Why Nobody wants a new Vancouver Art Gallery or gives a ratsass about Photo-conceptualism by Joe Canuck

Charles Watts with Warren Tallman (right) with cigarette

In memory of Warren Tallman, (born 17 November 1921, Seattle; died 1 July 1994, Vancouver).

This essay was completed in August 2010, just a little over one year after I had returned from Asia. I had been away from Canada for close to 2 decades. In May of 2010, the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) initiated a publicity campaign to drum up support for its bid to build a new art gallery. I wrote this essay in response to VAG’s plans for the new art gallery. Or rather, the intended audience of my essay was the VAG board of directors. I remember making about 26 hard copies for each and every board member, including, of course, one for Kathleen Bartels, the Managing Director of VAG. The copies were delivered in person on a rainy day in November and I had to double-park in front of VAG, which I still remember vividly for some banal reason.

In retrospect, this essay was my olive branch of sorts to VAG, but because on certain key issues, I didn’t bite my tongue or kiss ass, VAG perceived this essay less as a peace offering and more as an indictment. Nevertheless, over the course of the following 2 years, I did try to be more humble and even offered my services for free to help VAG. But all I ever got from VAG was a wall of silence and contempt. I ended up suing VAG in May 2013, but that lawsuit quickly got derailed. The cavalry did not come, and I had to make a hasty retreat. The official political opposition, in particular, Adrian Dix, its leader, was totally and absolutely clueless and useless. I’m in the process of regrouping, and will pick my battles more carefully and more strategically the next time out. Qui fugiebat rurus proeliabitur. For he who fights and runs away may live to fight another day. There is no statute of limitations on fraud; these crooks will be brought to justice eventually.

Click here to read what my lawsuit was all about. To sum up, I took on more than I could chew, namely B.C. Premier Christy Clark and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, both of whom I also sued because both of them are complicit in the cover up of a 55 million dollar fraud and hoax to build a new art gallery for Vancouver. The 55 million dollars (public money, by the way) was allocated to the City of Vancouver and VAG in 2008, but as of today, 5 years later, there hasn’t even been one single site study or conceptual plan produced for the new art gallery. How was this then not a scam and hoax from the very beginning? Whatever happened to 55 million dollars of our hard-earned tax money? When will the new art gallery be built, if ever?

Surrey, August 21, 2013


What I am about to say will not be politically-correct and I will make many enemies in the art establishment by saying it: photo-conceptualism is undemocratic. Photo-conceptualism or the so-called “Vancouver School” is fundamentally at odds with those core values we now identify as Canadian and best exemplified by Terry Fox, Steve Fonyo and Rick Hansen.

Presently, there is a cultural battle being waged among the art elites over the building of a new public art gallery. The two sides of the cultural divide in Vancouver are the ‘Build-baby-build’ camp of the board of trustees at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG); and opposing this is the ‘Say No to Starchitecture’ camp spearheaded by Bob Rennie, local condo-king and international art-czar. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Vancouverites do not know that a war is being fought on their behalf.

Through no fault of their own, our citizens simply do not give a ratsass when it comes to matters of art and culture. They do not see art as being relevant to their lives. But the current debate to build or not to build is really part of the larger debate on the long-term strategic development of this city and quality-of-life issues that are central and relevant to all of us. These quality-of-life issues are intrinsically linked to culture and art is an undeniably large part of what we know as Culture. Why this isn’t obvious to the general public is probably the real root of the problem and explains our incredible apathy and ignorance of the real issues at stake.

My interest in photo-conceptualism or the so-called Vancouver School is very recent. It began a few months ago, when VAG began the publicity campaign to generate public support for its current bid to build a new mega-gallery at the former bus depot on Cambie Street. This is a large city-block site and one of the last downtown properties owned by the city of Vancouver. There wouldn’t be a need for public consultation and support if VAG had enough funds to buy the land and build the new gallery, but it doesn’t. It wants Vancouver to donate the land free-of-charge, and this is really the crux of the matter. In addition, the building costs for the new gallery are estimated at 350 million dollars.

By the way, the ‘Build-baby-build’ is my own catchphrase. VAG has shown not one hint of creativity in its ad-campaign. VAG’s rationale and focus on the fact that the present gallery is simply too small to display much of its present collection is not only truly prosaic, but also truly banal. On one of their print “infomercials” it solicited testimonials from some of the photo-conceptualists, notably Jeff Wall; but no names that the general public would know, such as Alex Colville, or our own local and best-loved Robert Bateman, who has been denigrated by the art elites as an “illustrator.” The obvious choice to rally public support would have been Bryan Adams, local rockstar-cum-photographer; but I guess VAG hasn’t patched things up since it dissed him 10 years ago.

Internationally, Vancouver has earned a reputation for being a center for contemporary art. Specifically, this city is known for photo-conceptualism, commonly referred to as the Vancouver School. The main proponents of this school are Ian Wallace, Jeff Wall, Ken Lum, Roy Arden, Rodney Graham, and Stan Douglas. According to Kathleen Bartels, the director at VAG, Vancouver was named by “TIME Magazine” as one of the top 3 places in North America for contemporary art; the other two cities being New York and Los Angeles.

When I left Canada, Brian Mulroney was still the prime minister. I came back to Vancouver a year ago, after spending 17 years in Asia, mostly in Hong Kong and the last two years in Manila. Until I came back to live full-time in Vancouver, the two people that I had heard of and read about were Jeff Wall and Ken Lum, only because I subscribed to “Canadian Art” and “Artforum” magazine until about seven years ago. Otherwise, I only took a slight backward glance at Canada. For instance, I did not learn about Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s death until several months after the fact. I was pleasantly surprised and delighted to hear that my old hometown had, during the years of my long absence, become the mecca of contemporary art. Really?

I don’t buy it. I know the art world and art market well enough to know better. I also know the art history of this place too well and know when to squeeze my nose when I smell bullshit. After all, I almost became a photo-conceptualist myself, had I gotten a cushy teaching job at one of the colleges or universities. I say this because nearly all of the photo-conceptualists are academics and subsidized their art in the early days with their teaching jobs. This may explain why photo-conceptual art is so academic and so intellectual and why the public has so little interest in it. My research into the Vancouver School brought back a lot of repressed memories of this place and my time spent here in those godawful years in the mid-eighties. Back then, being a conceptual artist in Vancouver was miserable and that was why I left.

Twenty-three years ago, on the eve of Rick Hansen’s return to Vancouver after his “Man In Motion World Tour,” I cannily staged an exhibition of my artworks as a tribute to him and to his predecessors. The exhibition took place in a huge (5,000 sq. ft. or 475 m²) empty store on Beatty Street, literally a stone’s throw away from BC Place Stadium. Local poets were invited to read from Homer’s Odyssey for 24-hours non-stop; a marathon reading of an epic poem of an equally epic journey was a fitting tribute to Hansen, who had just finished his own real-life epic marathon, so went the reasoning. Along with the poetry reading, I was exhibiting some of my large (6 x 12 feet or 183 x 366 cm) paintings of Canadian flags. In the middle of the red maple leaf, I painted or superimposed black silhouettes; some were of Rick Hansen, others Terry Fox and Steve Fonyo. And in the middle of some of these flags, I painted or stenciled in the words, “Hero,” “Sacrifice,” and “Super Hero.”

I did not know it at the time, but what I was staging was an “art-happening.” The exhibition was by no means a painting exhibition in any traditional sense. I dare say, I was producing a very conceptualized or photo-conceptual exhibition, even though I did not use photographs per se. The materials I used were ordinary, commercial-grade house paint, and I painted on store-bought, off-the-shelf regular bed sheets. I did so not because they were cheaper than artist’s paints and canvas (they were), but because bed sheets and house paints were mass-produced and therefore consistent with the message or concept of my art.

During the previous year or so, we were getting almost daily news reports of Hansen’s progress on the radio and on nightly television broadcasts. The more I paid attention and heard him speak, the more monotone Hansen’s voice became, and the more his message seemed rote and mechanical like his wheelchair, continually spinning. I wonder if the term “spin” originated from him? The image of a wheelchair with a talking head also comes to mind. He was definitely “on message,” though that term was not in usage then. After all these years, I still remember the manner in which he delivered his message; but not the actual message itself.

Hansen had fallen off a truck when he was a teenager and broke his back (spinal cord) and henceforth was confined to a wheelchair — a fact I relearned recently by Googling him. His “Man In Motion World Tour,” as the name implied, was his international publicity campaign to raise awareness and money for spinal cord injury research. Wisely, perhaps indicative of his media savvy at the very outset and since, Hansen chose not to focus on road safety issues and the dangers of reckless joyrides at the back of unsafe trucks; because that would have been banal, like the life that has turned out for Steve Fonyo, who fell from grace too many times (even by a very forgiving Canadian standard) and so he had to forfeit his status as hero and Order of Canada medal. The poor sod was recently in the news again for credit card fraud. Fox succumbed to cancer a month before his 23rd birthday and is now regarded as a saint, of course. At the time, however, my feelings towards Rick Hansen, and by extension, Terry Fox and Steve Fonyo were highly ambiguous, if not conflicted. I wasn’t alone. Many young men of similar age to Rick Hansen had a very different take from the mainstream and mass media propelled picture of him.

In retrospect, my exhibition was a polemic on identity and an attempt to find my own in the absence of any singular or dominant Canadian identity. I was still relatively young and trying to find my place in society. I was also a visible minority, thus making my search for an identity that much more complicated and complex. As a 12-year-old going about my paper delivery route, the neighbourhood bully routinely stalked and harassed me and, on one occasion, nearly kicked the shit out of me because I was a “chink!”  Later on in life, totally unprovoked racial slurs and invectives from absolute strangers were hurled my way. But it never occurred to me to run across Canada to raise awareness and money to stop racism and prejudice. As a matter of public record, it has never occurred to any other member of the visible minorities in Canada because the idea was (is) absurd.

Nearly three decades after Terry Fox’s “Marathon of Hope,” when the idea of running across the country or even around your high-school track field to promote a worthwhile cause is no longer strange but embraced as part of the Canadian consciousness and character, I cannot imagine, today, a visible minority running across Canada in order to raise awareness and money to stop racism and prejudice or, for that matter, a gay man or lesbian running across Canada to raise awareness and money for their causes. Such a spectacle would be decried as a mockery and make us all feel uneasy, if not queasy.

But for young white men similar to my own age and socio-economic class and limited education, it was OK; more than OK, it was phenomenal in the particular case of Terry Fox. The public did not perceive, nor should they have, any selfish or ulterior motives when this young man who had lost his right leg to cancer decided to run across this country to raise awareness and money to find a cure for the disease. No one had ever done it before Fox, and his historic journey made him the new media darling in Canada. But to what extent was his journey and story really new, if we place him in the larger North American context and zeitgeist?

As Canada was not a slave-owning nation, our history evolved without the guilt and burden and necessity of imposing Affirmative Action, a public policy in the States which aimed to counter-balance institutionalized racism and redress social inequities with mandated hiring quotas and promotions of African-Americans, though they were known then and pejoratively called “negroes.” No disrespect intended, but Terry Fox, Steve Fonyo and Rick Hansen were our white-negroes and became successive poster boys for the Canadian version of Affirmative Action. For all intents and purposes, Terry Fox is Canada’s Martin Luther King, Jr.  and represents the kinder and gentler nation that George Bush senior promised America but failed to deliver to those Americans who simply moved north of the border to find it.

What are the odds that all three men, Terry Fox, Steve Fonyo, and Rick Hansen would come from this place, the last frontier of Canada? They were The Boys from BC, our own inverse version of The Boys from Brazil, a fictional novel-cum-movie of Hitler’s Aryan clones getting ready to take over the world again. How parochial and peculiar they were to this place and to our circumstances was evidenced by their reception and media coverage in the States, which was non-existent. If Americans had any opinions of them, it was probably similar to that of my mother’s. She didn’t see their heroics. Hard physical work and endurance was something uneducated, blue-collar working-class immigrants of her generation experienced everyday; but nobody gave them much attention, let alone any adulation. I still remember her remark, 23-odd-years later, that the “Man In Motion Tour” was a clever charity for Mr. Hansen to subsidize his globetrotting and sightseeing of the world. It was a backhanded compliment to his ‘smarts’ rather than to his physical feats of endurance or sacrifice.

Of the three, Terry Fox is special. He was the first and the one who best represents a set of values or moral imperatives that is distinctly Canadian and defines who we are as a people today. It is a value system that was then diametrically opposed to what was going on in America, where the media attention, when not on Hollywood, shone on ‘super-studs’ or ‘specimens’ like Hershel Walker and Mike Tyson — both barely out of their teens, and already multi-million dollar athletes. Walker, the football star, never got much traction outside of America and Canada; but boxing, being more of a universal sport, helped Tyson achieve worldwide pop icon status. Tyson’s behaviour outside the ring and his rape charge and conviction also contributed to his notoriety and media exposure and our fascination with him.

What exactly was so special about The Boys from BC? This was never really debated except by young men similar in age to Fox and company. Although none of my friends articulated any resentment, it was there as an undercurrent in their remarks and jokes, and when Fox was still alive, I remember someone came to a Halloween party as a one-legged marathon runner. In varying degrees, there was a sense of bemusement, if not resentment at what may have been perceived as a kind of reverse discrimination against able-bodied young men, who, if push came to shove, would have just as easily put their lives on the line in the call of duty or in defense of our country. But the vast majority of us never got that chance, and intelligent and perceptive young men like myself saw Fox, Fonyo and Hansen as the lucky ones; not as victims deserving of our pity and praise.

Beyond the novelty of their journeys, Fox, Fonyo and Hansen were just trying to figure out who they were and where they fit in society. It is fundamentally a male instinct and ritual: the eternal rite of passage that all young men must go through in order to be contributing and full-fledged members of their tribe. Most of us never got the chance to prove our worth to ourselves and to our society, though it wasn’t for lack of want. Ostensibly, Fox, Fonyo and Hansen are modern day archetypes of the mythic hero who must protect the home village by going out into the world to slay dragons, real or imaginary, and in whatever form those dragons may take. Today, the same can be said of those young Canadian soldiers fighting for us in Afghanistan. Our presence there, however, is a discomforting indication to me of just how far to the right we have come from the sixties, when Canada was politically autonomous from U.S. foreign policy and we opposed her imperialist war in Vietnam.

With the advantage of three decades of hindsight, we now know that their personal identities cannot be extricated from their public journeys. In other words, they are their journeys, and this is still how we identify Fox, Fonyo, and Hansen. More significantly, while they were trying to find out who they were, we also found out who we were as a nation. To paraphrase a Bono song, we really found what we were looking for!  Before these three men went on their quixotic journeys, we did not have an identity that we could point to as being quintessentially Canadian. Today, there is no dispute as to what the essence of that Canadian identity is or what our core values are in the post-Fox era.

Twenty-three years ago, I did not realize just how special Terry Fox was. Ironically, it has taken me 17 years of exile from this country to realize this, and how much of a Canadian I really am. Back then, the utter lack of public interest in my exhibition was earth-shattering and confirmed my belief that this country was no place for able-bodied young men whose ambitions far exceeded the outlets to express and fulfill them. In hindsight, I really don’t know what I had expected, but I was hoping to get just a little media attention. It never happened and only about forty people showed up for the art exhibition, and they were mostly family and friends.

The only good memory I have of that night is that of a slightly sauced older gentleman in his 60s who came and played the baby-grand piano that I got Tom Lee Music to donate for the event. I had no clue as to who this man was. To my astonishment, he played the piano like Thelonious Monk, a jazz genius and eccentric, and one of my teenage idols. He was a riot with the other musicians. Russell Baker, who now co-owns Bombast Furniture, later told me that his name was Al Neil — the first, if not the only avant-garde jazz musician British Columbia has ever produced. He is also generally regarded as a seminal multi-media or assemblage artist, still alive and active in his 80s, I’ve been told.

There was another local poet of note who read from Homer’s Odyssey, but I don’t recall his name because this is the first time in 23 years that I have really tried to recall the events of that evening. (I think it was Gerry Gilbert.) It was a disaster, and I think that I have been trying to suppress and repress my memories of it. I had promoted the art exhibition and poetry reading as a marathon, but some of the people got quite upset with me because they participated mistakenly thinking it was a telethon. I remember a pretty red-haired flautist who was quite upset about the ‘deception.’ She, too, like me, also wanted some media coverage and her 15-minutes of fame. Lastly, I remember a rhetorical question from a friend-of-a-friend who said in a rather accusatory tone, “Does your art imply that Canada is a nation of cripples?”

In the mid-1980s there was a TV commercial that got quite a bit of play in British Columbia. I think it was a travel company promoting wanderlust and adventures overseas by reminding people my age that our options were limited, to say the least, ‘when all the good jobs were already taken by the baby boomers.’ I belong to what Douglas Coupland famously coined as Generation X. The bright and ambitious left B.C. in droves. I would leave a few months after the art exhibition for Toronto, where a year earlier my friend, Steve Campos (what ever happened to him?), got a job as an actuary. ‘Brain Drain’ was bandied about in the media and just about everybody I knew who was remotely intelligent or even slightly educated had to go away in order to make something of their lives. Fast-forward 23 years to today.

It was reported in the “Vancouver Magazine” that Stan Douglas’s 2009 “Abbott & Cordova, 7 August, 1971,” a photographic mural of the 1971 Vancouver Gastown riots cost more than a million dollars to produce. Am I the only one who thinks this amount is excessive and obscene? During a public info-session, Douglas said that he is concerned with forgotten historic events or ‘ruptures’ that impacted our city. He said that as a result of the riots, the City rezoned Gastown as a strictly commercial area to keep out undesirables and that was why the area fell into decline. In Douglas’s own words, “If this neighborhood had been allowed to have a mixed-use designation, with people living there, I believe it would have a very different character. Instead, it has been in decline for more than three decades.”

If I was interested in the history of Vancouver in the early 1970s and wanted to research what really happened in Gastown on August 7, 1971, I would do exactly as Mr. Douglas did: go to the library, city archives, etc., and I would try to locate any living witnesses who were there on that day and get their side of the story. At a budget of over one million dollars, Mr. Douglas certainly could have made a  documentary, if it had been his intention to spread his message and reach a larger or mass audience.

So what does he do with all that money and all his research material? He makes a photo-mural!? Why? How many people will go see his mural? How many of those who go see his mural will actually get his message? One, two, three people? Honestly, I don’t know how anyone can get Douglas’s message merely by looking at his mural, without being told what the message actually is. Otherwise it’s just a guessing game. So the correct answer to how many people will get his message is Zero! In fact, what we now know about the mural and about its message is what Douglas actually told us in his info-sessions and in his interviews with the Media.

Marshall McLuhan, probably the most important but underrated intellectual Canada has ever produced, wrote in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man that all media have characteristics that engage the viewer in different ways. For instance, a passage in a book could be reread at will, but a movie had to be screened again in its entirety to study any individual part of it. So the medium through which a person encounters a particular piece of content would have an effect on the individual’s understanding of it. Some media, like movies, enhance one single sense; in this case, vision, in such a manner that a person does not need to exert much effort in filling in the details of a movie image.

McLuhan contrasted this with TV, which he claimed requires more effort on the part of the viewer to determine meaning. Comics, due to their minimal presentation of visual detail, require a high degree of effort to fill in details that the cartoonist may have intended to portray but left out. A movie is thus said by McLuhan to be “hot” (intensifying one single sense) and “high definition” (demanding a viewer’s attention). A comic book is said to be “cool” and “low definition” (requiring much more conscious participation by the reader to extract value). This concentration on the medium and how it conveys information rather than on the specific content of the information is the focal point of “the medium is the message.”

Herein lies the fatal flaw of photo-conceptualism: despite the fact that the photos and or tableaus are meticulously and fastidiously constructed (high definition and hot), they come across as comic strips (low definition and cold) and require extreme focus and attention on the part of the viewer to make sense of it all. Oftentimes a Yoda or an oracle (art critic) is required to mediate meaning and extract value. In terms of a temperature reading, photo-conceptualism, like a still-shot from a movie snipped and taken out of its original context and hot medium, is sub-zero freezing. It’s really freaking cold!  It’s a frightfully frigid art that has deserved its cold shoulder treatment from the public. The only chance it has of competing with other mass mediums for the public’s attention is when all hell freezes over. It’s so damn cold it comes with a ‘Do not lick warning!’ Photo-conceptualism is so cold-blooded only a cold-hearted mother could love it…. Get it?

So what exactly are we to make of Mr. Douglas’s mural? Is it a political statement? If so, it’s a rather expensive, but ineffectual one. It’s also about four decades too late, a point which Vancouver Police Chief, Jim Chu, was quick to pounce on. “That’s the past,” he said.  “It’s not the same police force.” Well, of course it’s not. You don’t need to tell us. The fact that the chief-of-police is a Chinese-Canadian should have signified to any reasonable man or woman that things have greatly improved, both in the police force itself and in society at large. If Mr. Douglas had dug a little deeper and a few decades earlier in his research, he would have discovered that only three generations ago, Vancouver was probably the most anti-Chinese and bigoted city in North America.

If anything, the police force is conservative by nature and lags behind societal changes. In other words, Vancouver was already known as a Chinese city, or rather, it was called ‘Hongcouver’ by polite racists 15 to 20 years before Jim Chu became police chief. In reality, Vancouver and the lower-mainland is home to all sorts of people from all over the world and we proudly embrace multiculturalism. Hasn’t Mr. Douglas heard the good news yet? That august and internationally respected magazine, “The Economist,” has, for the second time in 5 years, voted Vancouver as the best place on earth to live. Is Mr. Douglas being a contrarian for the sake of being a contrarian? Is it mental masturbation?

Indeed, Mr. Douglas is a world-class masturbator. To give him credit where credit is due, his photo-mural is very slick and highly polished — no puns or sexual innuendos intended. The photo-mural could easily be mistaken for a Diesel ad; someone else said Gap ad. In any event, the demographics are right: Gap and Diesel patrons would be about the same age as those who got clubbed and brutalized by the Vancouver Police on that fateful day. And yet, there is no blood or mayhem in the mural. It’s a rather calm scene; almost orderly, if not precise, as if the people in the mural were like the plastic toy soldiers I played with as a kid and arranged to do mock battle.

In terms of its composition, it’s rather vacant. There’s more empty space than people in the photo. For a scene depicting a riot, it just doesn’t look right: there isn’t enough action or danger or menace in it. On the contrary, it looks tame and strangely inviting, due in part to all that empty space. I am tempted to drive a Mac truck through his mural; there’s literally enough room to do it. The sense of tameness is, moreover, reinforced by his choice of a long-distance shot and angle from above, as if Mr. Douglas were viewing the riot in the comfort and safety of his upper-floor art studio.