Victorians, forgive me: before I ever visited your city, back when I was a Torontonian, my chief impressions of it revolved around three things: Emily Carr, wacky provincial politics and the Empress Hotel – high tea at the Empress, to be specific.
Minus the politics, my from-a-distance perceptions (though inadequate, no doubt shared by many) of the city are explored in two exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria: an evolving Emily Carr show, and A Postcard from Victoria, guest-curated by Michael Turner.
Mr. Turner’s installation speaks very much to the tourist-brochure impression of Victoria, a city that, as he puts it, “has sort of held down what happened indigenously in favour of a received idea of itself and it’s turned that reception into a tourist script.”
It’s an act, a charade, a construction created for the sake of tourism – and the economy. So even if inauthentic, it is important for the people who live there.
The centrepiece of the installation is a video, dating back to 1983, unearthed during Mr. Turner’s media residency at the Western Front in Vancouver (marking its 40th anniversary this spring, incidentally). The 16-minute video, A Postcard from Victoria, by Quebec-based duo Robert Morin and Lorraine Dufour, depicts a job interview for a docent position at Victoria’s Anne Hathaway Cottage, a re-creation of the English original. The working-class applicant is from England; the interviewer is from Victoria, but speaks with an English accent.
“It does reveal this thing which is very common to Victoria and that is the more English than thou,” says Mr. Turner. “It’s kind of clear that this woman is a working-class woman versus this sort of empress dowager figure who feels she’s of a more noble class.”
The interview is conducted over tea, and later the truly English woman – who gets the job – takes tea alone at the Empress, before walking home past decreasingly lavish houses to her little bedsit. There, she munches on high-tea leftovers, fiddles with some blank postcards, and watches a news report about a dispute between the province and public-sector employees.
This hints at a true connection between Victoria and Britain: it’s not pretty gardens or scrumptious scones, but an ugly Thatcheresque showdown between government and union.
In his installation, Mr. Turner re-creates the high tea experience, with an elaborate place setting facing a wall. On the wall is a sort of window made up of historic postcards of the Empress (selected from the vast collection of Philip Francis).
“You are having tea, looking out the Empress at someone looking at the Empress rendering it,” says Mr. Turner. “So it creates a kind of a looping thing. And that’s the kind of self-conscious city that Victoria is, looking at it with an eye to how it’s being looked at.”
Also in the small gallery – whose walls are covered in the same paint colours you’ll find at the Empress – a carousel holds 1980s-era postcards, as well as new postcards created by artists Raymond Boisjoly, Geoffrey Farmer and Julia Feyrer for the exhibition; Mr. Turner instructed them to “interview the video” when he commissioned the works. Monticello Rose on the walls and Burlap on the trim.
“It’s interesting to work with Michael, because Michael’s a person we associate with Vancouver,” says AGGV director Jon Tupper. “I think this [video] spoke to him because of his experience in Victoria.”
Mr. Turner is a Vancouverite, but he studied anthropology at the University of Victoria in the 1980s, and he grew up hearing stories of his father’s time at a boarding school in Victoria. He remembers a Victoria that still clung to its British identity in the 1980s, but sees it now slowly, finally, succumbing to global forces.
“Having someone from outside Victoria discover a fictional kind of narrative about the city and then create this narrative around the city from an outside point of view is interesting for us, because there’s a lot of kind of perceptions and ideas about what Victoria is and I think it’s interesting to kind of stir up that conversation and create different ways to look at that,” says Nicole Stanbridge, associate curator, contemporary art.
Despite his years there, Mr. Turner had never actually experienced high tea at the Empress. This project gave him an occasion to change that. He was thoroughly unimpressed with the multitiered sterling silver experience – the cucumber sandwiches, the rose petal shortbread – and the service that bordered on parody. “It was Fawlty Towers,” he says. “The worst [$59.50] you’ll ever spend in your life.”
For Victorians who agree, it may be unsettling to think how many people’s perceptions of their city have been shaped by this event, just as my early impressions resulted no doubt from some postcard in the mail.
“Perceptions are real by their consequences, whether they’re true or not, so we have to deal with perceptions,” says Mr. Turner. “There’s no point in berating a city for what it is and how it’s become, because very often the people there have no hand in generating that and they’re only left with the construction. They work around it consciously or unconsciously, so I’m really merely trying to point something out.”
Down the hall at the AGGV is Emily Carr: On the Edge of Nowhere, now transitioning to include works by a number of Ms. Carr’s contemporaries, including Lawren Harris, but especially First Nations artists, whose work influenced Ms. Carr, and who may have, in turn, been influenced by her practice, says Mr. Tupper. (The evolution results from practical concerns: many of the works in the show are on loan, and those loans carry conditions. With the big exhibition coming up at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, many major works are heading to London.)
Unlike the statue in front of the Empress – Ms. Carr looking eccentric with her pet monkey Woo on her shoulder – this exhibition aims to paint a fuller picture of the artist.
Two kilometres inland from the tourist frenzy – the Haida-themed rubber boots, the frozen cheesecake on a stick – the AGGV offers a deeper conversation about Victoria. I hope the tourists make it there.