With the new Audain Gallery at Woodward's, Simon Fraser University establishes a cultural stronghold on Vancouver's downtown eastside.
BY: Fiona Morrow.
It’s a provocative image. A woman has her back to us, arms spread wide, hip cocked. She’s dressed in denim — jeans and jacket — and her black, shoulder-length hair is streaked with grey. This life-size portrait hangs in triptych form in a window facing Vancouver’s East Hastings Street — the main artery of the Downtown Eastside, a neighbourhood ravaged by poverty and drugs.
The woman in the work is at once defiant and vulnerable. The swing of her hip can’t overcome the fact of this locale, the reference to suspects up against a wall being frisked, or of dispossessed and disappeared women, too easily forgotten. At night the image is backlit, radiating its presence.
The work is part of the inaugural show, First Nations/Second Nature in Simon Fraser University’s new Audain Gallery in the redeveloped Woodward’s building. Rebecca Belmore’s “Sister” delivers the kind of artistic punch crucial to a serious art space in this location.
The Audain Gallery is named for its benefactor, noted local philanthropist and contemporary art supporter Michael Audain, who donated $2 million through the Audain Foundation. The endowment will fund the Audain Visual Artists in Residence Program, beginning in the fall of 2010, which will bring one or two international artists a year to work from the gallery. Audain Gallery curator Sabine Bitter describes it as a “project gallery, which is very tied to the pedagogy of visual arts.”
“We see art as very much connected to society and to social and political structures,” she explains. “So the aesthetic production is also linked to wider fields. The works we are going to show do not only have to be representational works, but can be really process-oriented, collective works, even community-engaged works.”
“We want to see the gallery as a platform not only for presenting art, but also discussing the role of art and use it as a discursive, not simply a productive site,” Bitter adds.
She taught in the Visual Arts department at SFU before taking this position, her first as a curator. It was a natural step, she says, especially as so much contemporary art practice tends to be very fluid. “It’s not the case that you’re an artist and you only make things, or you’re a curator and you only organize the presentation of things, “ she argues. “I don’t see it as two distinct sides.”
The gallery itself — as well as being a vital part of the university’s visual arts program — will complement the existing artistic infrastructure in the city and avoid any competitiveness with local artist-run centres struggling with budget cuts. The first formal collaboration will be working with artists from Korea with Centre A, an artist-run centre also located in the Downtown Eastside.
Bitter adds that part of the gallery’s mission is to engage the community, as both a presentation space, and as an educational institution. “We’d rather collaborate with all the different kinds of cultural production in Vancouver,” she says.
The Audain Gallery is part of a wider SFU presence in the Woodward’s building — there is also a theatre and cinema as well as administrative departments. The development of the old department store has been one of the city’s longest-running real estate sagas, with the mixed-use condo-university-shopping complex only coming to full fruition this year.
SFU was able to realize a desire to be a part of the development in large part by a huge grant from the provincial government — Premier Gordon Campbell was a strong supporter — plus some serious philanthropy, including Michael Audain’s gallery endowment. In turn, the university’s presence brought a cachet to the 536 commercial condos sold by local real estate supremo, Bob Rennie. The development also houses a large supermarket and coffee shop, with space for other retail outlets. A community art space proposed by the innovative W2 wasn’t able to achieve its funding goal and instead took over a space on East Hastings visible from the Audain Gallery’s window.
The gallery is accessible from two sides — the East Hastings entrance and the more gentrified courtyard off Cordova Street notable for its large installation by Vancouver artist Stan Douglas. A glass-mounted photograph (“Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971”), the piece is a reconstruction of the Gastown riot that took place on the doorstep of Woodward’s.
If the Douglas piece draws on a surprisingly controversial subject for public art commissioned for a private building, it is tucked away from passing pedestrians. Not so the Audain Gallery’s main window. “We appreciate the accessibility from the downtown eastside through the large windows,” says Bitter. “In our first exhibition we had lots of pedestrians who just walked into the gallery from the street, and we see openness as part of our mandate.”
That openness extends to the gallery’s free entrance, and an intention to be proactive in making the space accessible. The gallery was recently closed to allow a group from the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre a private visit to view First Nations / Second Nature.
Curated by Candice Hopkins — a Vancouver-based writer and curator — the exhibition was devised to engage directly with notions of territory, not simply the socio-political struggles of Canada’s poorest postal code, but also the fact that the gallery sits on ancient Musqueam land. Exhibited alongside Rebecca Belmore’s work, Sam Durant’s text-filled lightbox could not have been more direct: You Are On Indian Land Show Some Respect.
As one of its first events, the gallery organized a community symposium with a panel of artists, cultural commentators and curators discussing art as public discourse.
One of the panelists was Vancouver artist Ken Lum, an SFU alumnus commissioned to create a site-specific work for the windows of the gallery before it opened. As the opening of the gallery was delayed, it became obvious the installation would coincide with the Olympics.
“I started altering the piece,” Lum recalls. “I started thinking about the idea of people not being able to say ‘no’.” The work — “I said no” — is comprised of a sequence of text-based panels featuring phrases declaring emphatically “no”.
“People who are very marginalized have no right to say ‘no’,” he contends. “The piece played off the miasma of the Olympics, as to whether people down there had a voice, as to whether they even wanted the Olympics.”
Lum grew up in East Vancouver — his iconic “Monument to East Vancouver” was erected earlier this year on a ridge overlooking the False Creek flats (East 6th Avenue and Clark Streets). While a student at SFU, his first projects were completed at the university’s DTES arts space — across the street from where the Audain Gallery sits. “SFU has had a presence there since the mid-70s,” he notes. “They aren’t any Johnny-come-lately.”
Lum sees the location of the gallery as vital — a conscious engagement with myriad socio-political issues that are germane, he says to art. More than that, the gallery’s connection to SFU is critical, he says, noting the connection between local education centres and the world-recognized Vancouver artists who have been faculty members (Jeff Wall at SFU, Roy Arden at Emily Carr, Lum at UBC), responsible, surely, for the growing awareness of the city as an artistic hub. “Part of what has characterized Vancouver as emerging as an important contemporary art centre,” Lum argues, “is this relationship between innovation in creative art thinking and practice in close proximity to pedagogical institutions.”
As to the gallery’s actual site, Lum laughs: “I remember Woodward’s vividly. It sits where men’s overcoats used to be."