1 of 2
"Indie Finish Line"
Femke van Delft, "Indie Finish Line," 2004, colour photograph.
2 of 2
"Granville Island Parkade"
Femke van Delft, "Granville Island Parkade," 2004, colour photograph.
FEMKE VAN DELFT, Missing: A Guerilla Mapping Project
Harcourt House Gallery, Edmonton
Feb 9 — Mar 11, 2006
By Gilbert A. Bouchard
I have to admit I was apprehensive prior to seeing Femke van Delft's politically sensitive multi-media exhibition,Missing: A Guerilla Mapping Project. This show doesn't boast a "feel-good" theme. It addresses the murdered and missing sex trade workers in Vancouver and, by extension, the similar missing women cases here in Edmonton. The press releases about Missing: A Guerilla Mapping Project promised it would deconstruct the whole "sex economy" with the in-yer-face aim of getting the average gallery-goer to "place themselves on the map" of the sex trade in the most broad and yet personal context. As well, this profoundly theory-driven Vancouver installation artist and photographer is known for upsetting traditional museum and gallery practice by bringing a decisive community outreach reality to the usually pristine world of art displays. Any one of these factors had the potential for a didactic and dry exhibit that inspired more guilt than intellectual or aesthetic appreciation.
My apprehension about the show's content was balanced by my long-held respect and admiration for van Delft, who has a reputation for setting and achieving complicated artistic goals in highly innovative ways. If anyone could pull off the daunting task of creating an advocacy-based show that mixes sculpture, photography, and hard-hitting texts — and also complete what is "missing" in our public discussion of the missing women cases and the related sex trade — it's van Delft.
While certainly not an easy show to view, Missing: A Guerilla Mapping Project works amazingly well at all the levels van Delft promised. It's a visually stunning, well-resolved installation of high aesthetic quality that still haunts me days later.
Encapsulating her intentions in a coherent and concise manner, van Delft illustrates and "maps" the sex economy via a pair of stiletto-heeled mannequin legs that were used to model pantyhose in a clothing store (silk stockings, high-heeled shoes, and lace-up corsets being the top three sexual fantasy items), which she cast in concrete. She then placed and photographed the concrete legs in 50 "sites of complicity in a much broader sex economy" in all areas of Vancouver with the exception of the Downtown East Side, thus flipping the disproportionate share of moral disapproval given to street prostitutes compared to high-end sex trade workers.
In the photographs, the legs glow in a golden light and seemingly grow out of the sidewalks in oddly "normal" cityscapes that are only deconstructed as sites of the city's "hidden history" of the larger sex trade in the accompanying text panels. The sites where van Delft placed the legs include businesses like Party Bazaar, a store that sells child-sized fishnet stockings at Halloween, and the Sylvia Hotel, Vancouver's very first cocktail lounge which banned solitary women from sitting at the bar because they might be prostitutes.
The show's final element is a large map of Vancouver, lyrically drawn on fragmented raised blocks, that puts all the sites into a geographic context. Ironically enough, this last touch is perhaps the most controversial since it encompasses the idea that the "real" sex trade is universal and one in which we are all complicit. In conversation with van Delft, she says that individually we don't see ourselves as people who buy sex or participate in this story "because we hide our relationship to sex and the sex economy . . . but sex does sell and we're buying it," whether in the sex service ads published on the back pages of weekly tabloids or the sexy lingerie on sale at The Bay.Missing: A Guerilla Mapping Project is a wake-up call about the pervasive influence of the sex economy in our lives — and about "locating ourselves on the map."