Welcome Stranger, Welcome Home is a contemporary response to Vistas, showing at Glenbow
In the corner of Glenbow’s current second floor exhibition “Vistas,” a darkened room houses empty chairs in front of a three-panel video projection. In the central projection, an Asian woman waves at you, and then at imaginary crowds or at no one in particular with a blank look and a fake smile. She stands in front of a changing scenic backdrop of sun-bathed and spacious mountains. These are the digitized versions of the historical western landscape paintings housed in the Glenbow archives, some of which are featured in “Vistas.” On either side of the woman, footage of the 2002 Stampede parade is played forward on the right and backwards on the left, with shiny cowboys and girls alternately waving hello, or goodbye, as if the entire cowboy culture were bidding a grand farewell.
The Korean-born Vancouver artist Jin Me Yoon has used her image in front of the Rockies before. Her 1991 postcard series Souvenirs of the Self picture her posed, expressionless, in front of tourist landmarks such as Lake Louise and the Banff Park Museum. These works question our assumptions of who belongs in such nationally symbolic settings. In the current piece Welcome Stranger Welcome Home, created in response to Glenbow’s collection of historical railway paintings and photographs, her work finds an even greater context as a critical component and contemporary interpretation of historical landscape painting.
Around 1880, when the Canadian Pacific Railway was beginning to reach the Prairies and points west, CPR’s president William Van Horne sponsored artists to ride along the new track, painting the scenery in order to increase tourism. “Vistas” comprises those first visions of the Rockies and the First Nations people of the Prairies and West Coast. These romantic renderings of insurmountable mountains and unending stretches of untouched forests evoke the same feelings of national pride, awe and enchantment that were meant to attract the original viewers.
Glenbow takes a few steps to inform the visitors that these paintings were meant to attract travellers, idealize the landscape, appeal to sentiment, and form a national identity in Canada. There is a bulletin board where visitors can answer “Do the paintings and photographs in Vistas speak to your experience of Canada?” and “How would you define Canadian identity today?” One response, written in neat cursive by a third-generation Canadian of Asian decent, considers the neglected mention of the Chinese labourers who “…worked under very difficult conditions to build the CPR.” Although the guest curator of “Vistas,” Roger Boulet, stuck mostly to featuring “images expressing the CPR’s vision of a new Canada,” Glenbow welcomes interest and discussion surrounding issues of identity and belonging in the West.
Case in point is the Connections to Collections series, initiated “to involve artists in the creation of meanings and interpretation of Glenbow’s collections… and to challenge the barriers between curatorial programming and artistic activities” says Glenbow’s art curator Quyen Hoang.
Yoon’s project is one of eight completed in Connections to Collections so far. The next installation will feature artists Paul Wong and Jeff Thomas planting interventions and new media art throughout the “Mavericks” exhibition. The potential for dialogue between artists, thinkers and historians is huge, says Hoang. “It would be nice to expand the program and engage with different communities other than contemporary artists. Perhaps we could invite musicians, scientists or children to mine the museum.”
Glenbow curators tread a tricky line between audiences coming for the experience of the mythic western collections and the more critical contemporary art. Museum staff are aware of the larger number of international visitors to the museum for the summer months and try to cater to that demographic. The international tourists are often looking to learn about Canada’s First Nations people, says Hoang.
As evidenced in the Blackfoot Gallery, the curators are committed to providing a wide array of detailed information and asking the represented communities to contribute 50 per cent to the planning and development of the exhibitions.
Yoon’s work focuses on the spectacle of the Stampede parade and its branding of the local cowboy narrative to international viewers. In an essay accompanying the piece, Yoon says “Globalization is not a homogeneous concept that assumes that global mass culture…will come to dominate… Rather it is a process that sees the local step in for a homogeneous identity of a place or region in the international sphere.” It is that homogeneous identity coming from local narratives that precludes certain individuals from cultural representation and their sense of being at home.
Yoon’s piece “unfixes the frame” in the words of art critic Brenda LaFleur, where the meaning of the historical railway paintings is understood through contextualizing the works in their time and place. She does not attempt to erase the significant value of the historical art and culture. Rather, she places herself in their field to show that our region, or any region, doesn’t rest on a singular history.