AN ARCHAEOLOGY OF KNOWLEDGE: Digging Down into the Layers of Institutional Information

A view with the fall colours just outside Ottawa in Chelsea.

Back from the Nation’s Capital!

The one thing I love about living above the 49th parallel is the experience of seasons. Although the fall represents the dying away of the fruits of summer and points towards the contemplative mood of winter, with winter comes the promise of spring’s rebirth and new opportunities for growth. The symbolism is simple but profoundly significant.

A trek north with the chance to leave the concrete jungle of urban Toronto was rewarded by arriving in the Ottawa area at the peak of autumn’s technicolour display augmented by the light of shifting stormy skies. Sometimes you need to get out of the city to see a new view – literally and metaphorically.

French artist Louise Bourgeois' sculpture of a spider titled "Maman" outside the National Gallery in Ottawa, Canada.French artist, Louise Bourgeois’ “Maman” sculpture outside the National Gallery.

French-Canadian artist Joe Fafard's sculpture "Running Horses" outside the National Gallery, Ottawa, CanadaFrench-Canadian artist Joe Fafard’s “Running Horses” sculpture outside the National Gallery.

The purpose of the trip was also to start research into a series of articles that will be featured on MIXED BAG MAG regarding “Curating Identity” so some trips to the National Gallery as well as the Museum of Civilization were on the agenda.

During this time I was also trying (unsuccessfully) to work through French cultural theorist Michel Foucault’s “The Archaeology of Knowledge” because as Foucault proposed the way that we organize, categorize and structure information explains a lot about our worldviews when we dig down into the layers.

“The Description of Statements”

After my first visit to the National Gallery I realized that somehow I missed coming across the Inuit Collection. Upon my second visit I almost missed it again. I circled back around the Contemporary Canadian Collection on the First Floor to try to find what I was looking for as I passed by numerous Groups of Sevens and Michael Snows. Finally I gave in and just asked.

“Where is the Contemporary Inuit Collection?”

The guard didn’t seem to get what I was saying about “contemporary”.

“You mean the Inuit Collection?”

“Yes, but is there a separate contemporary section like here in this section, you know, current work”

“Dunno, but the Inuit Collection is down in the dungeon”

and he pointed to sets of descending stairs.

As much as I adore Moshe Safdie’s architecture somehow in the design the Inuit Collection got relegated to what a National Gallery employee referred to as the “dungeon” in the final structure.

Unfortunately this is telling. The symbolism of the statement, most likely not deliberate or intentionally demeaning, represents a sticky problem with regards to Canadian identity. There is a thorny mess that we can get into when cultural biases that are long due to die away have yet to go through their winter of contemplation.

During the trip I met up with Zimbabwean artist and educator Chiko Chazunguza to discuss, among other things, the hot topic – identity in the visual arts. He shared with me this story. Once, in a class he was teaching back in Zimbabwe, he asked a group of black students to draw portraits. The faces these young African artists depicted were all white. Again – unfortunately telling. How do we begin to structure knowledge so that we build a world where all of us are able to see our own faces reflected back positively?

Haida-Canadian artist Bill Reid’s “Spirit of Haida Gwaii” sculpture inspired by Haida mythology inside the Museum of Civilization. Haida artist Bill Reid’s “Spirit of Haida Gwaii” sculpture inside the Museum of Civilization.

“The Museum is the Medium”

After a workshop at OCAD U on Marshall McLuhan I had a quick discussion with a visiting professor’s presentation on how a museum can be the medium. As an example he described the Museum to the Holocaust in the Jewish Museum, Berlin and its encompassing of a void space of silence with little light. The physical structure of a museum, its internal layout, its contents (or lack of contents) as well as the taxonomy of its collections becomes in itself the medium that delivers the message of that institution’s normatives.

“The criteria of epistemes can be defined through what or whom they exclude or disqualify” ~ Michel Foucault

The Museum of Civilization has a beautiful and substantial collection of Aboriginal artifacts but with a contemporary art section making only a brief appearance at the tail end the feeling I was left with was that perhaps there is still a national episteme that First Nations, Inuit and Métis cultures are buried back in the past with weak relevance to the contemporary Canadian context although their current retrospective exhibit of Métis artist Bob Boyer’s work (curated by Lee Ann Martin) is a step in a progressive direction. This engaging exhibit confirms that there are curators (and even institutions) out there that are eager to redress this issue.

Trains-N-Boats-N-Plains: The Nina, the Santa Maria and a Pinto by Metis-Canadian artist Bob Boyer. View more of Bob Boyer’s work on the Virtual Museum of Canada

Shows like AGO’s Inuit Modern (curated by Gerald McMaster) last year and this year’s Fashionality: Dress + Identity in Contemporary Canadian Art (curated by Julie Pine) at the McMichael illustrate that we have a wealth of contemporary First Nations, Inuit and Métis artists. It is exhibits like these that demonstrate that a dismantling of the old knowledge base stuck in the mire of the one-sided story of colonialism has begun.

It is the vision of curators, like those mentioned above, that will assist us in moving forward to define a new national narrative appropriate to the 21st Century and the spring of our history(s).

“There is no “history” but a multiple, overlapping and interactive series of legitimate vs. excluded histories.” ~ Michel Foucault

Trains-N-Boats-N-Plains: The Nina, the Santa Maria and a Pinto by Metis-Canadian artist Bob Boyer. American artist Roxy Paine’s “One Hundred Foot Line” sculpture outside the National Gallery with statue of Champlain, the Father of New France, in the background.

Photography by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.

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  1. Pingback: CRITICAL DIALOGUES: The OAC & OAAG Create a Space for Discourse on Cross-Cultural Perspectives in Curating | MIXED BAG MAG

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