I missed Penny Cousineau-Levine's Faking Death:
Canadian Art Photography and the Canadian Imagination when it
came out in 2003, only a few years after I moved from Canada to
Ireland. So the discovery of it in a Belfast bookshop has offered a
reminder of a photographic culture that, while well documented
within Canadian art discourses, is generally unknown to the wider
public. While some photographers covered here - Jeff Wall, Roy Arden, Donigan
Cumming, Ken Lum - are familiar, 'international'
figures, there remain many artists whose names I hadn't seen or
heard since I was a university student back in Newfoundland (and,
in some cases, who I was happy to forget).
Of course, there are exceptional photographers here as well: Carol Conde
and Karl Beveridge's incorporation of political documentary
images into domestic settings, often just visible through a window
frame or on a wall calendar; Jin-me
Yoon's installations of text and childhood photos that explore
her Korean heritage; Mark Leslie's unsentimental, diaristic account
of living with AIDs. This is where an overview of Canadian art
photography really proves useful, offering an insight into a
diverse body of work that all too often doesn't cross south of the
49th parallel. However, Cousineau-Levine has a specific agenda here
that goes beyond writing a primer on a select group of artists. She
explains her reasons in the introduction, drawing on her experience
as a lecturer:
"When shown Canadian photographs alongside those made in
Britain, the United States, and elsewhere, whether documentary
photographs or portraits or landscapes, the almost universal
response of [my] students was that they could see 'nothing' in
these images, that there was 'nothing' there."
The attempt to fill this void, to map out an inherently
'Canadian' photographic culture, leads to some smart observations,
such as the prevalence of images that feature frames within the
picture frame, as if re-presenting or preserving an exterior
natural world, in the work of Michel Lambeth or Lynne Cohen.
Perhaps less convincing is an attempt to impose a psychoanalytical
framework to Canadian photography through the metaphor of the
anorexic, a condition that, for Cousineau-Levine, encompasses "the
interminable Canadian 'identity crisis'; the country's [...] lack
of a firm sense of self; the unrelenting preoccupation with death,
entrapment, and flight from the physical manifest in our
photographic practice; the Canadian inclination to adopt the 'look'
of images from somewhere else [...]" And so on.
The relative merit of these readings notwithstanding, what
strikes me is the author's insistence that her students' response
is something to be refuted, that the 'nothing' they see in Canadian
photography is a failure rather than a virtue. The imposition of a
coherent, national character to a range of practices, each stemming
from different backgrounds, ethnicities and experiences, feels
curiously old-fashioned, and out of step with a globalised,
multicultural society. Furthermore, this desire to find a national
photography betrays the very insecurity and 'lack of a firm sense
of self' that the author criticises in her students. One hardly
needs a Canadian equivalent to the Great American Novel or the Young British Artists; it is the ambivalence
towards such national qualifiers that, in itself, best points
towards the Canadian imagination.
(critic and curator, Lewis Glucksman Gallery, University College