with works by Bertille Bak, Lisa Jackson, Yoshua Okón, Helen Reed, May Truong
Curated by Zoë Chan
01 May – 06 June 2020
Co-presented with Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival
Featuring recent video works, Performing Lives boldly bridges the supposed gap between documentary and entertainment, information and spectacle, fact and fiction. Making references to and borrowing methods from TV, film, dance, and music, these videos represent various groups using strategies that venture beyond the expository approach characteristically associated with documentary cinema.
The expository approach indisputably plays a crucial role in informing the public, especially in the face of deceptive propaganda, the phenomenon of “fake news,” and the dissemination of other sorts of misinformation. In Performing Lives however, the videos eschew didacticism, instead embracing an array of performative strategies to draw in the viewer. They offer fresh awareness of and insight into the experiences, perspectives, and interests of groups whose collectively shared identities intersect with a multiplicity of factors—from ethnocultural origins and gender to leisure activities and life experiences.
In Recording Reality, Desiring the Real (2011), film studies scholar Elizabeth Cowie writes that in the world of cinema, there is often a perceived divide between information and spectacle—the former being associated with documentary and non-fiction and the latter with entertainment and fiction. This division is illusory, she argues: instead, these categories are inherently interconnected, as documentary is characterised by “a narrativizing of reality” that “engages us with the actions and feelings of social actors, like characters in fiction.” Cowie thus prefers to describe documentary as “embodied storytelling.”
Blurring the traditional binary categories of fiction vs non-fiction and their commonly associated attributes (lies vs truth, frivolity vs seriousness, etc.), Cowie’s definition of documentary offers a useful entry point into the hybridised narratives articulated in the videos comprising Performing Lives. Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic film The Outsiders, based on the popular young adult novel of alienated masculinity by S.E. Hinton, is re-cast with an all-female cast of Asian descent (May Truong, The Outsiders). The ongoing trauma of residential schools is played out in a hip-hop dance sequence inspired by zombie movies and the creepy music video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller (Lisa Jackson, Savage).
Though less brashly “mashup” in their respective approaches, the other videos in Performing Lives place equal emphasis on storytelling through embodied performativity: Twin Peaks enthusiasts act out the roles of their favourite characters from David Lynch’s cult series in scenes written entirely by fellow fans (Helen Reed, Twin Twin Peaks); the day-to-day struggles of the inhabitants of a Roma camp are evoked in a series of folktale-like vignettes (Bertille Bak, Transports à dos d’hommes); a Home-Depot parking lot in Los Angeles becomes the unlikely setting for displaced Mayan migrants performing choreographed movements that allude to Guatemala’s bloody civil war (Yoshua Okón, Pulpo). While these videos display a range of production values ranging from the DIY aesthetics of community theatre to the professional polish of mainstream cinema, they share a focus on so-called real people—often untrained performers—who are intimately and intrinsically linked to the stories expressed.
Employing familiar performative conventions from a range of pop cultural platforms (musical numbers, dance sequences, role play, and so on), these videos compel viewers to focus not only on the content of the stories but also on how their subjects actively embody their roles. Performance studies scholar Carrie Noland contends in Agency and Embodiment (2009) that “culture is both embodied and challenged through corporeal performance”; to study the body’s many gestures is to understand how “human beings are embodied within—and impress themselves on—their worlds.” In this way, the body is written on by socialising forces—but also has the agency to write its own story. Noland argues that “how the body might speak to us—not beyond but through cultural frames” should be considered. Working in this vein, the videos in Performing Lives share a discernable interest in highlighting the agency of the body within rather than despite the codified structures of dancing, singing, or acting. Asking what new understandings can be gleaned from performing subjects, the exhibition offers viewers access into the perspectives, subjectivities, and experiences of the groups depicted.
Bertille Bak was born in 1983 in Arras, and now lives and works in Paris. She studied at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and at the Le Fresnoy Studio National des Arts Contemporains. She is artist-in-residence at the Pinaut Collection, Lens, France. Recent exhibitions include Un départ, un exil… une odyssée, Le Cyclop de Jean Tinguely, Milly-la-Forêt, France; Bertille Bak-Poussières, Artconnexion, Lille, France; Urban Chronicle, Bielefelder Kunstverein; Circuits, Musée d’Art moderne de la ville de Paris; L’Institut des archives sauvages, Villa Arson, Nice; and Paroles des images, Palazzo Grassi, Venice. In 2019, she was recipient of the third edition of the Mario Merz Prize (art section). She is represented by the Xippas Gallery in Paris.
Zoë Chan is Assistant Curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery. As an independent curator, Chan has organised exhibitions at galleries across Canada. Her interests include performative documentary practices, youth cultures, food, and discourse around representation in art and visual culture. She has contributed to C Magazine, esse arts + opinions, and Momus, among other publications. In 2017, she was the inaugural curator at Foundry Darling’s Paris-based residency at Les Récollets. A two-time recipient of the Canada Council for the Arts’ Project Grant for Curators and Critics, she received the Joan Lowndes Award for critical and curatorial writing in 2015. cargocollective.com/zoechan
Lisa Jackson is a filmmaker and artist whose work has shown at top film festivals, exhibited in galleries, garnered awards including a Genie and Canadian Screen Award, and aired widely on television. Her films range from documentary to fiction, animation to 3D IMAX, and she’s made two virtual reality works, including Biidaaban: First Light which is traveling the world and is a sister project to her installation Transmissions, which premiered in Vancouver in 2019. She is Anishinaabe from Aamjiwnaang, lives in Toronto and is working on several fiction and documentary film and TV projects. lisajackson.ca
Yoshua Okón was born in Mexico City in 1970 where he currently lives. In 2002, he received an MFA from UCLA with a Fulbright scholarship. His solo shows exhibitions include: Yoshua Okón: Collateral, MUAC and Amparo Museum; Yoshua Okón, Ghebaly Gallery; Yoshua Okón: In the Land of Ownership, ASAKUSA; Saló Island, UC Irvine; Piovra, Kaufmann Repetto; Poulpe, Mor Charpentier; Octopus, Cornerhouse and Hammer Museum, and SUBTITLE, Städtische Kunsthalle. His group exhibitions include: Manifesta 11; Istanbul Biennale; Gwangju Biennale; Antes de la resaca, MUAC; Incongruous, Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts; The Mole’s Horizon, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels; Mercosur Biennial; Amateurs, CCA Wattis; Laughing in a Foreign Language, Hayward Gallery; Adaptive Behavior, New Museum; and Mexico City: an exhibition about the exchange rates between bodies and values, PS1, MoMA, and Kunstwerke, Berlin. His work is included in the collections of Tate Modern, Hammer Museum, LACMA, Colección Jumex and MUAC, among others. yoshuaokon.com
Helen Reed is based on the unceded traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh nations. She frequently collaborates with her partner Hannah Jickling. Reed and Jickling have exhibited and performed internationally at The Portland Art Museum, The Dunlop Art Gallery, Smack Mellon, Doris McCarthy Gallery, The Yukon Arts Centre Gallery, YYZ Artists’ Outlet, Carleton University Art Gallery, Dalhousie University Art Gallery, Bästa Biennalen, The Vancouver Art Gallery, and The Power Plant. In 2017, they released Multiple Elementary, a book that explores the elementary school classroom as a site of invention and reception of contemporary art practices, published by YYZBOOKS. Reed and Jickling are recipients of the 2016 Ian Wallace Award for Teaching Excellence (ECUAD), a 2017 Mayor’s Arts Award for Emerging Public Art (City of Vancouver), and a 2018 VIVA Award (Jack and Doris Shadbolt Foundation for the Visual Arts). thepedagogicalimpulse.com/helen-reed
Based in Toronto, May Truong is a photographer, visual artist, and mentor. Addressing themes of gender, race, and belonging, her work has been exhibited in group exhibitions in North American and Europe. Known for her dynamic portraits of musicians, artists, and other public personalities, her work has been featured in The New York Times, Chatelaine, Flaunt Magazine, The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, Marie Claire, PerfectoMag, Readers Digest, Report on Business Magazine, Toronto Life, Vice Magazine, and XXL Magazine. Truong recently launched The Maytriarchy, an online platform for first- and second-generation, female-identifying/non-binary people of colour to tell their stories about coming of age in Canada. maytruong.com