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Terence Dick
Deanna Bowen at Mercer Union
October 12, 2017

Deanna Bowen’s exhibition at Mercer Union is like a hall of mirrors that refracts into a dozen different angles each time you think you’ve oriented yourself. It begins with the fabrication of a missing fiction: a television drama that was shot live to air and broadcast on the CBC in 1956 but never recorded. All the remains is the script and some production notes. The artist has turned the gallery into a studio to reshoot the tale of a Black legal aid lawyer struggling with the implications of his defence of a white athlete who assaulted one of his Black teammates. However, rather than simply recreate the drama, she has documented the public rehearsals that she’s conducted each Saturday over the course of the exhibition and replays the raw footage as it has accumulated in the set that fills the space. You are in that space as you watch what unfolds.

Deanna Bowen, On Trial The Long Doorway, 2017, installation view (photo: Tony Hafkenscheid)

Bowen has taken the title of the drama – On Trial The Long Doorway – and used it as her own to amplify and multiply the concerns about racism that were originally expressed in a script that sounds dated but resonates with an immediacy that the actors remark on as they figure out how to navigate their roles. In one session Shaista Latif, the consulting director, points out that the theatre of the courtroom within the story is echoed by the theatre of the teleplay. Both are places where drama – that is, conflict – is played out and a judgement is expected in response. The judgement isn’t predetermined and it is up to the jury/audience to come to a conclusion. Was the attack racially motivated? Is the lawyer prejudiced against the accused? Should he side with the victim’s father? Can he be objective?

That last question is the one that keeps coming back at the protagonist, the actors, the artist and her audience. Bowen and her collaborators provide their own commentary, inserting their own experiences, reminding the viewer of the real experiences that remain under the fiction. The exhibition deploys art in a variety of ways (theatre, installation, found documents, video) to unpack and explore ideas within the script while confronting everyone involved – including, of course, the implied audience of viewers at home in the 1950s as well as visitors to the gallery – with the politics of race, its history in Canada, the ways in which it is represented, and the politics of that representation.

Deanna Bowen, On Trial The Long Doorway, 2017, detail: Dresden Story, Dir. Julian Biggs, 1954, (courtesy: National Film Board of Canada)

The fictional trial begins as the drama ends. You get the court's opening statements and then the script fades to black, so the verdict is left unresolved. The exhibition makes the same gesture each time it pulls back the frame to reframe the content and question any conclusions that might be made. Bowen opens up the work to include her audience, placing them literally in the set and stretching the duration of her creation over the full run of her exhibition. She pulls in archival material that expands her scope across generations and multiplies the simple black or white dichotomies of the past to include the layered, intersectional identities of the present. But she takes it further, adding to the resonance and relevance of the work by linking her trial to that of Emmett Till’s murderer and by extension Dana Schutz’s painting from this year’s Whitney Biennial. On top of that, you can’t read the script and not think of the Black athletes who are currently facing trial in the court of public opinion for their stand against state-sanctioned violence.

The implication that envelops you as you immerse yourself in the exhibition is that there is no objective position. There is no getting outside the art, just as there is no getting outside of race. We are always already in it. Bowen shows us this at every turn, but provides no easy answers in response because there are none.

Deanna Bowen: On Trial The Long Doorway continues until November 4.
Mercer Union:
The gallery is accessible.

Terence Dick is a freelance writer living in Toronto. His art criticism has appeared in Canadian Art, BorderCrossings, Prefix Photo, Camera Austria, Fuse, Mix, C Magazine, Azure, and The Globe and Mail. He is the editor of Akimblog. You can follow his quickie reviews and art news announcements on Twitter @TerenceDick.



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