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Image by www.urbanpictures.com
"Longing" exhibition installation
Installation of "Longing" at West Vancouver Museum
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Courtesy the artists and Equinox Gallery
"Museum of Anthropology"
Sonny Assu and Eric Deis, Archival pigment print, 28” x 42”
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Courtesy the artist and Equinox Gallery
Sonny Assu, 2011, Archival Pigment Print 15” x 19.25”
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Courtesy the artist and Equinox Gallery
"The We Wei Kai (Warrior #1)"
Sonny Assu, 2011 Archival Pigment Print 15” x 19.25”
SONNY ASSU, Longing
West Vancouver Museum
September 14 - November 5, 2011
By Rachel Rosenfield Lafo
Context is everything when looking at art. Where an artwork is exhibited, what it is shown with, and how it is displayed directly affect its interpretation. Sonny Assu’s new installation at the West Vancouver Museum centers on this connection between presentation and meaning in his intelligently conceived and elegantly installed exhibition, Longing.
Assu, a Vancouver artist of mixed non-indigenous and Laich-kwil-tach (Kwakwaka’wakw) ancestry of the Wei Wai Kai Nation, presents discarded chunks of cedar wood remnants that he found in the cast-off pile of a log home developer as if they are commercially produced Northwest Coast masks. Ironically, the wood was found on the traditional territory of Assu’s reserve on Northeastern Vancouver Island, making the Nation complicit in this waste of resources. Without altering these found objects, Assu displays them on museum-style brass mounts, assigning them an identity, status and authority they were never meant to have. In doing so, he raises questions about authority and authenticity and how the location of an object can alter its interpretation. Would we recognize these offcuts of wood as masks without Assu’s intervention and identification of them as such? Would we even know if they were found objects or might we think that the artist had cut and shaped them himself? And how does their display in a museum impact how we understand them as sculptural objects? By rescuing these waste products and giving them new life, Assu successfully underscores the problems inherent in assigning value and authenticity to cultural objects.
To further challenge our judgments about originality and status, Assu exhibits the found “masks” in two additional formats. In the Wise Ones, a series of five color photographs, individual masks are presented as if they are portraits of the elders of the nation. In Artifacts of Authenticity, a collaborative project with photographer Eric Deis which consists of three large color photographs, Assu placed the found masks in different settings - an anthropology museum, a commercial art gallery and a tourist shop - embedding them in existing displays as if they belonged there, and presumably doing so with the permission of the appropriate authorities (one wonders what they think of the project).
In the photograph taken at the Museum of Anthropology, Assu’s “mask,” which was found on Kwakwaka'wakw lands, is displayed in a case of Kwakwaka'wakw masks, challenging, as guest curator Petra Watson has written, “the perceived voice of authority lodged within this institutional space.” At the Equinox Gallery, a commercial gallery that represents Assu, the mask appears amidst other indigenous art objects. In the tourist shop photograph, the same mask is perched at the end of a shelf of more typical tourist items, seemingly now of lesser value.
Even without this subversive undertaking, the masks in Longing are potent sculptural objects; powerful yet simple. By endowing these cast-off pieces of wood with a new identity rife with cultural and political implications, Assu has taken a waste product and converted its worthless status to one of monetary and possibly historical value, adding yet another layer to this already complex conceptual project.
Assu’s thought-provoking installation cleverly adds to a debate that has long occupied the art world, that of how values and definitions are established and who has the authority to establish them. Yet there is one critical issue that the artist does not directly address – his role as a successful artist with a commercial gallery whose very decision to select these cast-offs and create an exhibition around them assigns them a market value. These found wood remnants and photographs will now be bought, sold, and collected, further complicating questions of artistic worth, historical pedigree, and legitimacy.