Fillip 8 — Fall 2008

Hold this Thread While I Walk Away
Tyler Russell

On July 4th I attended the opening of Steve Hubert’s The So Patternistic exhibition at CSA, a Vancouver gallery run above a used bookstore. It was the first near-complete showing of the artist’s sweater series, a quasi-narrative landscape art project that begins with a particular sweater, the patterns of which become an arbitrary thread tying together a microcosmology of narrative elements. These include painted, sculpted, photographed, and performed representations of: a group of people around a campfire, a sweatered god in the mountain shining light through a stencilled spray paint mist of darkness, a deflated geodesic dome, firemen and a burning bush, a sweatered figure hiding in the brush, a photo of the sweater-donned artist diving headfirst into a pool, and so on.

Once, looking at parts of this sweater series during a casual visit to Hubert’s studio, the juxtaposition of the painting with the campfire scene and odd objects resting on strangely shaped platforms reminded me of an artist talk I attended in Seoul in October 2007 by Mai-Thu Perret who spoke of her Crystal Frontier (1999) series. It struck me as interesting how on two sides of the rich, post-hippie world, artists who came of age at roughly the same time as the Cold War came to an end (Perret was born in 1976, Hubert in 1975) were creating narrative cosmologies as a way to investigate the various possibilities and problems of an age that had apparently lost its faith in stories. Unlike Hubert’s series, Perret’s work depends less on her own personal identity as a source. Instead, she takes a more academic approach, employing canonical references (for example to the Russian avant-garde) to question approaches to utopia. Hubert takes a different tack.

Staring hard at his bio-cultural roots, like an incursion into a contested landscape, Hubert creates a discourse that challenges us to consider the cultural scripts of settler-colonizers’ relationships to the landscapes they inhabit. While the work itself does engage in trendy references to the art canon (such as the object entitled FUI or Failed-Utopian-Ideals, a deflated, poorly constructed geodesic dome), he employs them primarily as self-reflective jokes—mini critiques of the still-distant art world’s interest in in-field historical references. Moreover, in the very selection of this particular sweater’s pattern as his cosmology’s constant, he flashes a playfully critical wink toward the recent neo-neo-geo trend that some of his friends are caught up in.

With this attitude of friendly, oft-absurdist reaction to the forces of modernization and conformity—an attitude that has been consistent since I first caught sight of Hubert in secondary school—he uses rhythmic progression to construct a narrative context with arbitrary foundations, ambiguous and playful interconnections amongst the elements, and no clear climax or resolution in sight. Kind of like Haruki Murakami, he calls attention to narrative conventions by veering away from the familiar plot formula of conflict, struggle, and resolution. The only constants he offers by contrast are the fragmentary patterns of a sweater and a mountainous, forested environment.

At a time when the Canadian media gets giddy whenever works by Tom Thompson and the Group of Seven—whose paintings, some might say, naively evangelized a romantic possession of the “virgin” Canadian landscape and consciously sought to redefine the space as a pillar of (de facto white) Canadian identity—fetch bids for anything above and around the million dollar mark, Hubert comes along as a member of a generation that, though having grown up with intimate relationships with the natural landscape, has, noting the cultural consequences, become uncomfortable with not only the bold confidence of the Group of Hubert but also the persistent prominence of representations of landscapes that position the viewer as their romantic possessor. Still dominant in the narrative of Canadian settler-colonizer identity, this type of representation fails to address the integration and intervention of human bodies within these natural spaces.

Informed by the likes of Roy Arden and others who have long taken on the task of documenting modern interventions in the local landscape, the work of the sweater series asks us to consider the method of our identity’s production and representation as much as we consider its content. Never forgoing the enjoyment of the absurdities and inconsistencies of his cultural present, Hubert engages us with a self-reflective, quasi-narrative that positions protagonists as anti-heroes. Like Scott August, Hubert goes upstream and begs us to not just reflect on how the industrial/postindustrial systems of colonization have disrupted the landscape, but to seriously consider the way we go about constituting a representation of our tumbling and fumbling through real space in time.

Interestingly, and perhaps inevitably, both Hubert and August’s projects are rooted in self-portraiture. What they and others like them share is a deeply ingrained concern with the placement of the self in the inherited scripts of cultural identity. August weaves together fairy tales, gold rush legends, and pioneer experience with elements of modern life (oven mitts and an odd FRP Turkey Fry advertising sculpture, for example), and places his non-hero self therein. Self-portraiture is also important for my own practice, specifically for a narrative project I have produced with not-exactly-Thai artist Navin Rawanchikul. For Navin Party, we have created “Navin,” a faux hero, “a lonely son of diaspora and product of a globalized world” who sets off on a global adventure to bring together the Navins of the world. Hubert does something different. Starting with his first sweater-clad work, a photo entitled The Dive, he casts himself as a questionable protagonist inside a cosmology of narrative elements (objects, events, communities) that come together as a fluid, non-narrative narrative. Unlike August, Rawanchikul, and I—or even Mai-Thu Perret—he resists the temptation to make linear connections, or even to define specific relationships. And he does so with an amicable snicker, fully conscious of the locally relevant histories of the mediums and methods he is using. For me, it is at this intersection, where his resistance to the reflex of linear narrative meets his playfully alert execution, that the true beauty of his work starts to become clear.

Applying meaning to or creating stories about the relationship between people and the geographical spaces they inhabit is a tall order for anyone. However, for members of the current generation of North American settler-colonizers, who are conscious of the fact that they are not just the inheritors of a complex, multi-generational, multi-ethnic advance of conscious and failing-to-be-conscious colonization, but also the beneficiaries of the primary architects of the global consumer culture that has been so aggressively etched onto the territory of this continent, it is an absolutely paralyzing prospect. And the cultural response to this paralysis is mostly uneasy and often comedic. It is hard to get beyond denial or cynicism and come up with good questions that will lead to serious discourse.

With his silly sweater, Hubert has at least taken a stab at this challenge. First of all, in selecting the subject matter he asserts a belief in the value of substance in cultural practice. Then, imposing an arbitrarily selected, absurd version of himself onto the landscape, he uncomfortably acknowledges that it is not a virgin space. Next, he goes through a process of creating a vocabulary relating to this perception of himself and his relationships to natural and cultural environments. Finally, he arranges this vocabulary in a way that, while neither allowing nor disallowing assumptions about the meanings of their composition, leave us questioning not only the content of the connections, but, importantly, their nature.

Striking at the foundations of our relationships to narrative, these questions leave a strong impression. If, in the present, we are self-conscious of our position within this problematic history of cultural genocide that we have inherited, our actions continue to divulge a cultural vocabulary, which, perhaps, due to a collective retreat to consumerism/post-consumerism, is in no small part deafeningly empty. While Hubert suggests that, when we settler-colonizers engage in cultural production, we might like to take a culturally and historically conscious moment to ask how it is that we ought to go about perceiving and representing ourselves, he doesn’t do so by simply composing an alternative narrative. Instead, considering an ever-emerging cultural vocabulary, he urges us to question its compositional form. This is an intriguing proposition because it does some important things. It preserves the possibility of narrative or storytelling while questioning the stance, identity, and method of the narrator.

Although the work has a reverent aversion to conclusions, its exploration of the fundamental questions raised by the settler-colonizer’s history opens a number of doors, and I am tentatively hopeful that Hubert’s enunciation will prove to be an important step along the road.

Image: Steve Hubert, Camouflage, 2008. Acrylic on panel. Courtesy of the artist

About the Author

Based in Japan and Korea from 2000 to 2007, Tyler Russell served as a project coordinator for the 2004 Busan Biennale Contemporary Art Exhibition and Yokohama 2005: International Triennale of Contemporary Art; and as assistant curator of Platform Seoul 2007: Tomorrow. Since 2006, he has co-authored Navin Party along with artist Navin Rawanchaikul. This globetrotting narrative project serves as a critique of the contemporary use of art as a tool for the formation and projection of national identities. Tyler is the founding director of the soon to open Café for Contemporary Art, North Vancouver.

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