Conceptions of White
What is Whiteness anyway? This is the question posed by the current exhibition at the Art Museum University of Toronto.
We enter the show through the pristine “Portal”, created by Robert Morris in 1964. “Portal” is pure minimalist sculpture, ostensibly stripped of meaning, so neutral as to be almost invisible. “What you see is what you see,” Frank Stella famously said, wrapping up minimalism.
The piece encapsulates one of the ideas the show explores: how the concept of White, especially in the art world, is so natural and all-encompassing, it’s virtually unseen.
But wait. Hold on! Before we take that fateful stroll, we are invited to engage with the present — shut up, and check our privileges — through the augmented reality filters created by the “Famous New Media Artist” Jeremy Bailey.
In the handout that accompanies the exhibition the curators declare their biracial status and indicate they are seeking a clearer understanding of their own relationship to Whiteness. (Full disclosure: Through Ancestry.ca I traced one of my family branches all the way to Viking marauders sweeping down on the Orkney Islands to commit mayhem. They went on to settle in Manitoba. Some things you don’t want to know.)
On the other hand, I like the way this show acknowledges history at every turn. I agree that the story of the present can only be told by starting from the past.
The exhibition contains a graphic display locating the invention of Whiteness right around the time colonial adventurism, also known as The Age of Discovery, was ramping up. Since colonial logic maintained that a place did not exist unless White Europeans had seen it, it was important to distinguish White from everyone else.
Deanna Bowen‘s installation, called “White Man’s Burden” takes a dive into Whiteness and the history of the Canadian cultural elite. Her ambitious and engrossing piece is made up of numerous items from various Canadian archival sources, some hung upside down and/or printed in a negative versions.
There are many fascinating images and documents in Deanna Bowen’s work: the cover of the T.C. Douglas master’s thesis, for instance, titled “The Problems of the Subnormal Family” in which Douglas recommended several eugenic policies, including the sterilization of “mental defectives and those incurably diseased;” or, a newspaper clipping describing the “objects and purposes” of the Kanadian Klu Klux Klan, including a membership pitch.
There is a wonderful complexity to this artwork. Deanna Bowen leaves it up to the viewer to solve the puzzle of images, covering hundreds of years of violence, vanity, greed and hubris.
Conversely, the vinyl wall installation by Ken Gonzales-Day is simple, direct and deeply horrifying.
The piece is from a series titled Erased Lynchings in which Ken Gonzales-Day reproduced souvenir lynching postcards — a thing in certain southern states — after digitally removing the victims.
The video piece by Howardena Pindell, free white and 21, in which the artist — speaking to the camera in a frank, casual, somewhat bemused style — relates numerous incidents of routine rascist behaviour which she has personally experienced. The video is all the more disturbing because of her blase delivery .
You can watch the whole thing here:
Both Nell Painter and Fred Wilson examine the tropes of art history to shed some light on White.
It is as if Nell Painter cut up a Survey of Western Art textbook, scrawled some trenchant questions onto 81/2 by 11 sheets of bond, and pinned the whole thing to the nearest wall. I like the ad hoc feel of this piece. The idea is to just get the ideas out as quickly as possible and to hell with all the niceties of framing and smoothing, tweaking and hanging.
Fred Wilson puts objects together, transforming their meaning through proximity. In this case, milk glass, white porcelain and china, copies of “classic statuary,”– some broken and toppled — and kitschy items like the white nubian goddess and the black “mammy” cookie jar are arrayed. Looking at this collection of items, each charged with social, cultural and historical meaning, we wonder, which objects belong and which don’t? And why?
I spent some time watching the The White Album, a video piece by Arthur Jafa. Composed largely of found footage, with an original soundtrack that has a chilling, dirgelike quality, this artwork is mesmerizing as it drills deep into the contemporary psyche and unearths a rich and sometimes terrifying vein of emotions.
Like the show’s curators, now is apparently a time for me to seek a clearer understanding of Whiteness.
Earlier this month I happened to take a tour of the McLeod Plantation, on James Island, on the outskirts of Charleston, South Carolina. Unlike previous trips to the American South, where I heard alot about French antiques and hoop skirts, the tour at the McLeod plantation was an unflinching description of rape, torture, brutality and exploitation that endured into the 1990s.
Spanish moss wafted in the beautiful old trees, and the fields — where sea island cotton was once grown — were green in mid-January.