by Arielle Quan
A wall-sized, black-charcoal drawing looms behind a sandbox surrounded by barbed wire. It’s an imposing first impression of Adrian Stimson’s Holding Our Breath exhibition at the Grunt Gallery. In fact, I was a little intimidated. The large-scale installation was being promoted as a critical dialogue about (but not limited to) military and political colonization, the Afghanistan conflict and the First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples’ presence in the Canadian Armed Forces. However, the exhibit turned out to be more than just big words and bigger Political Messages. As Stimson said, he is “just another voice that can be considered or trigger something in the viewer that makes them want to know more.”
Holding Our Breath does focus on the Canadian military presence in Afghanistan. The exhibit looks at the roles of the overseas people and their daily lives, especially Aboriginal soldiers. It explores the ties between culture and militarization, as well as the depersonalization and immediacy that come with war. The installation was inspired by Stimson’s participation in the Canadian Forces Artists Program and his own perspective as a Siksika (Blackfoot) Nation member. This interdisciplinary show takes up the entire gallery and is made up of sculpture, videos, drawings, photographs and paintings.
While the Chinook helicopter drawing might be the most striking, I took a special interest in the four-channel video piece. I was immediately thrown off balance as I sat surrounded by these televisions. Sounds of foreign prayer and indecipherably familiar noise played alongside remote desert landscapes and far off, anonymous people. It mirrored the sense of disconnect that Stimson experienced, describing it as feeling “invisible or in the belly of the beast.” This idea of proximity can be seen throughout the exhibit.
I felt like there was an overall theme between closeness and distance, individualism and depersonalization. I think it was best shown by the placement of the pieces closest to the door. Across from two larger-than-life portraits was Memory, made out of small paintings with the whited-out names of deceased soldiers. It was a respectful memorial, but every name was indistinguishable from far away. They just became words and squares that blended into the wall behind them. This faced the bright portraits of Aboriginal soldiers. It was hard to ignore how physically close the two subjects seemed because of their size and colour. The contrast between the two was dramatic. It raised questions about war and the people involved in it, as well as the influence of time and space on the ways we remember.
10,000 Plus might be the best example of the dialogue on the long history of Aboriginal peoples in the Armed Forces. It was made of tall, monochromatic pieces of wood offering sage, tobacco, cedar and sweet grass, representing traditional medicines and knowledge systems. These four paintings are placed between modern portraits of soldiers. It highlights the often-unacknowledged contribution of Aboriginal people to the Canadian military. Inspired by a moving event during his stay where he and another First Nations soldier used traditional methods to protect the camp, Stimson described the smudging and prayer in a touching way, calling it “a beautiful moment.” He said the piece speaks to “the warrior societies and how they are used for protection,” and the Indigenous past and present military presence.
Holding Our Breath is a thought-provoking installation that doesn’t settle on the easy anti-war message. Stimson concentrates on people, whether it’s by comparing the present to the past or by concentrating on their cultural history. There isn’t any obvious answer to the issues raised by his work and really, I think that’s for the best. In my conversation with the artist, he said, “I create work for everyone yet I know that my work may or may not appeal to some. In a way I create the work for myself, it is my way of expressing what goes on in my mind and maybe someone out there sees the same things or challenges what I see, this is good for the advancement of knowledge.”