Adrian Stimson: Holding Our Breath
January 4th - February 9th
A casualty, concealed by a crowd enveloped in military costume, is posed to be lifted into a medic van. Nearly completely hidden from sight, the victim’s existence is only suggested by the coolly reflective metallic leg of a stretcher.
From the belly of the ambulance caravan, a silhouette is just barely visible. The figure, hunched with raised arms, is not bracing for the transfer of his patient’s weight onto his own shoulders, as one would expect- but rather, shoulders an enormous camera- the barrel of the telephoto lens directed towards the maimed individual. I pinched a sharp breath. Not because of the militant image in the acrylic-mounted photograph, but because of the difficulty in deciphering what is going on in that particular image.
Adrian Stimson travelled with the Canadian Forces Artist Program (CFAP) to Afghanistan in 2010, just prior to Harper’s withdrawal of troops in 2011. A Katimavik youth volunteer-service veteran, Stimson had had previous experience with the forces, though in a much different capacity.
The Canadian Government has been granting artists permission to station themselves at the front lines of battles since 1916, but it has only been since 2001 (the same year the war in Afghanistan began) that the CFAP has existed in its present conception. Preceded by the Canadian War Memorial Fund (1916-1918), The Canadian War Records Program (1942-1945), and the Canadian Armed Forces Civilian Artists Program (1968-1995), Canada’s relationship to military art has been as intermittent as Canada’s relationship to war. A conflict begins, programs for artists are developed, the conflict ends, and so does the program. But the CFAP’s present mission to “usher in a new era of Canadian military art,” seems to occupy a different role from that of the previous programs.
Era is an interesting noun to be used for a program that has historically had short records. Eras build legacies. They define periods rather than float in and out of them. What does the present vision of the Artist Program say about the Canadian Forces attitude towards military engagement? Will the constant production of art from this program act as a persistent reminder of the social consequences of war; a preventative of memory lapse? Or will the constant production of military art lead to glorified epic and heroic narratives? How much of this decision is up to the participating artists? The line between these two aims is thin, I believe, and one where the Artist Program is entrenched.
While there is no official requirement or timeline for making artwork resulting from this experience (the program respects the artist’s individual ways of working), the act of inviting cultural producers into conflict zones is meant to demonstrate, “the need for Canada to record the actions of its military members has not been forgotten.” During the two-week journey, Stimson was stationed at Ma’sum Ghar and Kandahar bases. His interest in punishment, identity and colonialism in previous work very clearly resonates with Holding Our Breath. But for a widely acclaimed performance artist, holding one’s breath is almost entirely counterintuitive. When breath stops, so too does movement (or performance or discussion); as ribcages bastion the rising pressure in bloated chests.
grunt gallery is filled wall to wall with Stimson’s work, but, contrary to the norms of exhibition practice, nothing was titled, dated, or medium specified. Like the small set of five pencil sketches of unidentifiable hills or radio towers, the lack of specificity creates an unfinished appearance. Holding Our Breath hangs near the entrance, but individual pieces are only referred to by name in the accompanying text written by Elizabeth Matheson. There are no clues. There are no textual indicators that help you to see what you are looking at. Unless you had read the Matheson prologue, nearly all of the information that wasn’t immediately visually obvious in the work had to be overheard.
At Holding Our Breath’s opening, a number of the installation technicians, grunt gallery’s staff, and Stimson himself, were present. While conversations drifted around the room, you learned the two life-size portraits were painted of the First Nations soldiers Stimson met in Afghanistan. Or that on the TV monitors one could find two Afghani shepherd boys in the hilly mountainside, who over time begin to start play fighting and wrestling. Or how it was hard to imagine how Stimson, such a jovial character, could have been placed right in the middle of a combatant area. But what would happen if such an involved audience was not present? What if you were not bold enough to ask these questions to strangers? This exhibition is one that begins to grow the more you (as the audience) assume the role of the engaged performer. The pieces do not seem to be completed unless they are talked about.
Echoes and traces crawled along the walls. In one corner hung a square set of four acrylic-mounted photographs. Portraying a number of varied aspects of life in the camps, they were unified most visibly by sun-bleached grass. A no-parking sign. A Canadian flag marked out with painted earth and rocks over a dry face of ground. A pair of children towing a cart, who cross paths with an armed vehicle. But it isn’t until you look at the print of a coil of razor wire, curling unexceptionally over a hilltop view, that you realize you can see that same coil from the corner of your eye. Just behind you sits a sandbox, no larger than the quintessential ones found in Canadian backyards. Wide arabesques of barbs fence it off. The razor wire is in the photo, but a real piece of razor wire also sits in the gallery.
The same sort of double existence takes place with the enormous charcoal drawing of a Chinook helicopter. Six separate sheets of paper are pinned together on the back wall with thumbtacks, making an expansive drawing surface. The foreshortened view of the helicopter obscures whether the vehicle, with some sort of barrel protruding from the darkly drawn shadow, is facing towards us, or away. Taking a moment to consider the drawing, I found my eyes resting on the ground, where the wall and the floor met. There, just under the drawing, I noticed a small pile of black dust. Was the helicopter drawn here? Responding to my inquiry through email, Stimson replied,
“I originally drew it [the Chinook helicopter] on sight at Neutral Ground in Regina...for grunt I had to do some touch ups as it has not been fixed...I like the idea of it being fragile, that it can get smudged and dirty over time...I cleaned it up a bit for the exhibition and not sure what I will do with it in the future...”
By not fixing the work, Stimson is putting himself in a situation where he will be constantly doing touch-ups wherever the piece is hung. He is essentially committing himself to have to continually work on this drawing- a re-enactment that seems fitting for an artist dealing with a topic of such controversy. A decade of arguments regarding the war in Afghanistan bounced back and forth between our once vocal and divided nation. And now that our presence has been removed from that conflict, so too have our contentions. But by not re-visiting this issue, which could perhaps benefit from the less heated vantage of the present, what will be done differently in the future? What will challenge our assumptions? And, as Stimson asks, “do we ever really learn from war?”
Upon first glance, I made two assumptions about the Kandahar medic photograph. One was that the victim would be in some grisly state, and the other was that he was leaving- that he would be loaded into the van and taken away. In email correspondence, Stimson again clarified;
“the photo was taken in Kandahar at the medical facilities...when I arrived to tour the place, an injured soldier was being brought in...he ...was being transferred from the airfield to the hospital... the medics and soldiers were from various countries under the ISAF (International Security Assistance Forces)... the soldier had been shot, but not too severely, I was able to follow the group inside and watch their procedures but was unable to photograph...”
The victim was not a newsreel example of pulpy flesh, and he also wasn’t leaving Afghanistan. The photo seemed to immediately present to me an emergency, but only because I viewed it in the context of war. It is not really the photo itself that indicated certain death, so much as the Red Cross, the camouflage, the heavy black boots and the arid landscape. At the same time, not being able to see the injured person only excited my imagination. Assumptions about warfare and the way it is culturally represented are challenged in Stimson’s work. His pieces lack the sensational quality of typical war depictions, but are also not exactly anti-sensational.
Death is considered, but as a state, rather than an act. Whitewashed wooden plaques display the names, rank and age of fallen Canadian soldiers. Pencil marks line and center the text, which is thinly veiled over with a layer of transparent paint. The sides of each block are painted a deep cardinal red in a handmade modeling of the Canadian flag. Seated in the provided chair, the subtleties of the art come to life. The gallery tracks casts light down over the blocks, which then cast their own faint shadows- shadows tinted pink from the painted edge. The blocks reflectively act on the gallery walls.
Across from this piece of remembrance, Stimson poses a question of the difference between offerings and sacrifices. The two paintings of First Nations soldiers are centered neatly in a bold red background. Whether these are portraits or in memoriam is difficult to say. Both individuals reveal wide and friendly grins, with a personality that seems to bore through. In between the soldiers, four monochromatic planks lean against the wall, each bearing a small shelf. The four elements, tobacco, sweetgrass, sage, and cedar are placed atop. The tidy piles seem to be offerings, but the soldiers, floating in a red bath of paint, seem to be sacrifices. The difference between the two- offerings and sacrifices- is (once again) thin. One is often framed by the other.
Holding our Breath is an exhibition regarding warfare that is neither memorializing nor proclamatory. Like the medic photographer, Stimson’s position - as well as the role of the CFAP- is strange. But it is a position that nonetheless, provides the opportunity to exhale- whether in contemplation, inquiry, or argument. And it is circulation of that warm, condensation-laden air that is needed to thaw some of the stiffened topics of Canada’s defense.
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Caitlin Chaisson is an artist and printmaker based in Vancouver, Canada. She earned her BCom with a Minor in Art History and Theory at the University of British Columbia, and continued studies through the Fine Art Foundation Degree program at the University of Brighton. Alongside her practice is a serious engagement with writing, predominately art criticism and prose poetry.