Apathy at the CAG

by Jason Smythe

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Writing about art, in my humble opinion, is one of the greatest pleasures. But what happens when you have to write an article about something you did not really care for? What if you see an installation and your ultimate reaction is to shrug your shoulders and let a slightly audible “meh” escape from your lips? That is what happened to me when I visited the Mike Nelson exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery and I think now is the perfect time to explore why this happened. What is it about Nelson’s work that made me shrug my shoulders in apathy? And despite my overall apathy did I like any aspects of the exhibition? Let’s begin with what I liked.

Someone once told me that it is far easier to be negative than it is to be positive, so I always try to find a redeeming quality or two in every person or thing I encounter. And Mike Nelson’s exhibit is not without its positives. In fact, they are quite easy to spot—even to the most apathetic of viewers. For starters, his sculptures are world-class. Assembling his pieces out of flotsam and jetsam collected off local shores (or sculpted to look like they are made out of beach refuse), the viewer is reminded that not all sculptures have to look like Michelangelo’s ‘David’. Nelson adopts such an aesthetic to make us reflect on the culture of the North West Coast and how it has evolved over time. A theme he is particularly interested in is the idea of cultural imperialism, which is evident by the fact that in many of his pieces we see jetsam and refuse that symbolize First Nations culture being overpowered by jetsam that symbolizes Western culture. And it is this theme of cultural imperialism that made me feel apathetic towards this exhibit.

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Do not get me wrong: First Nations cultures have undergone tremendous obstacles and discrimination over the years and that difficult past needs to be remembered and dealt with. The reason I felt apathetic is because I see this theme everywhere in contemporary art and Nelson’s work does not examine it in a way that will cause anything resembling a paradigm shift. Perhaps this was not Nelson’s intention, and all he wanted to do was create a synopsis of how the culture of the North West Coast has evolved over the centuries, and that is fine. The problem is that for someone who was born and raised in Vancouver this is nothing new. The presentation may be unique, but the ideas and narrative are too familiar. In sum: “meh”.

The Mike Nelson exhibition runs at the CAG until November 3

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