Death Mask: The Vancouver Viaducts and Complexity
In February 2017 I was invited by the African Descent Society BC, to exhibit the Death Mask body of works created to date and to provide an Artist talk. This talk and exhibition was part of the Hogan’s Alley memory exhibition and concert which was part of the Forum on People of African Descent and the UN International decade for people of African Descent.
The transcript of the talk is below the video in case this is easier to speed read through than watch the 28 minute video. The dedicated website for the Death Mask and Complexity body of work was the foundation for the talk and this can be found here.
Transcript of Video
So up next we have another artist here, Leanne Christie. She’s a painter and her production is of Death Masks: the Vancouver Viaducts and complexity.
So with this Miss Christie if you want to come up here and show us more about your work and we are very happy to have you here with us today. Folks you are in store for another set of fantastic renditions from this wonderful artist.
So good afternoon everybody, I believe that I’ve got I think a 2 hour slot. I’ve got my notes over here ready to go. So thank you very much, it is nice to see everybody and I am very very excited about introducing this work to you.
I will go into various steps of my process in terms of thinking about the pieces and actually explain why I called this series Death Mask.
But for now I think that the best thing to start with is to show you .. each painting and there are currently 3 pieces on display at the moment – the one at the end is not a completed piece, we are probably about 60/70% there, there is still a bit of dialogue that needs to happen with it.
There is a piece missing which is the second piece but each painting so far minus the one on the end which is obviously still in process, has got a video which accompanies it because the whole point with painting is to have it as a form of communication, not to alienate people so part of my video process is to add another layer of story telling to it.
So I am going to start off just by showing you the first video that goes with this middle painting over here and then we can get onto the little chain of thought that leads through the paintings and hopefully at the end it will make sense as to why we’ve torn the piece.
—–Video plays. Video:
So, everybody has got a story about the Viaducts and this is one of the reasons why it makes sense as a particular topic for this series of paintings.
Your passage of relationship comes from your experiences and your input that you have through shared community experiences and individual experiences.
What are the Viaducts?
They have been so many things they are the political manifestations, they’re the cultural, social, racial, economic, urban dreams that are actually there as part of our landscape. In many ways, I am from South Africa and we were so surrounded by so many political monuments for such a long period of time, every time a political monument was toppled it was something meaningful and with the Viaducts, it is the only political monument that I can see in Vancouver.
My passage into exploring the Viaducts is through complexity.
One of the things that I think about as an urban painter, as an urban oil painter are the spaces that I enjoy painting within the city.
What’s interesting about the spaces that I want to linger in, what’s interesting about the spaces that I actually want to encapture? what is it that excites my imagination, excites my emotion, excites my creativity? What is it that excites the people around me? And what is it about the spaces that I can’t wait to leave, the spaces that leave me feeling with the sense of disease, that I actually want to exit from?
And one of the things that I have realized about the spaces that engage me, these are the spaces that are filled with complexity, and in looking at complexity, one of the things that I have started to realize about complexity is that complexity comes from a layering of time and a layering of experiences or relationship.
It’s the relationship that we have with each other within those spaces and it’s also our relationship that we have with the natural physical environment around us. So we, looking at complexity, looking at my urban environment, thinking about the Viaducts and trying to understand “well fair enough what does this mean to you as a painter?” I started thinking about how to develop complexity into the work itself because if that’s the magic ingredient that excites our humanity, excites our engagement, excites our visions for the future.
How do I instill complexity into a painting?
And one of the things that I have had a look at because complexity is basically, as I have been trying to understand and explain in the video: it’s time + relationships. It’s giving people a canvas, creating a safe space so that time can act and then relationships can act to create a new space that describes our community and our culture.
So looking at time within a painting, ah this is great because I am actually an oil painter and oil paint is the perfect vehicle to infuse time into the painting. Sure we can slow down the entire process and oil takes a very long time to dry so you really are able to slow down the process and nurture out the character of the painting but more than that, more than slowing it down and making it into another technique we come back to the truth about complexity and thinking about, for example a vintner He spends time actually infusing time as an ingredient into his wine to bring out the depth of flavour, to bring out the clarity, to bring out character into his wines.
You look at a chef who will also use time as an actual ingredient in the cooking process to bring out the personality to the food that he is producing for you. So in thinking about that, I was looking at my materials and trying to understand how – yes I’ve got pigments, I’ve got other aspects. I’ve got paint brushstrokes, I’ve got perspective, there are so many tools that you have as a painter but how do you actually then start harnessing the power of time, infusing it into a painting in such a way that it acts on the painting in the same way that a vintner or a chef acts upon a painting.
So that brought me back to the Viaducts, this big long.. “great I am getting a little further along in complexity and understanding why it’s important to develop complexity for human beings but then I am again looking at these Viaducts and trying to understand why I should bring complexity into the Viaducts” and the reason is – because the Viaducts are so complex. For every single person in this room, each person has their unique experience and their own personal view of the future plans for the Viaducts. But then I was trying to think “What is complexity? What is the difference between complex and complicated?”
And in looking at complexity (never google complexity, it will take you hours and hours, in fact I think that it will probably take years of your life to get to the bottom of complexity because every single field seems to have their own analyses of complexity and it’s a huge topic) So what I have done is I have just taken it and boiled it down to the most basic element: Complexity being a system which is made up of individual parts which have individual relationships acting upon the other parts within the system.
So what does complexity mean? Basically means that you take away one of these parts, the system will break but it is practically impossible to figure out what broke the system and how to redeem the system and how to remedy the system because it is far too complex, the way that the relationships all interact.
Which is very different to complicated.
Complicated becomes complicated and you can go very far down that road but at the end of the day there is a linear relationship that happens between all of the parts in the system and it is fairly easy, depending on how complicated it is to understand what broke and to fix what actually broke within the system.
So coming back to this body of works, Why have I called it DeathMask?
Looking at complexity: perfect vehicle for exploring complexity.
Time: Perfect vehicle to explore time.
But what is important about a death mask is that a deathmask (again in different cultures, at various times has different meanings) but when I have approached Deathmask I have looked at it from the aspect of an actual deathmask which is created as a clay impression of someone’s face at the moment of passing or shortly thereafter.
The Vancouver Viaducts are in their final throws, they are dying and this is the only moment that I will have as a painter to throw my ‘clay’ onto them and capture something of what it feels for us as human beings, living alongside these structures.
Who were they?
What are they?
At sometimes they have been murders and at other times they have been a bully, at sometimes they have been protectors and at sometimes they have been communist, some times they have been capitalists, sometimes they have been a friend and sometimes they have been a foe and sometimes they have been orphans.
So to capture these dying throws that we can only now experience of this deathmask. What did it mean to the past, what does it mean to the present and what is it bringing into the future?
With the DeathMask I am not the person who is going to stand up here and give you a critique on the city’s plans on what they intend to do with the Viaducts. I have read all the plans but I am not specialized enough nor educated enough to actually give any kind of critique on this. That is not what I am doing with this series. I don’t have an agenda with this series. All I am doing is as a human being trying to understand how complexity can be brought into a painting through capturing what it is about these structures, these monuments which we have, the great canyon that exists within our city.
What does it mean, what does it feel to actually be living here alongside them?
So looking at these paintings, the first one over here: we have got time infused into this painting. With this piece (I am going to step away from the microphone and quickly point out something) These areas over here, when you come into this painting you will notice that there are some areas which are very densely built up and other areas where you can actually see the canvas and as you probably saw in the video, at various points in the painting I intentionally – and even when the painting was at a point where you could put a lovely tick after it , the painting didn’t have the secret ingredient of complexity, time hadn’t acted upon it – so what I did is that I intentionally built up the piece and then broke it down again.
Built it up and broke it down again. Built it up and broke it down again and in a very silly way, the area that I just pointed out to you, that was an area and a space in time when David Bowie was alive. I was painting this painting in February/January last year. The final pieces, the whites that are very thick, very strong with impasto, that is part of the world when David Bowie is no longer alive. So it is just an interesting thing to play with in ones mind when one is thinking about infusing time into a painting that with an oil painting you really do have the luxury of building different layers, which are not based on technique they are based on a human response to the painting but there is time infused into the painting.
The thing about this time that I am infusing into the painting, it is powerful but it is static. It only goes to a certain point and as I said coming back to the idea of complexity, thinking about my urban environment, what is it about the spaces I enjoy and what is it about the spaces that I don’t enjoy – we have time and then we have relationship.
So in this painting here (although I always approach the paintings with the brushstrokes and all my works are always infused with intention)there is never a single piece in my paintings which has been left, there is never a moment in the painting that is there by default. Every single choice that I make in the paintings is a conscious choice. It doesn’t matter how small the piece is or how large the piece is, every element will be there and every element is there for an intention because what I am doing is I am not actually painting, I am communicating to you.
And so thinking about this, thinking about what I am really doing in my process, thinking about there’s a static element of time. We have to start thinking about how to bring time into a painting as an active ingredient. How to have time act on a painting in a way that is not destructive?
So then looking at the second painting (I am just going to pull out the second image which we don’t have here this evening – it’s a photograph) the second painting was looking at the skateboard plaza underneath the Vancouver Viaducts. The skate plaza has become a lounge for so many of the children in the city and when you actually start investigating the history of the skate plaza you actually start seeing how many events happen there, how much of a large reputable social gathering space it is but more than that, it has become a cathedral. A cathedral to skateboarding, it has become a safe space for young people and some middle aged people, to be in the city.
So this is the second painting in the series. This is just simply called the plaza and it is approximately this size over here. But in working with this particular painting, I started understanding that what I am really doing in the painting in terms of handling my brushstroke to communicate to the viewer that intentionality in the work started happening in this piece when I shared it with people and I could see that people were bringing in each and every single one their own stories.
So then what we realize the secret to bringing complexity into the painting is not only having time but also having relationship. And what starts happening when you use time as an active ingredient in the painting is you start saying to your viewer and start saying to you, this is not for you to consume, these paintings are not for you to sit back and relax and enjoy, these paintings are inviting you to interact with them and a way of encouraging you to interact is never to give you so much that you can sit down and relax and have your mind shut off so that you stop thinking. It is to give you just enough, and just enough ambiguity in the painting that it feels comfortable to engage and at the same time you have been welcomed to engage.
Because that is what we want to do with complexity, we want to create safe spaces for people to interact and for time to make its mark. Moving onto this piece over here which is the third painting in the series. it is a little harder potentially to actually recognize the specific location of it. The name of this painting, which I won’t go exactly into detail because it is a fairly lengthy name, it’s co-ordinates. I just call it simply 49 degrees. The co-ordinates are written over there on the painting and the reason why I put co-ordinates into this painting and this is the first painting that I have redacted, the reason why you have co-ordinates in this painting is because that specific street pole over there has had so much meaning to it.
This is as the Viaducts come out of town and I always get my roads…Prior? are we there .. Prior? As they join up with Prior and what often has happened in the history of the Viaducts is people coming out of town who are potentially going a little too fast, hit that corner without realizing the sharpness of the corner, loose control of their vehicles and here we have that street lamp which is perfectly placed for the cars to interact with. So many people have lost their lives there but at the same time so many people’s lives have been enriched there because at one point in time there were houses all along that street.
In the video that I will show at the end of this little talk you will see that I have superimposed a map which has Hogan’s Alley on it and takes up this block. These were homes, this was somebody’s back garden but we forgot about that, potentially not the people in this room but the people in Vancouver have forgotten that these were once homes and there were people living here, there were people born here, there was drama here, people fell in love here and people got married here.
We forgot that and just as when these Viaducts are going to come down, we are going to forget the people whose lives were impacted and altered forever because they lost their lives on this corner. I won’t attempt to pronounce the gentleman’s name but that young student from Zambia who lost his life there in 2013, was one of the images that I kept in my studio to remind me to remember because there is something that is worse than forgetting and it is actually forgetting to remember. And that is why I have redacted this painting because we are forgetting to remember and when the Viaducts come down we will forget to remember even more of the stories that have gone into there.
This is just going to be a patch of grass or potentially just a condo building and who will even stop twice to think about the lives that were changed and the stories that are actually there on this corner.
Heading into the last painting just over there, and as I have said the last painting is approximately 60% finished although that it a fairly random number as I never know when the paintings are finished. Just as I am inviting you to have a relationship, to bring all of your experiences, to trigger you that this is an engaging experience that this is an interactive experience, I am relying on you to finish my paintings for me. I never know when a painting says to me, Leanne we are done. The thing about this painting is that before I actually tore the painting, it was done. It was one of the most successful, most powerful
pieces that I have painted and I was giving myself a big tap on the back, pulled out my penknife and was hesitating but I knew what I wanted to do take this painting to the next level and as a result it is no longer finished because the tear in the side of the painting has interacted with the painting in a way that I couldn’t predict and now I need to incorporate that tear into the painting in order to have the internal balance that each and every single painting has to make it into a successful piece.
This area over here, you can probably see that there is a little house in the background, this is the section if you are standing over here looking at downtown, you turn around and behind you , this is the little patch of land that is just behind you and just as there was once a thriving community there. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a thriving community but there are people there today. For them the name of this painting is Home because this still is their home today. They are there and they are another community in the city who potentially doesn’t have a strong political voice and isn’t able to influence the future and to have any control or say over their lives but again I am not here to make any political statements or to have an agenda. It is just the way I interact when I am in that space.
So with this painting as with the plaza, I was trying to capture that enclosed feeling to try to get the feeling of what it means to be home. Home is that safe space, home is that place where you can relax and be yourself, home is where you don’t have to put on any pretenses for anyone else. Home is a cocoon that is there for you and that is what the Viaducts are at the moment in this particular area. This is what it feels to be a human being alongside the Viaducts It does create a cocoon, a cocoon created out of debris, a cocoon created out of boxes, cocoons created out of torn rags but there is a community that does live between the Viaducts.
I am going to finish off the talk today just with the final little video which accompanies this painting over here and thank you very much.
—– Video plays. Video:
Wow that was incredible Leanne, thank you very much. I think what is so interesting about Leanne’s pieces with the words that she brought forward it was something in that triggers a thought in me is that art has it’s own form of intellectualism, that art is a form of intellect that opens up possibilities. We don’t think about creativity as a form of intellect and I think Leanne really really demonstrated that. I think what was also interesting about that the notion of the intellect is that it brought forward something that for me is really really important as we think about the conception of Africa and Africans and African ways of knowing and being in the world and you brought up this notion of epistemology which is essentially the ways of knowing in the world and different world views and ontologies which is the ways of being in the world and this idea of man made or human made structures as beings is so fascinating.
And so I think what you brought forward was the idea of this Viaduct as a being and what is bringing down the Viaducts do? Beyond just being collapsed and something being rebuilt, what is lost in the process of us tearing down the Viaducts even if the noble cause is to resurrect the community that was once there but what is lost along this process?
And I think that you really really made it clear this notion of DeathMask was really about the notion of what was lost in terms of human lives as a result of this Viaduct being but preceding that was what was lost in terms of the relationships, the people that existed and what was lost when the indigenous people of the land were also moved so it creates all these entanglements if I may, in terms of complexities of relationships over time and that question of the worse thing that you can do is to forget to remember really stuck with me.
So hopefully as we move forward with the day, in these discussions and thinking about this reshaping of the city that we don’t forget o remember what was once there and I think that Leanne did a phenomenal job of encouraging us, in fact challenging us to do that.