmac in front of the Kandahar airport terminal. The airport itself is an odd piece of mid-twentieth-century architecture with an even odder history. However, it is the women and not the airport that are important in this image. Even though they are armed, they are not threatening. They seem to be enjoying themselves, but they are fully aware that they empowered. The more I looked at the photograph, the more I enjoyed it. It is a powerful image, made more so by its sheer size.
Althea, Lorraine (Index, Card; Index, Nose; Index, Leaf) and L’arbre est dans ses feuilles are related, as they are both in some ways an homage to Lorraine Althea Monk, who worked at the Still Photography Division of the National Film Board in the 1960s. She edited the book Call Them Canadians and put together People Tree at the Canadian Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal. In addition to sharing the uncommon name Althea, Monk and Thauberger both express the complications of the Canadian mosaic. Althea, Lorraine is another large (152,4 x 17,48 cm) c-print of a photograph—Thauberger plays the role of Monk sorting through material for People Tree—and L’arbre est dans ses feuilles is a complex two-channel video installation also related to Monk. Many people contributed to making the images and soundtrack in the latter work. It does make the point that we understand culture very differently today from in 1967. Whether our understanding is any better is still an open question.
Although I am impressed by Thauberger’s mastery of media—particularly video—I am more impressed by her willingness to collaborate with others, including her subjects, in her artmaking. This is evident in Zivildienst ≠ Kunstprojekt, in which her subjects, German military conscientious objectors, were given broad control over how they were portrayed in her performance and video work. It is unfortunate that, in this time of COVID-19, The State of the Situation could not have been toured and reached a wider audience.
Althea Thauberger: The State of the Situation
Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax
November 9, 2019–September 27, 2020