Beat Nation, Mastering Tradition with Urban Youth

by Janine C. Grant

"Indian" by Nicholas Galanin, Vancouver Art Gallery

The exhibition of Beat Nation begins even before you enter the Vancouver Art Gallery. Carved into the cement by the Hornby Street entrance, the stylized logo ‘Indians’ of the Cleveland Major League Baseball team physically imprints the sidewalk with new meaning.  Interweaving the history of Vancouver with contemporary re-appropriation, Nicholas Galanin’s piece sets the tone for the work found inside. In the past, the gallery building held the Land Title office of still un-ceded Coast Salish territory. The enlightening play between space, medium and meaning throughout the gallery presents re-interpretations of tradition and the lived experience of Aboriginal people today.

The first steps inside the gallery inform you of the title, Beat Nation. As you ascend the staircase electronic music echoes off the marble. At the top, a black and white video projection fills the entrance. Remixing contemporary music with traditional dance and vice versa, the video captivates you as the two mediums join seamlessly together. The beat propels you into the next rooms, lending a soundtrack to the whole exhibit. Each art piece that follows continues on this theme of remixing. Closed off rooms become nightclubs where Aboriginal DJ artists spin beats to videos of past and present depictions of First Nation people in the media. Painted drums and copper plated records line the walls, creating a music collection whose numbers and titles signify years of the Indian Act, and lost voices from the potlatch ban. Historical facts of racism and mistreatment, as exemplified above, thread through each piece but never tie you down in shame or guilt.  Instead the art inspires you. Each piece acknowledges and pays tribute to tradition and history, while moving forward through contemporary expression.

Jordan Bennett’s sound installation entitled Turning Tables, excellently demonstrates this theme. A turntable made out of wood clacks out in rhythm to the notches of two wooden records. The piece signifies the artist speaking his native language on one side and listening to his father speaking on the other. The grooves from the rings of the wood both produce the sounds you hear as well as portray the history involved in passing down language though the years. The two records themselves indicate the past and the present experience while the medium of wood connects them together in life.

Jordan Bennett Turning Tables, 2010 sound installation, Photo: Mark J. BennettJordan Bennett, Turning Tables, 2010, photo courtesy of the Vancouver Art Gallery

At times the depth of meaning and audio/visual stimulation overwhelms. Each room holds an array of different pieces that require full attention. In some rooms three different video projections play at the same time. A single screen, in one instance, holds around ­20 different hip hop music videos, each with their own message. The power of these artists’ work is dampened by the sheer amount of options; to view them all would require sitting in one of the two black leather love seats for hours. I tended to lose my focus and start watching solely for visual pleasure. But even in these moments where the critical eye wanders, as you continue to meander through the gallery you are confronted with pieces that stop you in your tracks.

Remixing past with present, tradition with contemporary materials forms the backbone throughout the exhibition. Northwest Coast style masks made out of Nike Air Jordans stare at you from behind glass cases. Skateboards chiseled down to form traditional snowshoes, and bikes embellished with distinct material culture from around North America all display this active integration. This re-working of Aboriginal culture forces the viewer into the present. It speaks of the life outside the gallery, a life that exists on the other side of the glass case of expected Aboriginal culture. You leave bobbing your head to the music of Beat Nation, moving your body together with others in strength.

Beat Nation is on view at the Vancouver Art Gallery until June 3, 2012. For more information please visit


One response to “Beat Nation, Mastering Tradition with Urban Youth

  1. Reblogged this on WittyCookie and commented:
    Celebrate Aboriginal Awareness Week (May22-25) with a visit to BEAT NATION.

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