Thursday, November 11, 2010

Again with the AGO

I love Toronto. I don't want to leave.

When I am in Vancouver, I love Vancouver and don't want to leave.

When I am in Wolfville, I love Wolfville and don't want to leave.

Anyway, I love being here in Toronto.

I go to the dogpark every morning and see some of my favourite neighbours and their dogs, it's a great way to start the day. However a couple of days ago, three of the dogs---including Dobby---were chasing each other around the field and simultaneously ran into Barbara from the rear, bowling her over and breaking her ankle. The dogs of course were oblivious and careened off as if nothing had happened, but Barbara was left lying on the ground in considerable pain. One of the dogs that knocked her down was her own dog, we are now taking turns walking him since Barbara is confined to home in a cast.

Today I went to the Art Gallery of Ontario and spent a few hours wandering around the different galleries. There were special exhibits of Henry Moore and Shary Boyle, as well as the regular exhibits. I especially wanted to see the African gallery since I didn't get there on my last two visits, however it was somewhat reduced due to the Henry Moore exhibit.

I have never had any particular interest in Henry Moore, I know him only as the sculptor who did The Archer in front of Toronto City Hall. But I learned two things of interest about him that made me a little bit more interested in his work. One was that he studied aboriginal and African art and took a lot of inspiration from those sources, and the other was that he was the survivor of a gas attack during World War I. Of his battalion of 400 men, only 52 survived and Moore was marked for life by the ghastly experience. These two things were great influences in his art, and after learning those facts about him I could see that it was true when I went into the gallery where his sculpture was displayed. His figures have distinctively African appearances, and some of the imagery seems to me a little haunted.

In the African art gallery I watched part of a video of a West African artist talking about his work. He talked about his mother and how she had joined the ancestors, he said how fundamentally different the African view of life and our position in it is from the conventional western view. When I was walking around the AGO that idea reverberated everywhere for me.

Sometimes it seems to me that our conventional view of what constitutes reality is but a thin sliver of what is possible. When we look at things from the point of view of different cultures, we get a glimpse of things we hardly can imagine. Listening to that African artist speak about his mother joining the ancestors, I caught a view of life that is endless, and tried to imagine what it would be like to live within that framework as my everyday reality. Looking at works of art by aboriginal artists who worked within mythological frameworks very different from our European-centred western mythology, I tried to imagine worlds of strange gods and goddesses, spirits and myths that might permeate my everyday life. Where the spoon I ladle soup with is carved in the shape of some totem animal or spirit with a meaningful story I might think about every time I served a bowl of soup. Or not. I might use that spoon so often that I don't even see the carving.

I don't know how well I am communicating what was going through my head looking at all this art, but it seemed like in every gallery I was transported to a different way of looking at the world. When I walked through the European galleries, my conventional worldview came into focus, but I could see it as just another way, one of many.

There were a couple of interesting quotes on the walls of the art gallery. One was that when aboriginal people saw European artists going around painting what they saw in North America, they perceived it as a way for Europeans to possess the land, that by painting it they were tacitly expressing ownership of it. I would guess that European artists didn't see it that way, they probably simply saw it the same way we see taking photographs. Although, isn't it funny that when painting or photographing something we talk about "capturing" it?

The other was a quote from Ansel Adams the great American photographer:

"Myths ... are heroic struggles to comprehend the truth of the world."

A couple of galleries of European art were devoted to Biblical subjects, a good deal of one gallery centred on the story of Jesus' crucifixion. There were also quite a few paintings around the birth of Jesus, and I was thinking about the focus on birth and death so obvious in these paintings. There were no works of art devoted to what Jesus actually taught. I was thinking about how that particular religion, Christianity, seems to focus on a very mythological birth story and a rather horrific death story, and that very little of what Jesus taught seems to be central to the faith. If you want to be considered an official Christian, you need to acknowledge a creed of belief in those two events plus a third, a very mythological resurrection story. I remember once attending a class on the basic tenets of Christian belief, and the major lesson I learned was that the point of Jesus' life was to "die for our sins", which always struck me as a very odd purpose in life. I have great respect for the teachings attributed to Jesus, but not a lot for the strange slant subsequently applied to his life and unfortunate end.

I'm rambling. But thinking about all this in the context of the Ansel Adams quote, that myths are heroic efforts to understand the truth of the world, I just wonder what kind of truth we are getting at in the mythology of Jesus' life, which seems to be the fundamental myth of our European/western worldview. Not that the myths of other cultures aren't equally horrific. There was a painting by Emily Carr of Sonoqua, a kind of northwest coast Wild Woman of the Woods that mothers used to scare their kids into good behaviour ("if you don't behave, Sonoqua will get you!"), and another of an Inuit sea goddess who performed a similar role in their culture. And in one gallery there was displayed a buffalo robe of a 19th century Plains' Indian that was inscribed with pictures relating the exploits of his life, killing one Indian after another and managing to steal a herd of horses. Quite the heroic life.

I guess we humans are fundamentally fascinated by birth and death, beginnings and endings, and the question of whether that's all there is or if there is some greater context for our finite lives.

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