“We will never ask what a book means, as signified or signifier: we will not look for anything to understand in it. We will ask what it functions with, in connection with what other things it does or does not transmit intensities, in which other multiplicities its own are inserted and metamorphosed” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus 4).
Unlike the cathedral, Nikkei Place, the National Nikkei Museum and Heritage Centre, is a rather impressive building, set in an attractive garden on a quiet suburban Burnaby street. Yet what’s inside is something of a disappointment.
Beyond the nice garden, elegant façade, and airy foyer, the building is essentially little more than a souped-up community centre, with the usual array of rooms to rent at prices we are assured give excellent value for money.
The museum itself is simply a small room off the foyer, and apparently there’s no permanent collection. The exhibition when we visited was “Tenugui: Design Excellence in Japanese Daily Life,” a display of Japanese cotton hand towels accompanied by a short video, some prints in which these towels feature, and a couple of other bits and bobs.
The exhibition is pretty and informative enough, don’t get me wrong. It takes an everyday object that can no doubt easily get overlooked, and shows both the multitude of its uses (hand towel, headscarf, glass cleaner, handkerchief…) and the way in which its simple but elegant motifs, usually either abstract (dots, circles, lines) or drawn from nature (flowers, grasses, seeds, suns), always exceed its utilitarian functions. This is a design philosophy of unobtrusive adornment: an apparent contradiction in terms that structures everyday life in Japan.
But the strange thing is that this is indeed an exhibition about Japan. Given that we are at the Japanese Canadian National Museum, it’s odd that there’s no attempt to address the Canadianness of the Japanese Canadian experience. What new uses or meaning accrete around tenugui outside of Japan? What new motifs appear as the cloth is transculturated or appropriated into other visual traditions? (There was at least one design with penguins; are there any with polar bears, beavers, or hockey pucks?)
In short, instead of providing a window into “the history of Japanese Canadians” (as the museum’s mission statement has it), we have instead a dehistoricized celebration of one small remnant of the Japanese motherland. It’s as though the hand towels themselves, with their ordered repetitions, were a synecdoche for a vision of Japanese culture in its entirety as always the same, intact in all its incarnations.
It’s not surprising that a diasporic community should have such a nostalgic and idealized vision of its cultural roots. But I’m not sure why it should be enshrined so uncritically in an institution that has at other times had so much more interesting things to say.
We tried to get to the Bill Reid Gallery, but it’s closed Mondays and Tuesdays so will have to wait. We decided to check out Christ Church, the Anglican cathedral, instead. Oddly enough, almost the first thing we saw on entering was a collection of three Bill Reid prints, which are on display at the back of the church, just under Susan Point’s “Tree of Life” stained glass window.
Christ Church has to be the least impressive cathedral I know. Indeed, it’s less impressive than the majority of British parish churches. In part that’s because it’s now so comprehensively overlooked by the office towers that surround it; in fact it has to be one of the lowest buildings in downtown Vancouver. But even before it was outpaced by the city in which it is set, it can’t have been the most prepossessing of structures. At the best of times, the building seems to hug the ground, as though afraid of both heights and, more generally, public interaction. The style is Gothic Revival without the Gothic’s sense of the vertical. It’s testament to the surprising timidity of Britain’s imperial ambitions here at the turn of the twentieth century: it’s as though Vancouver’s early settlers were (already) afraid to make too much of a statement.
As the building is so non-descript, it’s therefore no great surprise that in 1971 most of the congregation agreed to have it torn down, a plan that only failed after wider public disapproval.
But the cathedral has its redeeming features, and you have to be one of the few who actually go inside to appreciate them. It’s understandable that not many cross the threshold: they are hardly enticed to do so. Because of the church’s squat horizontality, you imagine that its interior could very easily be oppressive: the soaring heights of the traditional Gothic cathedral are what draw your eyes up and impart the impression of transcendence. But Christ Church is saved by the fact, first, that someone had the good sense to paint the interior walls white (though they weren’t always that way) and, second and more importantly, that the exterior stone gives way to wood once you are inside. The ceiling is made of cedar planking, while the beams and floor are old-growth Douglas Fir. The floor is particularly striking and beautiful, and it’s shocking to think that for fifty years (before a 2003/2004 renovation) it was hidden beneath fiberboard and linoleum.
Inside the cathedral, then, there is little of the sense of weightiness or frigidity that sometimes attends nineteenth-century churches built in the Gothic style. The wood is warm and welcoming, and the soft light that survives the heavily stained glass (not to mention the persistent Vancouver rain) is transformed from gloom to glow.
It would have been nice had the architecture taken still more from the vernacular West Coast tradition. If anything, if you are looking in Vancouver for the sense of awe and grandeur that a cathedral is supposed to impart you are more likely to find it in the Arther Erickson design for the Museum of Anthropology‘s main hall, whose concrete and glass is based on indigenous post and beam. (In nearby Victoria, you might look to the Empress hotel!) By contrast, Christ Church feels homely and domestic at best. But the fact that it does feel comfortable–that it isn’t simply forbidding in its awkwardness–has everything to do with the care taken on its upholstery, if not on the structure itself.
This is the private collection of a local property developer (turned cultural philanthropist) and his wife, and it focusses on British Columbian art from nineteenth-century indigenous masks and carved wooden chests to contemporary conceptual photography. Rather incongruously, it also includes a significant number of works on canvas by the Mexican muralists (Rivera, Siquieros, Orozco, Tamayo). The fact that these pieces sit very uneasily with the rest of the collection was highlighted by the fact that several of the labels were quite blatantly wrong: the title of Tamayo’s “Figura de pie,” for instance, was translated as “Pious Figure” rather than “Standing Figure,” which gives rather a different impression of what that picture is all about.
As for the British Columbian art, there were a large number (over twenty) of Emily Carrs, from different stages of her career. Which only served to remind me how little I like this most iconic of West Coast artists. In the catalogue Audain himself writes that originally he didn’t think much of Carr, but that he came round to her by way of a comparison with Gauguin: “what Gauguin had done for the landscape and people of Tahiti, Emily Carr had done for the Northwest Coast” (24). But this is a back-handed compliment at best. It only underlines both artists’ exoticization of difference, and the way in which they frame the cultural and racial other within a vision of a lush natural habitat. And the viewer knows (but the artists never show) that this habitat is shortly disappearing thanks to modernization and indeed the early stages of the development that will subsequently give Audain the cash to buy up the pious inscription of what that development supposedly destroys.
Of the BC modernists, I rather preferred Edward Hughes’s depictions of maritime activity–ferries, fishing vessels, and the small ports that dot the province’s coast and outlying islands. They are painted with an apparent naiveté, but it is precisely the somewhat naive attention to detail (the baby’s pram on the wharf, the boat’s name “Imperial Nanaimo”) that makes them rather more reliable records of the process by which indigenous culture was edged out in the Pacific Northwest.
And when it comes to the painting of nature, I was pleasantly surprised by Jack Shadbolt’s “Butterfly Transformation Theme 1981,” a large canvas in six panels that revisits the butterfly motif and transforms it into something between an exuberant celebration of natural vitality and an almost pop art revelry in artifice and abstraction.
This afternoon to the Presentation House Gallery in North Vancouver, which as I have mentioned before is one of my favourite galleries in the Lower Mainland, with a great little bookstore specializing in photography.
But right now the gallery is between exhibitions, so we had to content ourselves with the North Vancouver museum downstairs. The woman there commented that she hadn’t expected anyone to come in today, what with the snow and all. She turned the lights on specially for us.
The permanent exhibit is small but interesting, charting North Vancouver’s history from its establishment as a logging camp called Moodyville in the 1880s, though to its industrial heyday as port and home to shipyards in the mid twentieth-century, and now its post-industrial stress on tourism as gateway to Grouse Mountain and Mount Seymour ski resorts, as well as the rather tacky Capilano Suspension Bridge which bills itself as “Vancouver’s top attraction.”
The museum always has a temporary exhibit, too, which is often very thoughtfully put together and curated. Right now the show is “Made in B.C.: Home-grown Design,” a survey of British Columbia’s products from (predictably) the staples of timber and shipping to graphic design, architecture, transport vehicles, school yearbooks, stamps, and goodness knows what else. Still, it’s rather obvious that in fact British Columbia has never been a place in which very much got produced: its economy has been based on the extraction or cultivation of raw materials (strangely, though, I saw no mention of the current top export, BC Bud) or on the movement of goods.
Now, if anything, the province’s major product is the image of Vancouver itself, built up and burnished through international extravaganzas such as Expo 86 and the 2010 Winter Olympics. No wonder Vancouverites were so embarrassed when a bit of street disorder seemed to sully the city’s supposedly good name. We worry about our city’s sparkling image the same way residents of Detroit care about the car industry or Venezuelans keep half an eye on the price of oil.
For better or worse, Vancouverites have always aspired to be good citizens, or to seem so at least. One of the most striking objects in the “Made in B.C.” exhibition, and just about the first thing you see as you enter the room, is a cardigan knitted by a (male) worker employed by the Pacific Great Eastern Railway sometime at the turn of the twentieth century. As part of the design he had stitched the names of the various towns at which the railway stopped. It’s not quite a tattoo, but it’s close: a gesture of bearing witness to his employer’s achievements on his own body. This may look like hegemony, but of course to call it that only begs the unanswerable question: “What was he thinking?”
I liked best the series of pictures of the Prairies, which were on the cusp between landscape and abstract: graphite on dark paper, a thick line roughly outlining the horizon and maybe rain above or grass below.
Burnaby Art Gallery was interesting too: occupying an old mansion house that has more than its fair share of history; the building was previously used variously as a monastery, a cult’s headquarters, and a fraternity house.