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Abattoirs by Artists
Sigrid Dahle’s Abattoirs by Artists (September 14 to November 18) is an elaboration of the 1970s conceptual art strategy of creating an installation that critiques the institution that hosts it. This could be old hat, but under Dahle’s inventive and thorough direction, and provided with a site with such a provocative provenance, Abattoirs is in turn ingenious, informative, touching, funny and macabre.

The Mendel Art Gallery (Saskatoon) opened in 1964 in large part due to the patronage of Fred Mendel, the founder of the Saskatoon-based Intercontinental Packers (Mitchell's Gourmet Foods). Upon discovering this, Dahle, in a leap of curatorial imagination, forged a metaphorical and literal parallel between the abattoir and the art world, she then corralled existing works and requested new ones to elaborate her theme. The artists include: Lois Andison (Toronto), Eleanor Bond (Winnipeg), Blair Brennan (Edmonton), Dana Claxton (Vancouver), Richard Dyck (Winnipeg), William Eakin (Winnipeg), Joe Fafard (Regina), Fastwürms (Toronto), Steve Higgins (Winnipeg), Wendy Jacob (USA), Rob Kovitz (Winnipeg), and Bernie Miller (Toronto).

Sigrid Dahl’s name should also be on this list as she mounts a significant challenge to the boundary between artist and curator. Entwined throughout the Mendel’s galleries are thick curatorial tendrils in the form of “footnotes,” six blocks of text and images mounted on the walls. More than notes, they are chapter headings that organize the show and direct reading—inscribing the space as its own exhibition catalogue.

Footnote #1, “Patronage,” is particularly elaborate. A work of art, really, in the manner of Fred Wilson, it assembles artworks gifted by the Mendel’s and photographs recording the family’s patronage. There is an awkward painting of “Miss Claire Mendel,” a generic horsey painting, and a familiar ceramic bull by Joe Fafard.

The message is that patronage is a form of immortality, or at least vanity; that museums are bound to own some bad stuff because the weak and the vain are often bundled in with better works in a gift; and that patrons collect to reflect their interests, especially financial interests—hence all the meat.

The installation includes photographs: the Mendel’s at the opening of the gallery, and murals painted by William Perehudoff in 1948 that depict the meat packing assembly line. The murals, commissioned by Fred Mendel in a stunning display of prairie gothic taste—whose oblivious myopia and lugubrious irony might have been lost if not for Dahle’s incisive contextualization—are (still) proudly displayed in the packing plant cafeteria!

Dahle presents more of these gruesome and telling juxtapositions in later footnotes. # 5, ‘That’s the Truth,’” is taken from the Mitchell's Gourmet Foods colouring book. Displayed without commentary, is a line drawing of two pigs embracing within a heart. The caption reads “’You’re a winner,’ said Mama pig hugging Geraldine, ‘because there’s one thing real winners never hide and that’s the truth.’” “Footnote #6” features photographs of the packing plant’s surreal mascots, the Olympic Pigs, who “have visited countless schools and hospitals, lighting up children’s eyes and hearts and giving out something more valuable than money—smiles and laughter.” You don’t have to be a veggan to be appalled by the tastelessness of this twisted anthropomorphizing of animals heading to slaughter; or Sigmund Freud to decode these bizarre attempts to both conceal and reveal the butchery behind our diet.

The general message seems to be that taste is not fundamental to patronage. Dahle’s interventions are audacious, especially given that this is not an artist-run centre. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you!

From this very focused critical core, Abattoirs by Artists spins out a set of vaguer related themes around “the contentious implications of holding, abundance, processing, and interpretation.” Interestingly, apart from Dahle’s work, the more tangential and ambiguous works are much more interesting than those built especially for the exhibition.

In “Red of Tooth and Kaw,” the Fastwürms collective offers another poorly developed and executed muddle about necromancy and the persecution of witches. This time out they manage to squeeze in some confusion about cannibalism and reincarnation. Bernie Miller’s theatrically lit deconstructed cooking range, “Reading Entrails,” requires a lot of support to prop it up as art, and, fortunately, this exhibition provides it. Richard Dyck’s photographs (scans, really) of the gallery walls, placed throughout the gallery, is a neat conceptual piece, but, because it is less about abattoirs than the material nature of the gallery, seems orphaned.

By far the best works are those produced by artists prior to the curatorial edict. Blair Brennan’s, “Two Jackets I Have Worn,” feature two beat-up leather jackets branded with the words grace and guilt respectively. They are displayed with the means of their production, the branding irons. Brennan is an Edmonton-based neo-beat poet disguised as a blue-collar industrial artist who brands walls, books, leather and paper with the world’s subtexts. Here, the rebel’s uniform is inscribed with the marks of Cain and Able. That the artist wore both, comments on the possibility of social scripts and even fate being a matter of attire and mood to the artist.

Wendy Jacobs and Steve Higgins industrial designs for people echo designs for animals. Jacob’s “Squeeze Chair” is a blue over-stuffed chair with a pneumatic device that causes the huge arms to slowly embrace the occupant. It is inspired by the work of Temple Grandin, an animal scientist who designs humane animal containment units based on devices she developed for her own body to help her cope with autism. Grandin’s plans surround the chair. There is a strange benevolence in Grandin’s utilitarianism that when translated to the (non-autistic) human condition, can engender panic. Higgins’s two, large charcoal drawings look—except for the messy fingerprints—minimalist. But the title, “Mobile Home Park,” reveals that they are aerial plans. In this context it reminds us (after Peter Halley) of how many of us are organized and housed—like cattle.

Perhaps the strongest work is Dana Claxton’s “Buffalo Bone China” (1997). In a room on its own is a video projection of scenes of stampeding buffalo and a lamenting Aboriginal man. On the floor in front of the screen is a pile of broken fine china protected by an encircling museum barrier of black rope. The didactic panel explains that buffalo were killed for their bones, which were ground into a powder used to make chinaware. The inclusion of this powerful essay on colonization is not a token gesture, there are several other links to Aboriginal abattoirs in the exhibition.

As if Abattoirs by Artists themes were not explicit enough, the Mendel has provided, in the Reading Room, “Devouring Art,” a didactic installation spelling out in careful detail the parallels between the artworld and abattoirs. This text-heavy attenuation of the metaphor examines the way galleries capture, examine, process, and serve art, and the public consumes it. This is a wonderful primer that touches on issues such as the consumption of controversial works; the commodification of masters and masterpieces, and the Impressionists; Van Gogh and supply and demand economics; authenticity and reproduction.

I doubt this display was intended as art, but its seamless proximity to the main spaces, its step-by-step explanations and copious texts, cause the viewer to read its exposition back into the exhibition proper, calling attention to the heavy curatorial hand (especially in the “footnotes”). Like the curator’s strong presence in the gallery, the Reading Room blurs the boundary between art and explication.

For quite some time, we have been living in the Theme Age. Art works are more likely to be gathered to celebrate or illustrate a curator’s theme than to showcase the explorations of an individual artist. In part, this is a result of the postmodern critique of the artist as genius. But it is also due to the rise of the curator. Today, the curator is the genius. They are the still centers around whose ideas individual artists and art works circulate. This has meant that there is a growing underclass of artist who is not on the top rungs of the art world. Thematic artists produce pieces to suit. Rising to the occasion means inclusion in numerous curator shows, but it also means that their individual bodies of work are often fractured and discontinuous. A phenomenon diagnosed as postmodern.

Abattoirs by Artists is a curator show. Which is to say, it is not only a brilliant display of curation, but also that the curator has an active presence in the space formerly reserved for the work of artists. To experience a curator show is to engage the organizing mind of the exhibition, and to have the architecture of that organization made explicit on the walls of the gallery. The art works tend to place second. Abattoirs by Artists is fascinating because there is an equal pull between the curatorial vision and the best of the independent works. The tension is exquisite.

David Garneau 2002


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David Garneau
Associate Professor at The University of Regina
Faculty of Fine Arts, Visual Arts Department.
RC 245 | (306) 585-5615 |