Since my last account of Calgarian art and culture, at which time I commented upon a visit by George W. Bush, Calgary has now had a visit from former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But unlike Bill Clinton, who was reported as buying art at a local gallery when he came to town, these recent Republican visitors did not appear to invest in creativity. If they had looked beyond the myopic vision of oil and politics, they would have discovered that Calgary currently has a number of artistic projects worthy of re-calibrating diverse economies.
Steve Gibson, Jim Olson, and Justin Love, Grand Theft Bicycle, 2009
Totally apposite is Grand Theft Bicycle (GTB), created by Steve Gibson, Justin Love and Jim Olson, currently mounted at Stride. Based on the popular and highly violent video game Grand Theft Auto, GTB positions the audience in front of a large format 3D gaming environment whereby gallery visitors can mount a modified bicycle and virtually cycle through a desert landscape into Baghdad. What comes next is not car-jackings and gang warfare on the GTA level, but a run-in with contemporaneous invaders and counter-insurgents. Here, the original characters have been modified (or “modded” in computer gaming talk) to resemble Western leaders and their ideological enemies. Hence, we have the likes of Margaret Thatcher, George Bush, Tony Blair, Condoleezza Rice and Dick Cheney, battling with folks such as Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez and Osama bin Laden. Irony may be highly over-rated in some artworks, but not so here.
The idea of taking a bicycle to do battle with all things oily fits neatly with the rise of slow movements. Staples such as slow food are now fast outmoded when it comes to imperatives such as slow travel (or even slow fashion). GTB inverts established paradigms of wreaking havoc from the vantage point of a powerful motorized vehicle and enables the humble cyclist to appear impervious to both vehicular and firefight assault. Further, this project spans the world of media arts and digital technology –sometimes considered the realm of gizmo art— with installation art and theoretical constructs such as relational aesthetics. Whilst I’m not a digital-gaming expert (having no TV since 1990 has kept much of this at bay), I found both the controls and interface to be remarkably responsive. Think highly professional not nerdy gizmo: whether you’re with them or against them, you can unload your handlebar-mounted gun with ease. This enabled a relatively seamless entry into the game/art space while allowing one’s mind to probe the tensions of real-world conquests that still control our non-avatar realms.
Kim Huynh, Burden 3
Keeping to the themes of other worlds and creative economies, Calgary is looking outside its North American borders in at least one respect, as Asian Heritage Month makes its presence known. Key on the art front here is the one-week exhibition RootSoilBlossom, launched on May 29 at the Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre. Volunteer curator Catherine Chan notes that the show “will bring together local traditional and contemporary Chinese artists to showcase themes surrounding Chinese Heritage: identity, art, gender issues, history and politics.” A central aim is to foster a better understanding of different cultures and to this end there’s a free panel discussion taking place on the afternoon of the exhibit launch (the curator also advises that a free spread is being hosted at the Tang Dynasty Restaurant on the lunchtime of the opening!). The panel will address how identity and heritage is portrayed in the media and the arts and will include professors John Stocking and Lloyd Sciban from the University of Calgary, Vancouver video artist Ho Tam, and Vietnamese-born Calgary artist Kim Huynh (both these artists have works in related events). This all promises to bring pluralistic debate to the “Heart of the New West,” something much in need as the City of Calgary has embarked upon a review of its branding and nomenclature.
For a closer look at Calgary’s freshest cultural collections one only need make a trip to the University of Calgary’s Nickle Arts Museum. Here you can see the work of new artists in the U of C BFA Graduating Exhibition and a selection of work that has shaped the evolution of Calgary’s art scene, the latter of which includes two shows. Calgary Celebrates is built around major recent acquisitions from painter Ron Moppett and ceramist Greg Payce, while Backstory: Connections and Circumstance in Calgary gives a broader spectrum to local and regional influences, including important work by Marion Nicoll.
John Bartziokas, Emery Anne, #2, 2009
It seems that summer group shows have come early to Calgary this year. Figurative at Paul Kuhn includes a number of regular gallery artists and other players that one imagines are either guest artists or have works owned by or consigned to the gallery for resale (more on this in a minute). When I called Paul about the show he told me he was inspired by the recent return to figuration in art, but in particular that he felt a need to exhibit quality work that fits this billing. Certainly, the airbrush painting of John Bartziokas is quite incredible: his hyper-realist works look like photographs.
Chris Cran, Self Portrait with the Combat Nymphos of Saigon, 1985
What’s also intriguing is that the show will include works from the 1980s when the gallery used to represent Chris Cran. These pieces, long owned by the gallery, demonstrate how dealers worth their salt really are investing long-term in the cultural economy. The show will apparently include the largest charcoal drawing ever done by Cran and the epic Self Portrait with the Combat Nymphos of Saigon. I’m not sure how this last piece will fit with Asian Heritage Month, but then that’s the beauty of writing a blog rather than a scholarly review. To paraphrase Brecht, the work of art is completed in the audience.
Dick Averns is an interdisciplinary artist and writer living in Calgary whose exhibitions and performances have been presented internationally. He has written for catalogues, journals and magazines, including Canadian Art, Front and Artichoke, and is currently part of the Canadian Forces Artists Program. Dick also teaches sculpture, performance and installation, drawing and liberal studies at the Alberta College of Art + Design.
Grand Theft Bicycle continues until June 20.
RootSoilBlossom runs from May 29 until June 7.
Bachelor of Fine Arts Graduating Exhibition continues until June 12.
Calgary Celebrates runs from June 19 until August 7.
Backstory: Connections and Circumstance in Calgary continues until September 18.
Figurative runs from June 6 until July 4.