Rebecca Belmore, The Named and the Unnamed, 2002

Rebecca Belmore’s art reflects a nation’s dark past and potentially grim future

Facing the Monumental addresses the state of First Nations and the worldwide rise of the right wing.

Rebecca Belmore’s work is primarily performative in nature, though unlike a great deal of performance art, the tangible video and photographic documentation of her work has been thoughtfully considered as its own material, standing simultaneously as evidence of a previous event and as a video/photo/installation in its own right. Her work is very serious, most often concerning themes of territory, environment and the state of First Nations, in particular First Nations women, but she clearly retains a bright-eyed enthusiasm and gratitude for having been able to work as an artist for over three decades. Her first words in speaking to the press were to thank the installation team at the Musée d’art contemporain (MAC) for coping with “the strange process of putting work up,” the kind of the thing so rarely done it was almost shockingly gracious.

Facing the Monumental — which was organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), where it appeared last year, and curated by Wanda Nanibush, who’s worked with Belmore for over a decade — is drawn from a large swath of Belmore’s career, but also arose from conversations between Nanibush and Belmore about the role of art in a world increasingly subject to right wing leadership, about these fraught times we live in.

As you step into the main exhibition space, one of the first works you see is One thousand one hundred & eighty one. The work is both a sculpture (a tree stump into which 1,181 nails have been hammered) and the physical result of Belmore’s performance work of the same name. That ominous number comes from the 2014 RCMP report that identified 1,181 combined missing First Nations women (164) and female First Nations homicide victims (1,017) “across all police jurisdictions in Canada” “between 1980 and 2012.” That figure was widely criticized as being excessively low, and it takes no great stretch of the imagination to imagine why the RCMP would want to underestimate the sheer scope of this tragedy. In Belmore’s hands, the statistic begins to resonate differently.

To begin, One thousand one hundred & eighty one, as a sculptural work, is very beautiful. It’s difficult not to see it in representational terms; the stump as a woman’s body at rest, the nails as an attempt at armature. Belmore hammered in those nails over the course of a single day, and Nanibush tells us that when she finished, she began to yell out the number 1,181, again and again, until by the time she left the gathered crowd silently hovered around the stump, overwhelmed both by the meaning of the number itself and by this object now rendered monumental by her efforts, both physical and symbolic.

The works in Facing the Monumental all engage with this historical and political dimension in ways that are poetic and aesthetically astute. It’s this mastery of tone that draws us in, that has us listening to one very dark story after another out of much more than a sinister voyeurism. Moreover, the exhibit provokes uncomfortable but fundamentally productive discussions. It forces us to draw parallels we wish we could avoid, like placing the murderer Robert Pickton in his context, not as one evil anomaly (if only) but as an evil stemming from the dehumanization of First Peoples that was foundational to Canada’s creation.

When Belmore remarked, looking up at a video collage of her performances since 1991 and lightly joking about her predilection for pails, hammering and water, that she’s “developed [her] own language for making art,” the statement seemed like an apt metaphor for combating the loss of language that’s intrinsic to the cultural violence of the colonial project. Perhaps the implication being that there will always remain the creative capacity to create new symbols while upholding and preserving the memories of old ones. Certainly Belmore is a deeply compelling semiotician, someone whose artistic output and cultural commentary we are wise to keep listening to. ■

Facing the Monumental is happening at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (185 Ste-Catherine W.) June 20–Oct. 6, $6–$15 (discounts for students, youth, families and seniors; half-price Wednesdays 5–9 p.m.)