The Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore sits alone at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Wearing headphones and with her eyes closed, she bobs her head to a playlist of music that is related to a major new exhibition of her work at the gallery. The songs, which inspire her, have been used as soundtracks to some of her live performance pieces of the past.
“Which ones were you just listening to?” I ask, when Belmore takes off her headphones. “The Honour Song,” she says, referring to a traditional chant-and-drum number from the Whitefish Bay Singers. “It helps me regroup.”
She was also listening to the late Merle Haggard’s The Fightin’ Side of Me, which, as a jingoistic anti-protest song, is a weird choice for the politically minded Belmore. “Was he,” she asks with a laugh, “a redneck?”
Yes he was, famously so – a non LSD-ing Okie from Muskogee, as another of his big late-sixties hits declared.
“Well, I take songs about one thing and rethink them and use them in my own way,” explains Belmore, proud to be an Ojibwe from Upsala, Ont. “I think using this song is to be defiant, and to stand up to issues.”
Fair enough. Belmore’s major solo exhibit at the AGO is Facing the Monumental, which presents some of her most famous works, including Fountain, her entry to the 2005 Venice Biennale, and At Pelican Falls, her affecting tribute to residential school survivors.
“Facing the monumental” is what artists (and musicians and writers and any creative souls) do. The “monumental” is a wall to be overcome or a blank something-or-other to be filled. “What am I going to do, how am I going to do it and how am I going to deal with this,” Belmore explains. “These are the questions I ask myself as an artist.”
The 24-piece exhibition, which opened Wednesday evening with a free public reception, is the largest survey of Belmore’s work presented to date, with works of photography, sculpture and media installations from the past three decades. Off-site, a new video titled Nibi (water), commissioned by Toronto-Dominion Bank, is on view at a branch’s media art wall at Queen and Bay streets in Toronto.
Facing the Monumental runs to Oct. 21, before moving on to the Remai Modern in Saskatoon in the spring of 2019. The retrospective represents what the exhibit’s curator calls “art as action.”
“Looking at the state of the world right now, it’s dire in so many ways,” says Wanda Nanibush, in charge of the gallery’s Indigenous art. “We’re thinking about the role of artists and the way Rebecca sees herself as a worker, and the way art can be an action in response to the state of the world. We can’t ignore what is happening.”
One of the things happening today is homelessness, a social crisis decidedly not ignored by Belmore, whose two new sculptures, Tower and tarpaulin, look at the culture and ingenuity of people living with no fixed addresses.
Tower is titled accurately and made of unfired clay, with more than a dozen standard-issue shopping carts affixed to its 4.5-metre height. The dichotomy of the shopping cart is not complicated: People with means fill them with food and merchandise to purchase and to wheel out to their vehicles, while people with no homes use them to transport their worldly possessions.
Where Tower is high and striking, the ceramic tarpaulin is poignant and ground-level. Among the homeless, a tarp is a prized possession – as a blanket or part of a makeshift shelter.
Both pieces were inspired by a recent visit to Vancouver by Belmore, who lived in the city from 2000 to 2012. She finds today’s “condominium craziness” offensive to those who can’t afford any living space at all. “It’s appalling,” she says. “Why can’t people have a home? Somewhere to eat, to sleep, to clean themselves, to chill out, to feel safe?”
The exhibition’s title is taken from a performance Belmore staged on Canada Day in 2012 at Toronto’s Queen’s Park, where she transformed a 150-year-old oak into a temporary “non-monument” to Earth by wrapping the tree in craft paper. Given Premier Doug Ford’s apparent lack of interest in the environment – he recently announced plans to end the province’s cap-and-trade program – the newly elected Ontario leader might chop down that tree in a performance piece of his own.
“It’s frustrating,” says Belmore, of the willful backwardness of certain politicians, on both sides of the border. “They don’t seem to have a regard for the future, and it’s frightening.”
Although Belmore’s work is poetic, it is also confrontational. Her 2005 video Fountain, projected onto a falling water cascade, ends with the artist tossing a bucket of blood toward the viewer. It’s an in-your-face wake-up call about the scarcity of water and the battles of the future over that resource.
As for confrontations, asked about the giant “Trump Baby” balloon set to fly over London during the U.S. President’s scheduled visit to the city this week, Belmore smiles and says the helium gesture is “awesome.”
The cheeky balloon in response to a visiting dignitary calls to mind Rising to the Occasion, Belmore’s excellent reaction to a royal visit by Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson in 1987, when the married couple took to a canoe in formal wear at a reconstructed fur-trading fort in Thunder Bay. As part of a performative protest to this country’s colonial past – a consistent, fierce target of the artist – Belmore wore a dress that was part Victorian ball gown, part beaver-dam and all delicious satire.
That dress is part of the exhibit, but there’s a sense that Belmore, while still playful and defiant, has moved on from heavy-handed confrontation to actions more subtle.
“I was 27 years old when I did that,” says Belmore, now 58. “You know, I think the youth today needs to do more of that kind of thing. I’m happy to participate and support, but as I age I use other ways to articulate my point of view.”
She’s talking about creating beauty to address the ugly: “It comes down to how an artist handles subject matter, in trying to allow people in and not to push them away.”
Er, like throwing a bucket of blood at us as you do in your Fountain video? “Exactly,” Belmore says with a soft laugh, “exactly.”
With that, I leave her to her Haggard, Belmore’s art still being the fightin’ side of her.
Rebecca Belmore: Facing the Monumental is at the Art Gallery of Ontario until Oct. 21 (ago.ca).