I am sitting on basalt; massive rocks of ancient cooled lava that are the shore of the largest lake on the planet, listening as the waves crash against it. And I would sit and listen here even if Rebecca Belmore hadn’t told me to do it. But she did and I’m wondering why.
Rebecca Belmore is an award-winning Canadian artist and member of the Lac Seul First Nation (Anishnaabe) born in Upsala, Ontario, north of Thunder Bay. My introduction to her work was in a small gallery in the AGO devoted to art inspired by the encounter between Europeans and Native Americans, from the perspectives of both. The museum is now rearranging its collection and, sadly, that gallery has been dismantled; it was the most interesting room in the AGO. There were the usual oil paintings of Natives with high-cheekbones and feathered headdresses, but also interpretations of Europeans from the Aboriginal point of view, such as an Inuit sculpture of an English ship captain, the face carved on an ivory disk and inserted into the soapstone, its stark white a dramatic contrast to the dark stone. And in the centre of the room the most contemporary and ironic piece, Belmore’s Rising to the Occasion. It is clothing as performance, richly allusive and layered with history and meaning. She described its genesis in an interview with Wanda Nanabush:
That summer (1987) the royal newlyweds, Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, paid a royal visit to a reconstructed fur-trading fort, Old Fort William. They were driven to and dropped off somewhere upstream, on the Kaministiquia River, where they boarded a birch bark canoe and were paddled downriver to the thousands of curious onlookers and royal fans who were waiting to see them. Simultaneously, in the quiet and empty streets of downtown Port Arthur, a group of women marched in silent protest, wearing garments created specifically for this historic event. This performance art parade, titled Twelve Angry Crinolines, was the work of Lynne Sharman. My contribution to the procession was Rising to the Occasion, a dress that was part “Victorian” ball gown and part beaver dam. The royals came to our city for a handful of hours as performers, replaying colonial history complete with birchbark canoes and a fake fort. This was incredibly absurd to me. What to wear for such an absurd occasion?
The occasion of Belmore’s new installation at Pukaskwa National Park in northern Ontario is the 150th anniversary of Canada’s nationhood. Her invitation, simply, is ‘listen to the land’, something that those who get themselves to this remote spot are certainly predisposed to do. It’s a wild and magnificent place on the north shore of Lake Superior and the land is traditional Anishnaabe land. This is where Belmore comes from. She offers no more than what is here – no comment, ironic or not, no insight.
As I sit here I wish she had.
– Schuster Gindin
Photos by Schuster Gindin
Rising to the Occasion photo courtesy AGO, photo of Schuster by Sam Gindin
Great article I felt like I was there for a moment.
Linda Perez, Toronto
Incredible photographs. Hope one day we can do some hiking here.
Cheryl Kryzaniwsky, Port Elgin, ON
Rebecca Belmore has an extraordinary sensitivity to nature. The lavalike surface of the horn fits perfectly with the magma of Lake Superior. The idea that one could listen to the Lake shows a deep spiritual connection to this great inland sea. A similar horn, a painting by the abstract German-American artist Katherine S. Dreier, can be seen now at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinberg.
Robert L. Fisher, Toronto