Text by: John Murchie
That’s A Good One
Let the old ways die. And if art and artists are not to disappear
with them, they had better be prepared to commit piracy on any
technique that will float and carry content.
Brian Fawcett Cambodia: a book for people who find television too slow
I remember once hearing -- at a lecture, I think, but it was quite a few years ago and may just have been part of a conversation I overheard by chance in passing on the street or in a hallway -- I suppose, it probably doesn’t matter and anyway as I think about it, I may, in fact, have read it rather than heard it-- I am just not quite certain -- in any case, life is a mystery. I am certain a philosopher made the claim although it may have been a theologian. No matter. No, it doesn’t matter what the contextual circumstances. It does seem to me that the proposition is a good one, if for no other reason than for the fact that it is grounded in the observable facts of the matter and, by the way, is also experiential. The art which is Vera Greenwood’s may give proof.
Life is a mystery.
I do recall Vito Acconci, a dark and rather hulking figure and, of course, a guy -- a thuggish and somewhat frighteningly intense guy. He spoke in Halifax sometime in the early 1970s -- perhaps 1973 -- about his work. In one performance he followed an unknown woman -- someone he saw on the street -- around New York City, lower Manhattan it seemed. A few years later an unknown Frenchwoman Sophie Calle followed people around in Paris, evidently to relieve her boredom. Ha! Imagine, boredom in Paris -- but that might be another story and a digression here. Then in 1981 Calle had her mother hire a private investigator to follow her -- Calle, Sophie Calle, that is, not her mother -- to follow her around. I know so little in these matters that an image of Hawaii’s Magnum P.I. came immediately to mind. I’d guess it was a misleading image for the circumstances. But, a professional investigator, a guy, followed her, Calle. He may have been handsome or not, frightening or not. I do not know. She knew. Calle knew the man was following her and that probably had an effect on her behaviour that day. Knowledge has that effect sometimes of having an effect. Of course, Calle wasn’t a guy,or, at least, as far as I know. Nor do I know if she is dark or hulking, pretty or intense. I just do not know. In fact, all I know about her is that some time later she undertook another art work by taking on the role of a chambermaid in a Venetian hotel where she photographed as well as cleaned guests’ rooms. The guests looked forward to the cleaning but did not know of Calle’s photographic investigation which she later presented in a public forum, an exhibition and book. I wonder if they ever knew and what their feelings were and, for that matter, whether their knowing or not makes any difference to me? I think it does. Now, Vera Greenwood employing Calle’s strategies, techniques, and methodologies -- more or less -- undertakes a surveillance of Calle herself.
Well, Sophie Calle’s biography is a mystery to me. Her life, too. My research was in Montreal -- as close to Paris as I was able to get -- and only yielded information in French -- a language which is foreign to me. My knowledge of Sophie Calle is, in fact, pretty much limited to what Vera Greenwood herself discovered and has told us in L’Hotel SofiCalle.
It is true that I have known Vera for a half dozen or so years. It is also true that she has always seemed reasonably honest and trustworthy although, having said that, it does now cross my mind that there is perhaps a different kind of truth involved in the two claims? Maybe I shouldn’t, but I believe her; I believe what she has told us about Calle. I think I do. I have only had opportunity to observe her -- Greenwood not Calle -- on a few occasions, both social and professional. I don’t know her that well, really. She has told me, for instance, that she has a graduate fine arts degree in printmaking. I have never seen a Greenwood print anywhere, ever, even a reproduction; the works I have seen have been complex installations which take over entire rooms. And, moreover, isn’t the norm for visual art works just that -- visual, the visual is exemplar or, at least, exemplary? I look around the Calle installation. The visual seems only a remnant, a residue, even almost the detritus of something else, some other process. Here the visual seems to be an evidence of, and not the thing itself. In the best light the visual is altogether fragmentary here -- residual, fragmentary evidence. And, really, if you think about it, there is probably more reading than plain looking in order to see what you think in L’Hotel SofiCalle, almost as though Greenwood were skeptical about the capacities of the visual. It is hard to say.
It does leave me wondering, however. It almost seems that Vera isn’t observing the rules, is even out and out disobeying them, whatever they may be. She encroaches with her art although she clearly -- may I say that? -- intends to stop short of doing wrong, whatever that may be. Vera has always struck me, anyway, as iconoclastically inclined.
With more mature reflection, I am no longer certain about that proposition “life is a mystery.”
Life is mysterious.
That may be a better proposition although not what I heard or read -- I don’t think. One thing is certain, if you can believe what I wish to say to you: through her art Vera Greenwood does make me laugh.
Somewhere in his collection of stories In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, Delmore Schwartz has his narrator observe about a character something which has often seemed to me a truth; and truths, it seems to me, are hard come by. Good ones, anyway, and, believe me, this is a good one.
“A visit was a complicated act for him.”
John Murchie, a writer and artist living in Upper Sackville, New Brunswick, was born and grew up in a small, New Jersey town near New York City which makes it possible that his work is about nothing,
although sometimes it is humourous. He has visited Calgary once.
Born in Calgary in 1954, Ottawa-based artist Vera Greenwood lives and works in Hull, Quebec. A graduate of the Alberta College of Art and Concordia University, Greenwood’s training in printmaking has expanded to included mixed media installations. Her work has been widely exhibited across Canada and in England, which include The Ottawa Art Gallery, Ottawa, On.; The Southern Alberta Art Gallery, Lethbridge, Ab.; and The Beg Peg Gallery, Birmington, UK.