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Exhibition Complexes: Displaying Nation in Canada's Galleries

I was at a conference last week where numerous art historians were calling for a history of the anti-globalization protest movement. "Why do we need to pin it down," asked one of the presenters, "when its potential is that it is happening all the time?"

Kirsty Robertson

Issue #67, April 2004


Let me start with two images. The first is of a protest in Calgary, Alberta, in the summer of 2002. As protesters gathered in the city against the G8 meeting in the remote location of Kananaskis, an image circulated through Indymedia websites showing a crowd of people holding a variety of posters, in the centre one of the now familiar black and red silhouette image of Bolivian revolutionary Che Guevara. This crowded and colourful picture is contrasted with a second image of the clean ascetic space of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts where the "Global Village: The 1960s" show is currently on display. Halfway through the exhibition, in a room titled "Disorder," the curators have included a poster of Guevara by Cuban artist Felix Beltrán, mounted on the wall beside Guevara's famous black and white portrait, used in both the protest poster, and in advertising for the exhibition. The bright green and red of Beltrán's poster stand out against the plain wall, as the spectator walks by, checking the label, moving onto the next item, and on through the show, past the display of psychedelic ties, album covers, and Janis Joplin's painted Porsche, before being directed to the exhibition store, where a display of Che Guevara paraphernalia, notebooks, bags, posters and magnets sells "the revolution" to interested shoppers.

Che Guevara by Felix BeltranWhile I might fruitfully here examine the semiotic importance of Che Guevara as sign, I have decided instead to use the two images of Guevara metaphorically, in order to look more closely at some of the issues surrounding the display and construction of protest in Canada. I suggest that these two images play nicely into competing narratives of nationality and post-nationality that characterize the museum space, and indeed much of the cultural space, in Canada today. I also suggest, at the end of the article, that as in the Guevara poster in the gallery, the rendering of protest as two-dimensional visual culture is problematic, as it collapses the sensory nature of bodily experienced protest into easily manipulated visual material that can often mirror the tenets of a global capitalist society it seeks to challenge. Though the gallery is just one vector where this plays out, the coming together within its space of ideas of nationality, multiculturalism, visuality, globalization, international tourism and urban renewal make it a particularly rich location to unfold.

Trading Canada

In 1989, architect Douglas Cardinal designed the building that would become the Canadian Museum of Civilization, starting a wave of museum building in Canada that continues unabated. The curving organic lines of the building bind the architecture to its surroundings on the banks of the Ottawa River, in stark contrast to the angular neo-Gothic Parliament buildings perched on the cliff across the water. The CMC, which houses large, and often contested, collections of ethnographically displayed First Nations artifacts alongside other cultural/historical objects, sets itself up as a narrative through the time and space of Canadian history. Its doors were opened with the launch of Museum for the Global Village, a catalogue ostensibly setting the institution within an international sphere of technologically advanced display spaces. However, the rhetoric surrounding the museum's opening abandoned the global in favour of situating it soundly within a Canadian perspective. Outlining the museum's mandate in the catalogue, former director George Macdonald wrote:

One way in which the CMC makes itself meaningful is that, as a shrine containing national treasures, it can be seen by Canadians as an appropriate pilgrimage destination where their experience of national culture/identity will help transform them into "good citizens." All Canadians should feel a certain obligation to visit their national capital, and to visit the CMC as an integral part of that pilgrimage.

Nowhere does MacDonald define what he means by "good citizen," although one might deduce from the statement that they are those who know and abide by certain acceptable modes of "Canadian" behaviour, and those who are willing to accept a collapse of regional, ethnic and lingual difference into the monolithic space of capital city as national destination. MacDonald continues by setting the Museum of Civilization within the context of Confederation Boulevard, a ceremonial route that ties together some of the main monuments in Ottawa/Hull, the Canadian capital city. Visitors can walk past the Supreme Court, the Parliament Buildings and Peace Tower, the War Cenotaph where the Unknown Soldier was buried in a recent ceremony, the glass-encased National Gallery, the famous stone Chateau Laurier hotel, the Canadian Mint and the War Museum — a self-guided tour that takes both national and international tourists past carefully selected buildings that are, according to MacDonald "the principle images every visitor is likely to retain of national symbols." They are also, to point out the fairly obvious, spaces of government, capital, justice and memory — a conglomeration for the making and remembering of Canadian power.

Writing in 1989, MacDonald creates a resonant national space — a place redolent of a very "Canadian"/national cultural and touristic experience. Quoting a 1987 report from the Canadian Ministry of Tourism and Heritage, MacDonald notes "In seeking to define Canada's unique cultural identity, we have become increasingly aware of the need to have a sense of who and what we are as a collective ... . [This] requires an appreciation of what we have inherited, a collective memory, and a will to cultivate it." The idea of a unifying narrative of Canadian history and culture that underlies this statement has been an extremely important part of negotiating Canadian self-identity in an increasingly globalized and post-national world, particularly since the near success of the 1995 Quebec referendum, where Quebec voted against separation by a mere half percent. From celebratory hyper-Canadian advertisements for Tim Horton's donuts and Molson Beer, to television specials aimed at making Canadian history "interesting," to yearly rants in the national newspapers surrounding the seeming inability of Canadians to learn their history, the push for unity is on. According to MacDonald, the museum is the ideal location for this sort of coming together — its narratives, told through historical objects, create the idealized unification of the messy and multifaceted stories that make up Canada as a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-regional, settler country.

To unify, at least in this context, is to subsume, and numerous authors have questioned the hegemonizing logic of rendering the plural into the monolithic, citing the construction of a core group of what sociologist Eva Mackey calls "Canadian-Canadians," against whom others must be defined as hyphenated Canadians. In spite of these concerns, however, faced with threats to nationally-protected culture with the signing of international agreements such as the 1988 Free Trade Agreement (with the United States) and the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (with the United States and Mexico), issues of cultural sovereignty, often constructed as nostalgic references back to an imaginary unified past, have played a strong role in Canadian cultural politics.

As cultural critic Susan Crean (along with numerous others), has repeatedly pointed out, since the signing of the 1988 Free Trade Agreement there has indeed been a gutting of social funding for the arts. But, there has also been a seemingly contradictory glut of museum expansion and building. What has occurred, I suggest, is the playing out of the national/post-national moment, as the perceived need to create a unified Canadian culture, meets the need to attract capital investment and international tourism. Canadian culture has become, to all intents and purposes, something that can be marketed equally well through Molson Beer and Tim Horton's advertisements as through the gleaming new architecture of Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind designed museum spaces.

Though calls for monolithic narratives of Canadian history continue unabated, I will spend the rest of this article honing in on the gallery, using its space to pry apart the national/post-national and the conflation of culture and politics that has taken place as a corollary of globalization.


In the early 1990s, a significant number of art historians and theorists began to look at the gallery and museum as spaces for national meaning making. Scholars such as Carol Duncan and Allan Wallach began to examine how the display of objects and art works within the gallery space might play into narratives of national progression, placing the national above the international (in the case of Canada, generally placing works by the Group of Seven as the apex of achievement). As George MacDonald suggested with regard to the Canadian Museum of Civilization, museums and galleries are places, to borrow a phrase from Carol Duncan, where the relationship between state as benefactor and citizen as receiving individual is symbolically acted out.

Writing around the same time, other artists and scholars had begun to address increased corporate sponsorship in the gallery, particularly in the United States. Scholars such as Brian Wallis and Marc Rectanus began to unwrap the private sponsorship of exhibitions, suggesting that museums had become sites for the whitewashing of corporate images. As Brian Wallis and artist Hans Haacke linked Metro Oil's 1980s sponsorship of the Nigeria exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum to Metro's wish for public support for its access to oil fields in Nigeria, and as Haacke began to uncover links between museum boards of directors, slum dwellings in New York city, and the purchase of fine arts, it appeared that the tenets of the spread of global neo-liberal capitalism and the display of art were collapsing Pierre Bourdieu's distinction between economic and cultural capital.

In Canada, the links between corporate image-making and museum display are not quite so clear. If anything, until recently, there appeared to be a greater interest in associating with the intensification of Canadian national identity than with setting corporate agendas through exhibition displays. American Express, for example, during its attempt to break into the Canadian market, sponsored the Cornelius Krieghoff show with its stereotyped images of nineteenth century winter landscapes and happily carousing French Canadian habitants. Stikeman Elliot, a law firm and strong supporter of the arts in Canada, helped the Canadian government to negotiate the NAFTA before donating money to exhibitions such as "Life and Stuff: Greg Curnoe" with its pro-hockey and quaintly anti-American sentiment — Greg Curnoe's 1960s buttons reading "close the 49th parallel" became, in the exhibition, the kitsch of old-style protest politics.

However, this easy conflation of nationality and sponsorship received a shock in 2003, when the Art Gallery of Ontario closed its well-known historical Canadian wing, citing the need to save money while the new Frank Gehry expansion of the museum was being constructed. The closure of the collection, with its emphasis on the Group of Seven, Krieghoff, and others who had been the staples of blockbuster Canadian culture exhibitions, raised the ire of the public and the media. "I'm in shock," artist Ed Bartram is quoted in the P.E.I Pioneer. "The Group Of Seven is about the heritage of the province of Ontario. The citizens of Ontario have a right to see a permanent installation in the provincial gallery." Though writing from an Ontario-centric position, Bartram's words echo many of those in the Canadian newspapers from the period. Though parts of the collection have been rehung in a much smaller temporary space which combines the traditional collection with work by First Nations and other non-dominant artists, arguably presenting a much more balanced view of art production in a multicultural nation, the rehanging does not necessarily fit the sort of multiculturalism that constructs insiders and outsiders. Insiders, as art critic John Bentley Mays memorably put it, tend to like images of the cottage country painted by the Group of Seven, as they own both it and the gallery. The AGO has gone on record smoothing over the closure of the old wing, virtually ignoring the new smaller section, and highlighting the future of the gallery — the gleaming fa?de of the Frank Gehry expansion and the importance of the new collection donated by business magnate Kenneth Thomson that will be highlighted in the new area. All of a sudden the Frank Gehry wing, with its implications for international tourism has become the attraction itself — Canadian art has been placed on the backburner, at least for the time being. What had been national pilgrimage has now become international destination.

Staging the 60s

Another image. It is 2000 and the Sydney Olympics are underway when Peter Mansbridge, anchor of the nightly news on the national station, interrupts the broadcast to announce that former Prime-Minister Pierre Trudeau has died. In a spontaneous moment that would make the most unifying of narratives envious, thousands of Canadians got in their cars and made what can only be described as a pilgrimage to Ottawa to pay their respects to Trudeau, participating in a moment of seeming unity that intersected with nostalgic reminiscence of Trudeau's ascent to power in the heady "Trudeau-mania" days of 1968.

But this is contrasted again with another image, this time of crowds of another sort — thousands gathering against the transnational trading bodies that create the situations of the globalization of capital that in turn result in the unstable balance between national and post-national. 60,000 in Quebec City against the signing of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, 20,000 in Calgary when the G8 met in Kananaskis, thousands in Windsor, Ottawa, Vancouver, Halifax and Montreal. Organized through transnational diverse affinity groups, prepared to stand up against police violence, and protesting any number of issues beneath the rubric of anti-neo-liberalism and global justice, the whirling vortex of protesters, an overwhelming sensory experience of noise — bongo drums, chants, riot sticks beating on shields, the smell and taste of tear gas, and the press of bodies, contrasts the straight orderly lines of Trudeau mourners participating in a narrative of nationality.

In July 2003, when these two images coincided in the Canada Day gatherings and protests at the meeting of the WTO in Montreal, the newspapers could not subsume the two into a single narrative of Canadian history. Protesters tended to be constructed as outsiders, as un-Canadian. But, whether through coincidence or zeitgeist, the galleries were able to bring the two together, primarily through nostalgic reference to the 1960s. While not arguing for a simplistic cause-effect relationship here, I would suggest that using the 1960s offers a way of creating new histories of Canadian nationality/post-nationality by pushing globalization back to the 1960s, constructing Trudeau-mania as simply another element of a global consciousness that has developed into the present situation with its large scale tear gassings and protests simply a nostalgic re-living of 1960s dissent. The "good citizens" of MacDonald's earlier comment probably don't engage in the unruly nature of global justice protest, but they might enjoy reliving its predecessor within the gallery space. For this reason, I suggest, there are over the next four years seven separate large-scale exhibitions of 1960s art and culture in Canada's authoritative galleries and museums, each with its own section on protest and dissent.

Using the 1960s as subject opens up the gallery for the combination of narratives of nationality and post-nationality. While a strong contingent of Canadian artists such as Greg Curnoe, Joyce Wieland and Michael Snow can support the sort of unifying national narrative present in earlier exhibitions (both Curnoe and Wieland were fierce nationalists), the ability to open up the 60s to virtually any realm — pop culture, pop art, protest, for example, makes a focus on the decade a perfect attraction for international tourism, particularly when housed in the new architectural centrepoints of the city. The 1960s are rendered infinitely consumable.

At present the first exhibition "Global Village: The 1960s" has opened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal. In the exhibition catalogue curator Stéphane Aquin first sets up the global village as a uniting force in a divided world, and then writes cogently of the problems involved in his utopia — namely the unequal distribution of power and money through the world. But through a discursive turn highlighting only the aesthetic aspects of the 1960s, Aquin is able to avoid the potential pitfalls of delving too deeply into the fallout of 1960s politics. Instead, the exhibition is set up as one investigating two questions: first, was there a global aesthetic present in 1960s art and design? And second, did artists respond aesthetically to the political events of the time? Art works by politically motivated artists such as Faith Ringold and Nikki de Saint Phalle are subsumed into an overarching narrative of the 1960s as period with many of the same issues addressing us today. As visitors move between rooms labeled "media," "space," "disorder," and "change," protest is present, but rendered two dimensional, and addressed within a politics of looking that brings the viewer's eye into focus for a moment, before moving onto the next item. Within the exhibition, the spectator is focused on what will come next, in essence replicating the ocular-centrism of commodity culture.

In this manner, the exhibition touches on all the points raised in this article. Through the use of Canadian media scholar Marshall McLuhan's term "global village" the idea of Canadian multiculturalism is expanded to encompass the whole globe, notwithstanding the cultural/colonial impulse that this might disguise. Second, globalization is pushed back to the 1960s, making its current manifestation seemingly less threatening, while the emphasis on aesthetics has the corollary of aestheticizing politics — hence why Che Guevara does not seem out of place.

One final image

Photograph of protestors at Vancouver Art Gallery from Copyright © 2003 PaperClipThe steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery, on Canada's west coast are the location where I will end. The gallery itself has a resonant history, first as courthouse where the 1920s potlatch confiscations and aboriginal land seizures took place, then as the site for the violent arrest of First Nations activist Leonard Pelletier, before being converted to the provincial art gallery in the 1980s. Artist and curator Doreen Jensen claims this plays out in the site and space of the gallery, reflecting the institution's contentious history in all the exhibitions that take place within. Indeed, the Vancouver Art Gallery steps have become the centerpoint of many protests that take place in the city. Centrally located and boasting a large-scale stone staircase, protesters gather each weekend, no matter what the issue. Circulating through the space, using the public bathrooms, telephones and café in the gallery, protesters give speeches on its steps, then move out through the city. For me this is an extremely resonant image, as people move away from the gallery it fades into the background, becoming the ground against which the figures of the protesters, posters and banners are defined — the still versus the moving, the re-embodiment of protest. I was at a conference last week where numerous art historians were calling for a history of the anti-globalization protest movement. "Why do we need to pin it down," asked one of the presenters, "when its potential is that it is happening all the time?"

Kirsty Robertson is a PhD candidate in the Department of Art at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. She is presently working on a dissertation that examines the intersections between visual culture and protest (in particular the global justice movement) in Canada.

Credits: Image of Che Guevara by Felix Beltrán.
Photograph of protestors at Vancouver Art Gallery from Copyright © 2003 PaperClip.

Copyright © 2004 by Kirsty Robertson. All rights reserved.