“I wanted to do a work that made a major statement about contemporary history,” says Wallace. “I wanted to do something … that I would call my history painting.”
Dominating the news at the time were the Oslo Accords, agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization meant to bring peace to the region. Wallace began to investigate this idea and even flew to New York and set up in the media pit at the United Nantions building with news crews to photograph PLO leader Yasser Arafat.
But ultimately, Wallace decided, it was the wrong story for him to tell.
“I thought, oh, this isn’t close to my personal history,” says Wallace. “I’d never been to Israel, for instance. I’m not on the inside of that; I’d be talking about somebody else’s history. … The question about conviction and authenticity is important, because it’s a little too easy to borrow other people’s histories to make a major statement.”
So he turned his attention to the west coast of Vancouver Island, where the Clayoquot Sound protests were escalating, drawing thousands of people that summer to block the logging road and protect old growth forest, knowing they risked arrest.
Wallace returned to Vancouver, found out when the next major protest was scheduled (August 9), enlisted the help of a friend and camped overnight at a spot that would give them a panoramic view of whatever went down.
That day, some 250 people were arrested, but Wallace’s work documents the peaceful sit-in that preceded the mayhem. Wallace later read in the International Herald Tribune (the article, blown up and silk screened, is installed here) that 44 of the protestors received jail sentences. One of them, Wallace reveals, was his favourite high school teacher, who had encouraged Wallace to write poetry.
Wallace moves around the gallery where Clayoquot Protest is installed, pointing out characters he has wondered about: a seated woman looking anxious about what’s ahead; a young, lumber-jacketed couple, maybe beginning a romance; an older man, possibly a university professor, stressing out over whether he will make it to the first day of class or be spending it in a jail cell.
“Anyway,” says Wallace, “there’s a story behind everything.”
He likes to tell these stories, and throughout the show there is evidence of his commitment to demystifying the process. There’s a sculpture created from personal notes and letters (including a handwritten slag of an art critic in correspondence with the Art Gallery of Ontario); the contact sheets and pencil tracings for his monumental work Lookout; and studies for works such as My Heroes in the Street and At the Crosswalk.
“I’m interested in all stages of the process from the earliest scribble to the final piece,” he says.
At Work 1983 was a playful response to some push-back Wallace received for demanding his students read serious art criticism, history and theory. “The perception of me, especially among the people who were not happy about having to do that kind of work, was that I was too intellectual,” he says. “I wasn’t a real artist, right? I was a wannabe. That was a little bit of the perception: Here’s the art historian who wants to be an artist.”
For the performance, which was documented in a variety of ways, Wallace spent an hour every night over two weeks, between midnight and 1 a.m., sitting at a desk in the window of the Or Gallery, working – often reading Soren Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Irony. Outside, people leaving the bars at that time of night would gawk and often laugh, he recalls. But Wallace was the author of the wry joke, not the butt of it.
In 2008, Wallace restaged the work, referencing both the original as well as In the Studio 1984, replacing 1984’s typewriter with a laptop.
He’s clearly having fun, but these works speak to his many serious influences, and the movement he has helped shape – in part because of his attention to what came before him.