by Crystal Mowry, Curator of Exhibitions and Collections
Every other year the Open Ears Festival of Music and Sound transforms Kitchener into the place to be for ambitious aural experiments. Since 2001, KW|AG has partnered with the Festival to mount projects and exhibitions by some of the most intriguing artists working today. This spring we continue that tradition by presenting an early work by Vancouver-based artist Althea Thauberger.
Thauberger has internationally produced and exhibited work which typically involves collaboration with a group or community. For those of you who have watched what we have been doing at the Gallery in the last few years, you will know that collaboration has shaped a lot of what we do. In Thauberger’s practice, collaborations usually result in performances, videos and photographs. Consistent throughout her work is an interest in working with groups of people, almost exclusively “non-professional performers,” who often exist in some form of social seclusion. Through the constraints inherent in even the most cursory forms of collaboration, Thauberger illuminates the tension between the coercive and voluntary actions we undertake in our everyday lives.
For our contribution to Open Ears, KW|AG has chosen to present Thauberger’s not afraid to die (2001), a 16 mm film (transferred to video) that w serves as an early introduction to the tension between sincerity and performance so palpable in her current work. Central to this piece is a young woman seated in front of the Northwest Rainforest Diorama at the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria. She is dressed for adventure despite the static representation of nature behind her. The “silence” that we typically expect of museum spaces is replaced with a series of ambient sounds, birds chirping and planes flying overhead. The young woman remains silent, except for the sounds she makes while she consumes a snack. A haunting voice, the artist’s own, interrupts the near-silence with an acapella song. A portrait of both a vital subject and the artificial wilderness that surrounds her, not afraid to die offers us a delicate balance between uncertainty and fearlessness.
not afraid to die was made the year before American Idol emerged as a cultural phenomenon. This detail may seem coincidental, but I can’t imagine divorcing it from the experience of viewing the work in 2011. The earnestness of Thauberger’s subjects is treated respectfully, yet her approach to collaboration is risky; she works with non-professional performers, provides little direction and strays away from invasive editing of her films. And yet one of the things that make Thauberger’s work – particularly her early work – so curious is the way it seems to polarize viewers in how they respond to the subjects. After nearly a decade of American Idol and six years of youtube, we have become bombarded by amateur performance where the stakes are much different. In the case of Thauberger’s work, a “song” is a complex tool that can dramatically shift our relationship with its performer and the context in which it is being performed. There is a solidarity that forms around music. When we memorize the words to our favorite pop song, hymn or anthem, we are essentially making ourselves part of a choir, a strategy of declaring that we are not alone, we are still here.
Learn more about he exhibition and Thauberger’s work on our website>