March 07/ WM issue #1: white hot magazine of contemporary art exclusive interview with Vancouver writer, filmmaker and critic Michael Turner

March 07/ WM issue #1: white hot magazine of contemporary art exclusive interview with Vancouver writer, filmmaker and critic Michael Turner
Michael Turner


Hello Mr. Michael Turner, white hot magazine wants to hear a professional perspective on the past, the current and the future of the art scene in Vancouver. Considering the exponential growth of tourism in Vancouver, how would you say that aspect affects the art scene of Vancouver and how it has changed/evolved over the past 50 years?

MICHAEL TURNER: Tourism has had little effect on Vancouver art. We had some very ambitious artists here in the 1960s 70s and 80s (Michael Morris, Ian Wallace, Jeff Wall, to name a few), but they were not interested in the cultural national project (national building through abstracted landscape painting), and instead sought out a dialogue with European and American artists -- to the point where European and American curators came here, did studio visits, and took these artists to places that artists from a previous generation never thought possible. Soon enough these artists, and others (Rodney Graham, Ken Lum, Roy Arden, Stan Douglas), developed commercial gallery relationships in the and Europe. So their success -- and its measurement lay elsewhere. (Which is how we measure 'success' in -- from the outside). Tourists -- such as people coming here on cruise ships -- have assisted the transition from a resource-base to a tertiary-base economy, but its not like visitors come here as cultural tourists interested in contemporary Vancouver vanguardist art, nor is their presence here impacting on what our art looks like, apart from First Nations carvers who sit on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery selling their wares to whoever wants to buy them. We still get a lot of curators coming here to visit the more-recent generation of artists, like Brian Jungen and Geoffrey Farmer, most of whom have local dealers who, with the aid of federal funding, are bringing these curators to town.

WM: Like you noted during the tour of the Herzog exhibition at the VAG, through the depictions by artists such as Fred Herzog of such activities as the False Creek fires, has the "art related scene" in Vancouver become more pessimistic, or simply evolved into a more passionate and outspoken form of communication? How far will we push it?

MT: There are many art scenes in Vancouver, as there are everywhere. We happen to have a group of photo-based artists (and more recently, post-medium installation-oriented artists) who get attention from people who live on the pages of Artforum and Frieze, who buy their art at ARCO and Art Basel Miami, and who believe that the MOMA and the Tate Modern set the tone for contemporary art. Jeff Wall is a pedagogue of the highest order, and if he is optimistic, it is because he believes his project will find its way into the annals of art history, and that he will be consecrated, made a master. Pessimation, like the weather, is everywhere as well, and unfortunately we see some of it in our youngest artists. It is very difficult being a young artist in this town, because of Vancouver's legacy of international successes, but also because of the predominance of photo-based work. In response (and it is a conservative reactionary response, to my mind), many of these artists pursue drawing, creating their own narratives, their own alternative realities. In the late-1980s younger Vancouver artists were happy to show at artist-run centres, for their peers -- that was enough. Now, with expanding markets, many of our younger artists want their first solo shows to be at commercial galleries. The market, which was virtually absent here until the last fifteen years, is having a huge impact on the way our art behaves. Nature has been the subject of much of our city's art, and artists for the past forty years have been fighting it in some form or the other. People who visit here generally come for the natural beauty, the great outdoors. But to be expected to honor that beauty, as artists, as opposed to highlighting our violent relationship to it, in the way developers are constantly trying to tame it, is seen as unnatural. Roy Arden is an artist who gives us photos of Modernity's effect on the landscape -- like Herzog's abandoned cars. Yet it is not the abandoned car we should be looking at, but the expanse of land around it -- land whose owner sits and waits for its value to rise so he can sell it at the highest price. It is this waiting around that creates Culture's landscape: the garbage dump.

What are the differences and similarities between the atmosphere conveyed through Herzog’s imagery of the early 60’s and 70’s and the present day, in Vancouver specifically and as a global whole?

MT: I dealt with some of this in the book that accompanies the exhibition. The differences between the older Vancouver and the new has a lot to do with global market forces -- generic franchise businesses taking the place of more particular locally-sprouted ones, creating a sameness that makes Vancouver look like any other city anywhere. With respect to a decrease in Herzog's photos from the last two decades, part of this has to do with the artist's disenchantment with this aforementioned sameness, the loss of what he calls our "disordered vitality." But another part has to do with the difficulty one has exhibiting photos of people who have not signed release forms. You could say that the rise of so-called 'individual agency' has something to do with their disappearance in Herzog's photos.

WM: Do you think this exposure of Vancouver as both an industrial as well as artistically driven city beneficial to the up and coming local artists or does it promote international competition?

MT: The more ambitious artists spend as much time positioning themselves historically as commercially. Not that the two are mutually exclusive. A younger artist like Tim Lee is aware of the artistic lineage he is in dialogue with. Historical affiliation -- and the acceptance of one within its continuum -- is a good way to raise one's value on the international art market, regardless of how sincere the dialogue is. Our most ambitious artists are also our best strategists.

WM: Within your knowledge, which local artists are successful in portraying their message at the moment and why? What new styles and mediums are emerging and what are some major expectations for the arts in Vancouver?

MT: The major movements in Vancouver art run from abstract landscape painting (Emily Carr, Jack Shadbolt), to the art-as-life events of the 1970s (the Fluxus-influenced Western Front artist-run centre), to the rise of photo-based work in the 80s and 90s (Wallace, Wall, Rodney Graham, Ken Lum, Stan Douglas), to the post-medium, installation-based work of Steven Shearer, Brian Jungen, Geoffrey Farmer and Myfawny MacLeod, to name a few. What the younger artists have learned from the Wallaces and Walls is that the work must not only be well-made but rigorously researched. I think these younger artists are less discursive than Wallace and Wallace, and in some ways more attracted to the phenomenological. Wallace and Wall are Germanic in their pedagogy (Frankfurt School), while the younger group lean more towards readings in French Post-Structuralism. Artists like Stan Douglas are more literary. If the Post-Impressionists provide a link to Jeff Wall, Beckett links to Stan. I can't speak to what the expectations are for the arts in Vancouver, other than a continued attentiveness to research, intellectual rigor, and, if it's film/video and photography, the well-made object.

WM: Modern society has reached a turning point with issues at hand such as consumerism and post-consumerism. In your opinion, is art developing a new level of responsibility and authority to reach out to the public more than ever, beckoning change of mindset and regard for the nearing future?

MT: I don't see a lot of artists challenging the market economy in a way that would threaten their position in that market. Those who don't like the market as an arbiter of what is 'good contemporary art' generally withdraw, and we don't see them. Stan Douglas is always alluding to market forces in his work, though it is subtle. Of the younger artists, Brian Jungen have come closest to taking on consumer culture by turning Nike trainers into Northwest Coast-style Native masks, or Wal-Mart chairs into whale skeletons. The more ambitious younger artists are reluctant to get too 'political', for fear of being dismissed as ideological, but also to protect and promote their formal interests. Then of course there are culture-jamming projects initiated by well-meaning yet cynical magazines like AdBusters, who, as far as I know, are still working out of Vancouver.

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Whitehot writes about the best art in the world - founded by artist Noah Becker in 2005. 


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