This afternoon, I heard Tlingit artist Nicholas Galanin speak at the Bill Reid Gallery. His talk was my first prolonged exposure to concept art applied to Northwest Coast art. I came away stimulated, but not particularly sympathetic to the effort.
Galanin is the latest of several generations of artists, and has done some jewelry in the traditional style. However, at least for the time being, he is not especially interested in traditional art or culture. He talked about traditional art as being confined by the stereotypes imposed by a romantic view of first nations, and – rather tellingly – could not tell where he obtained a traditional song he used in a video, even though in coast cultures, rights in songs and their performance can be important pieces of property. [Note: Both Galanin and Sonny Assu tell me that it was not the traditional song whose source Galanin didn’t know, but a hiphop song that was part of the same work. See the comments below. I apologize for the error].
Instead, Galanin is more interested in exploring the First Nations as another ethnic minority within the dominant culture – in particular, how coastal images are bastardized and exploited by cheap imitations made in Asia for the tourist trade in the Northwest Coast. He discussed, for example, a series of masks he made out of pages of the Bible, talking about how he found it appropriate that the holy book of Christians, who suppressed shamanism, should be converted into a shaman mask. Galanin also talked other paper masks he had made and how they were masks by a first nations person that showed no signs of first nations culture.
Other projects he discussed involved embedding tourist-trade masks in a wall covered with wallpaper that depicted idealized pictures of 19th century life and another in which the same type of masks were covered in Chinoserie. In a pair of videos, he had a traditional dancer (or an approximation of one) and a modern dancer moving to the same traditional song. In yet another series of work, he gave his version of the highly idealized photos of Edward Curtis: naked women with masks added in a graphics editor.
Meanwhile, ten meters from the podium where he stood was his contribution to the Bill Reid Gallery’s Continuum show: A version of Bill Reid’s “Raven and First Men” rendered by a chainsaw. Galanin was seeing his version of the famous sculpture for the first time, because he had outsourced the work – as he does much of his work.
The outsourcing is a commentary on commercialism, but I also had the sense that for Galanin what matters is not the actual work so much as the concept. Apparently, he sees his role as that of impresario, rather than as an artist who necessarily creates works with his own hand.
Having been a grad student in an English department of a major university, I am tolerably well-versed in such approaches to art. Nor do I find anything in Galanin’s social commentary with which I disagree.
But I wonder if I am missing something, because I have never found this kind of concept art very compelling.
For one thing, it seems to have little room for something that is central to my own appreciation of art – the enjoyment of craft, of sheer artistic excellence. Part of this lack may be that it does not delve deeply into tradition, so it has no standards to judge skill by. But the major reason for the lack seems to be that, when you are making a comment, craft becomes unimportant or perhaps a distraction.
Moreover, when you are commenting on commercialism, too much craft is probably out of place. If anything, your message is stronger if an object shows a lack of craft.
This situation helps create another problem: most concept art, including Galanin’s, is like a symphony of a single note. If your ideal is the “well-made object” of Bill Reid’s aesthetics, then viewers can return to it many times, and even discover something new after the first viewing. In comparison, concept art seems simple and to offer few reasons to return to it. Once you have grasped the message – which is often simple enough that you can reduce it to a single sentence, or at least a rather short paragraph – nothing is left to appreciate. Concept art seems to be unambiguous and unsubtle by nature, and, consequently, not very interesting.
In this respect, it is interesting to compare Galanin’s chainsaw Bill Reid knockoff with Mike Dangeli’s ridicule mask, which is also in the Continuum show. Where Galanin’s “Raven and the First Immigrants” seems one-dimensional, Dangeli has reached into his cultural history to bring an old concept into the future: just as the ridicule masks of the past were public announcements of a wrong, so Dangeli’s is a declaration of the wrongs suffered from the first nations. Dangeli’s mask is every bit as social or political as Galanin’s sculpture, but where Galanin’s sculpture seems facile, Dangeli’s mask is ambiguous and complex. And I doubt it is a coincidence that Dangeli is throughly involved in preserving and reviving his culture while Galanin sounds like a typical deracinated intellectual.
But such issues are a matter of taste. Regardless of what I think of Galanin’s work, I have to admit that the very fact that it takes the form that it does illustrates the diversity of Northwest Coast art and proves it a living tradition. And that by itself, I suspect, is something of value.