Thursday, 13 December 2012

No Canada

Canadian Art Photography and the Canadian Imagination, Penny Cousineau-Levine

I missed Penny Cousineau-Levine's Faking Death: Canadian Art Photography and the Canadian Imagination when it came out in 2003, only a few years after I moved from Canada to Ireland. So the discovery of it in a Belfast bookshop has offered a reminder of a photographic culture that, while well documented within Canadian art discourses, is generally unknown to the wider public. While some photographers covered here - Jeff Wall, Roy Arden, Donigan Cumming, Ken Lum - are familiar, 'international' figures, there remain many artists whose names I hadn't seen or heard since I was a university student back in Newfoundland (and, in some cases, who I was happy to forget).

Of course, there are exceptional photographers here as well: Carol Conde and Karl Beveridge's incorporation of political documentary images into domestic settings, often just visible through a window frame or on a wall calendar; Jin-me Yoon's installations of text and childhood photos that explore her Korean heritage; Mark Leslie's unsentimental, diaristic account of living with AIDs. This is where an overview of Canadian art photography really proves useful, offering an insight into a diverse body of work that all too often doesn't cross south of the 49th parallel. However, Cousineau-Levine has a specific agenda here that goes beyond writing a primer on a select group of artists. She explains her reasons in the introduction, drawing on her experience as a lecturer:

"When shown Canadian photographs alongside those made in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere, whether documentary photographs or portraits or landscapes, the almost universal response of [my] students was that they could see 'nothing' in these images, that there was 'nothing' there."

The attempt to fill this void, to map out an inherently 'Canadian' photographic culture, leads to some smart observations, such as the prevalence of images that feature frames within the picture frame, as if re-presenting or preserving an exterior natural world, in the work of Michel Lambeth or Lynne Cohen. Perhaps less convincing is an attempt to impose a psychoanalytical framework to Canadian photography through the metaphor of the anorexic, a condition that, for Cousineau-Levine, encompasses "the interminable Canadian 'identity crisis'; the country's [...] lack of a firm sense of self; the unrelenting preoccupation with death, entrapment, and flight from the physical manifest in our photographic practice; the Canadian inclination to adopt the 'look' of images from somewhere else [...]" And so on.

The relative merit of these readings notwithstanding, what strikes me is the author's insistence that her students' response is something to be refuted, that the 'nothing' they see in Canadian photography is a failure rather than a virtue. The imposition of a coherent, national character to a range of practices, each stemming from different backgrounds, ethnicities and experiences, feels curiously old-fashioned, and out of step with a globalised, multicultural society. Furthermore, this desire to find a national photography betrays the very insecurity and 'lack of a firm sense of self' that the author criticises in her students. One hardly needs a Canadian equivalent to the Great American Novel or the Young British Artists; it is the ambivalence towards such national qualifiers that, in itself, best points towards the Canadian imagination.

Chris Clarke (critic and curator, Lewis Glucksman Gallery, University College Cork)


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