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"Artist Sarah Beck"
Artist Sarah Beck at work on "Mother."
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"Models and marketing materials"
Sarah Beck, Models and marketing materials, 2001, from Sarah Beck’s Mendel Art Gallery installation "Öde."
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"The 'Bangladeshi' model in garment workers’ protective clothing"
Sarah Beck, "The “Bangladeshi” model in garment workers’ protective clothing," from "Mother."
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"Full-sized model of a Rooikat tank"
Sarah Beck, "Full-sized model of a Rooikat tank," 2001, made of MDF board, from the Öde installation.
IT'S A MALL WORLD
Installing "Mother" at Saskatoon's Mendel Art Gallery, artist Sarah Beck makes us complicit in the culture of consumption.
By Steven Ross Smith
“I love using advertising because it’s a universal language,” says Sarah Beck. “People respond to it and understand it.” Beck’s work takes the common elements and images of consumerist culture and weaves them together with a contrary point of view. Both visually and conceptually, it reflects on and critiques globalization, militarism, fashion, advertising, and exploitation of labour. “It’s my goal to act as a social barometer and cultural activist,” she says.
Her most recent installation is called Mother. A piece that recreates and subverts the universal shopping experience, it opens in January at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon.
"Mother is innovative", says Adrian Stimson iate curator at the Mendel and an artist in his own right. He’s responsible for Beck’s show, her second at the gallery. “The work is light-hearted but it is also very serious. Sarah doesn’t like a heavy-handed activism, but she likes the subversive.”
Now 31, Beck entered the contemporary art world by leaps and bounds. Her debut and breakthrough work was the creation of ÖDE, a company that manufactured a replica of a South African Rooikat tank made of almost two tons of white-surfaced MDF board. She built the tank with the help of friends and relatives in a Quonset hut near Waldheim, Saskatchewan in May, 2001. As part of the gallery installation, she promoted the company and its tank with lifestyle advertising rendered in photographs and a stylish catalogue, and on the company website, www.shopode.com.
The tank was and is for sale. Beck sank more than $40,000 — her own money, borrowed cash, donated and granted funds — into the project. It travelled to Vancouver in August, 2001, and has been shown in Vancouver, Seattle, Philadelphia, Regina, Saskatoon, North Bay and Whitby, Ontario.
Now she’s turned her attention to Mother, an installation that appears on the surface to be a retail fashion store for young women, with a hip and youthful ambience, fashion-adorned mannequins, modern display shelving, stylish contemporary décor, and the latest music. These elements uphold the ‘retail illusion,’ one that borrows from current teen-oriented marketing and design. But the detail and function of the clothing show up the lifestyle disparity between consumers and the workers who make it.
The clothing is designed to enable garment workers to better cope with hazardous, restrictive, non-ergonomic, exploitive work environments. They incorporate rubber boots, hydration kits, lumbar supports, compasses, fire-protection blankets and air circulation fans, all intricately designed to appear current and stylish. Beck wants to create, for the viewer, a shopping experience charged with desire and complicity.
The articles in the Mother ‘shop’ carry references to the countries that produce the garments in the fabric, designs, logos and the models selected for Beck’s advertising images. Logos adorn and consume us, and fascinate the artist. She’s incorporated familiar and original logos into her marketing materials, and all the clothing will have tags written in ‘consumerese’. Beck’s thorough research also gives certainty and authenticity to the show. She studied the history, culture, labour practices, economics and fashions of Bangladesh, Indonesia, Mexico, China, Saipan, and North America.
Beck has purposely chosen models for the Mother“advertising” that look right but are not truly authentic in their cultural heritage. The young woman modelling Beck’s Bangladeshi outfit is actually German-Chinese. Often in the advertising world, lighter-skinned models are preferred to the authentic tones of the indigenous culture, so Beck does the same, a form of copying and critique.
Mother is an acronym for MakeOver To Heal Economic Rifts. Beck notes that in many countries poverty is often borne by single-mother families. The word mother also contains the word ‘other’ — the other side, the shadow side we don’t see in the glitzy presentation of retail fashion. Beck’s ‘fashions’ intend to protect and heal, a mother’s role. “I don’t want to go at this like I’m boycotting anything,” Beck says. “It’s not necessarily that the jobs these women do are bad — it’s that the conditions are bad.”
Sarah Beck’s activism is an about-turn from her original career aspirations. In 1994 she was admitted to Ryerson University’s photography program. She wanted to become a photojournalist. In 1997, at 21, she graduated, winning several awards. She returned to Ryerson to study cinematography, and in 1999 won the Best Gender Film Award at the National Student Film Festival. She subsequently worked on both still photography shoots and motion picture crews and worked on several films as a cinematographer including Mechanics, winner of the Best Film Award at the Manhattan Short Film Festival. But photojournalism created a dilemma for her. She asked herself: “When would you stop photographing and help people?
“My parents and many others had known I’d been an artist all my life and I was fighting it,” she adds. “I found a new freedom in art that I never thought was there, by bringing activism to it.”
Ideas were slow to coalesce. “My work takes so much thinking and research to decide what I want to talk about,” she says. “What I think is important is usually a fairly big idea, and relatively political. I have to find a way to represent it.” Her dedication is obvious from her cash flow. “My art is so expensive. Motherhas cost well over $20,000 so far.” She’s in the studio every possible moment. There’s more than a hint of irony here when she laughs and says that “VISA is my Canada Council right now, and I couldn’t complete this without my own sweatshop labour.” She is fully aware, of course, that her home-studio offers comforts and conveniences lacking in the Third World.
The real Canada Council for the Arts has been good to her. In 2005 she was awarded the Joseph S. Stauffer Award — given annually in the fields of music, visual arts or literature — “to encourage young Canadians of outstanding promise or potential.”
As a curator and an artist, Adrian Stimson’s enthusiasm for Beck’s work is evident. The installation creates an unconventional space within the normally “hallowed” walls of the art gallery, and Stimson says “If you look at contemporary practice and look across Canada at the galleries that have integrated different approaches to art, you’ll see that this is something that has come along in the last ten years. Vera Frankel is among those who even earlier initiated gallery installations that bring to life certain spaces — for example retail space, or a home space — to bring forward certain issues.” He notes that such exhibitions “almost trick gallery visitors, they challenge the viewer.”
Beck will often be present herself, part of the installation as a clerk, a ‘customer service representative’ there to help viewers have a retail and artistic experience simultaneously.
In late fall and early winter of 2007, as the components in the show moved toward completion for the January opening, Beck was sewing on stars, stitching seams, hunting for and purchasing suitable mannequins, communicating with live models and wrestling with myriad details, all in the interest of exposing our complicity in the suffering of workers in distant Export Processing Zones who create the tsunami of retail goods that stimulate our economy and make us happy.
“I want to get people, especially North Americans, to think about how we tread in the world,” Sarah Beck says with urgency in her voice. “We tread very heavily and it’s crazy.”