There is a void in the wall precisely where a colorful pencil drawing by Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook (1969–2016) was displayed, conjuring a memory both of her extant presence in the gallery and of her recent passing. She is mourned: her life-art is literally missed and immediately felt at the same time. Coleman Stove with Robin Hood Flour and Tenderflake (2003–04), an austere arrangement of mundane kitchen elements (such as those signaled in the title) placed against a soft grey backdrop — the name of the drawing announces not only the making of bread but also an elementary relationship to life itself — was for some time the only piece presented at SBC Gallery of Contemporary Art in Tiohtià:ke / Montreal, renamed “Wood Land School: Kahatenhstánion tsi na’tetiatere ne Iotohrkó:wa tánon Iotohrha/Drawing Lines from January to December” for the purpose of this project initiated by Duane Linklater, before other works were added to the space. In fact, it inaugurated the series of “gestures” that marked a yearlong shift from one set of works by various Indigenous contemporary artists to the next. Over the course of twelve months the space underwent a series of rearrangements that culminated with this intervention in the gallery’s infrastructure. Four gestures — three exhibitions in Montreal and one off-site educational project at Documenta 14 in Kassel, Germany — punctuated the yearlong program organized by Duane Linklater, Tanya Lukin Linklater, cheyanne turions and Walter Scott. Works by Billy-Ray Belcourt, Alanis Obomsawin, Maggie Groat, Rita Letendre, Annie Pootoogook, Brian Jungen, Joseph Tisiga, Elisa Harkins, Tsēma Igharas, Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, Joi T. Arcand, Wendy Red Star and Charlene Vickers, to name a few, were put in dialogue throughout the rotating exhibition. Thus, a conversation was supported by a variety of media, including video, performance, drawing, painting, sculpture, poetry reading and more: a choreography of works that moved through time and space, shifting the atmospheric tonality of their environment.
The exhibition presented a large corpus of works that patiently, nonlinearly textured the atmosphere of the space. It brought together artists of different generations, of different lines of life, intersecting in an environment unhinged from the (colonial) determinations of time and space. With each gesture the school regathered itself around a constellation of works encompassing emergent and more established
The gestures within the space released an affective charge that brought into relief the resonance between each gesture (the immediacy of which challenged the normative and primitivist accounts of Indigenous art) and its outside (a propositional elsewhere). Each gesture carried the force of its future-past, in the service of a whole other mode of perception, especially of what it means to linger in the interstitial space between each proposition. What does it mean to remain unfixed with and as bodies? Intersecting and fugitive lines provide alter-narratives and images of Indigenous futurity. Such lines multiply and form a complex web of realities that resist the definitions of the present. Charlene Vickers’ Diviners (2010), included in the year’s final gesture, is a powerful example in that regard: a composition of sharpened cedar spears passing through one another. Used for shelter or hunting, those wooden lines create not only meaning in the gallery’s context, but also foreground the non-separability between the lines revealed by the rip in the wall and those outside and beyond.
From the outset, the Wood Land School project seeks to trouble the idea that art needs a beginning and an end, that it needs to be contoured as a (valuable) thing in order to be experienced and shared. But even such thingliness is a view inherited from settler colonialism. Drawing lines, without beginning or end, toward an Indigenous futurity and fugitivity, one might be able to feel such gesture beyond the scope and quanta of state-sponsored reductionism.
But how does one break from and move through the colonial architecture of aesthetic experience? How does one ward off the systemic violence that art institutions unleash against Indigenous bodies and modes of expression? Art institutions often masquerade as innocent or neutral venues safe from ethical and political responsibilities. But in order to deconstruct the institutional borders, the land must remain at the center of a decolonial school, which demands more than a stance or a posture. Making visible the violent foundations of the gallery’s building and surroundings is not all. A movement, another gesture, needs to be performed.
Everything remains in flux. Like in Rita Letendre’s painting Koumer (1975), which was featured in the fourth and final gesture, a beam of rays pierces the veil of unidirectionality and originarity, casting a complex image of time, memory, movement and desire. Letendre’s large acrylic abstract is both a condensation and diffusion of hard lines that oscillate between black and multiple shades of yellow/orange; a travelling (black) light that suggests the existence of an elsewhere. A multiplicity of lines that questions the linearity of colonial time and its afferent regimes of thought. That is why the shape of the exhibition/project was and is always shifting. That is why the rip in the gallery’s visible structure is important to notice. Such critical rupture is needed to imagine an elsewhere that exceeds the terms (ontological, epistemological, aesthetic) of art institutions, especially given their fraught relationality to settler colonialism. Moving through the fourth gesture one is constantly traversed by the residual image of Pootoogook’s drawing. It is a matter and rematerialization of presence. Wood Land School, as project and process, is more than a thing, more than a localized occurrence.
Despite its inward appearance, this cut in the wall is not a window. It’s a passage, a bridge. It begs our critical attention to where (else) it leads, to its pragmatics, that is, to what it does to and in the present, both directly perceived and wavering in the feeling. It makes the space breathe. The colonial, normative separations between now and then, here and there, are broken open. But also: one is invited to cross its threshold and to carry the work and energy of the Wood Land School beyond the institutional frame. The land-as-line continues elsewhere. The outside is not what enters through the hole but that which was already out there and needed to be honored and celebrated. Turtle Island is what comes through the opening, the same way it did in all of the pieces that moved through the school. Turtle Island is the name that Canada, as a state and colonial force, tries to render intelligible and invisible.
Systems of oppression and spaces of aesthetic experience are seamlessly woven together. The very logic of domination that characterizes settler colonialism is not only replicated but also enabled by art institutions that often think against the liberation of the land. The erasure and silencing of Indigenous persons is an attack on Indigenous presence, which is to say an assault on Indigenous land. When the SBC agreed to change its name — albeit temporarily — to Wood Land School, it did not take a risk. What it did was to become a decolonizing force in the unsettling of settler colonialism. What the Wood Land School did was to facilitate this call-and-response in more than one way, in more than one gesture. The school unfolded through various incarnations as an ongoing intervention because colonial violence is itself ongoing. It did not, and perhaps could not, stay still. There was no object to see, no commodity to seize, because the school was itself an in-progress gesture that defied the time economy of the capitalist art market. Layli Long Soldier’s interactive installation A Line Through Grief (2017) exemplifies this very well. The work is a juxtaposition of 3 balsa wood boxes with a 3-part poem glued on the wall. Three elements ornament the boxes: a butterfly, a set of feathers and a stone. In the first box, visitors were invited to offer the names of people, places or parts of themselves which they grieve. In the second box, they had the possibility to submit questions related to their own experience of loss. The last box was an invitation to share techniques for dealing with grief. The artist then gathered the content of each box and is in the process of making a collective poem.
A land-based education must guide our imagination toward the realization of a world without foundational violence. The volumes, textures, materialities and intensities of the works presented during the program gestured toward such worlding(s). This was borne out, for example, by Billy-Ray Belcourt’s poem A HERMENEUTICS OF THE SOMEWHERE/SOMETIMES (2017) featured in the last gesture, which begins: “I AM DRUNK ON HOPE & IT TASTES NDN AF. AN NDN FUTURE IN WHICH EVERYONE IS A BIRD & AND NO ONE IS HUNGRY FOR WHAT THEY CAN’T HAVE. WE, THE WORSHIPPERS OF AN IMPOSSIBLE FUTURE. FOLLOW ME OUT OF THE BACKDOOR OF THE WORLD.” Annie Pootoogook’s spiritual presence and persistence make such escape possible and imaginable. We cannot dream beyond Indigenous art practices. We need to dream the dreams of those who become birds in the “backdoor of the world.”
So, what if instead of entering a gallery space (and accepting the grammar of its aesthetic regime) one was asked to acknowledge the artfulness of the land? What if, instead of leaving intact the logics of property and ownership intrinsic to the privatized, one decided to intervene on its own habits of perception? What if we all became practitioners of the land? One hopes that the abdication of the SBC Gallery’s exhibition space to Wood Land School was more than a temporal suspension.
The tear in the wall is testament not only to Pootoogook’s breaking presence and resistance, but also to a gradual accretion of feelings. It is a different way of deframing light and lightness and of collecting the material traces of this itinerant project pregnant with works that are, to some extent, still in the making: a continuous hollowing out of institutionalized aesthetics. Upon entering the space, one is immediately caught by the size and sharpness of this cut: opening onto something that lays bare the architectural conundrum of the gallery, its claim to cleanness, to immaculateness, which is often a claim to whiteness. The hygiene of the space is literally deconstructed before our very eyes. But what is made available to our senses is not simply the dirt but the earth upon which a city, a settlement, is spread violently. The ugly and the beautiful blur. Upon traversing the space, we are pressed to think in the middle of their entanglement.
Wood Land School has been more than an occupation of SBC. It has both anticipated and evaded the enclosures of the space. Unsettling the coloniality of the art gallery by making felt the tension between containment and the land, it began in and with movement, out of a concern for liberation. It was as if this ensemble of gestures pressured against this particular mode of confinement and demanded more than a recognition, more than a reconciliation. It was as if those different lines of variation solicited a different approach toward curation and space itself, suspicious of the modalities of hospitality that institutions tend to offer.
This tear in the wall cannot simply be contemplated as a beautiful and/or nostalgic monument to Pootoogook’s life-art; it needs to be performed as a radical gesture of decolonial love. A practice of the land displays the anti and ante linearity that is integral to Indigenous intelligence. A practice of the land troubles the idea that pedagogy, contemplation and decolonization ought to be separate activities. Knowledge can be derived through the land, through its practice. In that sense, the ambulatory nature of the Wood Land School catalyzes the necessity for a movement-based practice of the artfulness of the land. In its own way, this tear in the wall is an ongoing intervention into the very fabric of our given modalities of sensuous experience. A constant learning/unlearning that rearranges our perceptual habits.
Let the land move through us. Abandon our myths of originarity and un/learn how to read the lines.
Ronald Rose-Antoinette holds a PhD in philosophy, with an interest in moving images practices. He recently contributed to an edited volume on Apichatpong Weerasethakul entitled Nocturnal Fabulations: Ecology, Opacity and Vitality in Apichaptong Weerasethakul’s Cinema (OHP). He now lives in Tiohtià:ke / Montreal.