GERRY SCHALLIÉ, A Terrible Vitality
Winchester Galleries, Victoria
April 4 to 28, 2009
By Brian Grison
My first reading of Gerry Schallié’s 25 black and white photographs was that the Winchester Gallery exhibition consisted of late 19th-century documentary studies from a public archive or museum. They seemed oddly old-fashioned and reactionary.
Schallié photographs ancient and apparently abandoned totem poles, dugout canoes and buildings in their original Northwest coast environments, where many of them are slowly fading away. The artist’s historicist style seems to support the Victorian contention that Canada's First Nations cultures are disappearing, and that Canadians have inherited an empty land – an idea embedded in this country's origin myths. Schallié’s House Posts (Q'una) could have been photographed in a neglected old English park. Among the softly lit trees surrounding a brighter glade, three tall mossy cedar house posts shattered and leaning with Romantic and picturesque theatricality. They could easily be mistaken for older dead trees rather than ruins.
The colonialist ideology embedded in these photographs is supported by Schallié's aesthetic and process. He has photographed these cultural objects as if they are still only interesting, exotic, ethnographic material. Further, the style suggests that Schallié employs tools and techniques that have more kinship with late 19th-century documentary photography. Though he utilizes both film and digital tools and materials as well as both darkroom and computer processes, to the inexperienced aesthetic eye the work looks 100 years old.
But once discovered, there is strong evidence of a contrasting contemporary reading of Schallié's subject. Initially, I didn’t notice the regular evidence of modern life in the photographs. With a more detailed study of the work, I became aware of telephone wires, a painted picket fence, a plastic flamingo, a school house or church and a child's bicycle leaning against a concrete base supporting a totem. The contemporary content of these photographs doesn’t imply a cultural rejuvenation. Instead, the totems are now contextualized by a more contemporary ethos, something like preservation as control, a political strategy that Schallié reveals as well.
Vanquished (Gitwangak ) is a particularly poignant example of the difficult duality of simultaneous historicism and contemporary meaning. The photograph is a close-up study of a section of a taller pole. We see a human-like figure almost from the top of its head to its waist. Iron straps around the neck and waist pin the figure to a concrete brace at the back. The faint blurriness of the hands moving protectively over the chest, coupled with the grimace of the mouth reduces the totem to a kind of incarcerated ambassador of a vanquished nation. Within modernism, this is exactly what this pole now means.
Despite their beautiful light, detail and composition, these photographs radiate with the challenge of their dual subjects. They focus on the presumed end of Pacific Northwest culture, while celebrating the golden age of photography. The duality brings up the idea that the camera, an important tool of modernism, contributed to the transformation of traditional First Nations' culture. Schallié's photographs can be read as a simultaneous attempt to resuscitate the glory of highly crafted documentary photography, and a gilded memory of the past.