Margaret Dragu's VERB WOMAN questions the selectiveness of history
Margaret Dragu: VERB WOMAN
At the Richmond Art Gallery until January 12
Although the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, its dark presence remains imprinted in the minds of those who lived with it for almost three decades. That psychological imprint is revealed in the German expression “The wall is in my head”—which is also in the subtitle of Margaret Dragu’s exhibition and principal video work at the Richmond Art Gallery.
In a video interview playing in the gallery, the Saskatchewan-born, Vancouver-based artist explains that, as a baby boomer, she grew up in the news shadow of the Cold War, and developed an “obsession” with the books and movies that dealt with it. Out of her obsession and her later personal experience of Berlin (through visits as a performance artist) and recent time spent in Northern Ireland (looking at the so-called “peace walls”), she has created the two-channel video VERB WOMAN: the wall is in my head/a dance of forgetting. This work patches together low-resolution videos of her own performances, interviews with citizens of Berlin and Belfast, shots of walls (and of plaques where walls once stood), and historic news clips. Cumulatively, the images shown and the stories told examine geopolitical and sectarian conflict, individual and collective memory, and the selectiveness of history.
A multidisciplinary artist who, over four decades, has sustained a consistent practice around feminist, environmental, and social-justice issues, Dragu was recently honoured with a Governor General’s Award in the visual arts. She studied modern dance in Calgary (where she attended high school) and then in New York, and subsequently lived in Montreal and Toronto, where she relinquished her dance ambitions and committed herself to performance art (with forays into film and video). In the early days, she supported herself as a stripper (who organized her fellow workers into a short-lived burlesque union) and a cleaning lady, and both have fed her art, as has her experience of marriage, motherhood, and her mother’s decline and death from Alzheimer’s disease. Now a fitness instructor and personal trainer working with youth, the elderly, and the disabled, Dragu recently moved to an apartment in East Vancouver—this after 25 years in an amenities-challenged cottage on Finn Slough.
“Verb Woman” is one of Dragu’s recurring performance personas, although in the RAG exhibition, the connection with, well, verbs is not altogether clear. In VERB WOMAN: the wall is in my head/a dance of forgetting, she is seen playing the kazoo and dancing with Paul Couillard (who sports a heavily and nonsensically bandaged leg), ceremoniously putting on the latex gloves of a health-care worker, and being shuttled around in a wheelchair. She also interviews an elderly woman who recounts memories of gardens she has created over her long lifetime.
These images of caring, sharing, and the play of memory are juxtaposed with the work’s second channel, which takes the viewer to Berlin and Belfast, past the walls and beliefs that have drastically divided these cities. Employing early-1970s video and performance strategies that critiqued popular culture and rampant consumerism by being decidedly unslick and anticommercial, this work impresses with feeling rather than facility. Many of the shots, in both channels, are bumpy, jumpy, grainy, and oddly off-kilter, yet they successfully convey Dragu’s message, encouraging us to question the ways history is told. Again, memory is considered in relation to both intentional forgetting (rewriting history to serve a cause) and involuntary forgetting (dementia). Both bear tragic consequences.
Margaret Dragu is at the Richmond Art Gallery on successive Sundays (December 8 and 15, 1 to 4 p.m.) as part of a community-participation project: ARTIST IS WORKING. For more information, go to margaretdragu.com/chanceoperation/.