Picture this: in a darkened room, a wall of rapidly running water. Onto this wall-this moving screen-are projected video images of the elements: earth, air, fire, and water. The camera pans downward, from a grey winter sky, across a wide beach, toward a pile of logs that explodes into spectacular flame. Then the scene cuts to an expanse of cold, grey water. In the shallows near the shore, a wet and distressed being shakes her head and struggles with something-a bucket. The struggle abates and the being, a woman, kneels, holding the object in front of her like an offering. Calm descends, then she stands and walks out of the water, toward us, carrying the bucket. Suddenly, she hurls its contents-not water, now, but blood-at the camera. Dark, viscous red covers the lens, then thins, coursing downward. Through the filter of running blood, on the screen of running water, we see the woman's face. She is staring at us as the image fades. Staring.
The woman is Vancouver-based multimedia artist Rebecca Belmore and the work described is Fountain, the video installation she is about to debut as Canada's official representative at the 2005 Venice Biennale. Critics, curators, jurors, and other art-world insiders will preview the world's most prestigious international art exhibition during its vernissage, June 9 to 11, after which the Biennale will open to the public, from June 12 to November 9. Belmore talks about her work's ambiguous play with the elements, with cosmologies, prophecies, and creation myths, the power of place, the violence of history, environmental concerns, and the need to acknowledge our shared humanity.
"I'm hoping it can mean many things and people can relate to it [Fountain] in many different ways," she says. "We are water, we are blood...we are all connected." The four elements, together with the primordial being emerging from the sea, evoke not one but all creation myths. The agitation, the struggle, the blood suggest violence and suffering, yes, but also offering, expiation, atonement-again, universals, specific to no one culture or faith.
Speaking on the phone the night before she and her husband, artist Osvaldo Yero, depart Vancouver for Venice to install the show, Belmore confesses to both excitement and exhaustion. Still, as with that moment of calm in Fountain, a kind of serenity seems to have settled over the conversation. She recounts shooting the video in January on Iona Island, where the north arm of the Fraser River meets the Strait of Georgia. The place appealed to her because of its adjacency to Musqueam land, Vancouver International Airport, lumber mills (she describes the logs that feed the bonfire as "renegade timber")-and a sewage-treatment plant. "I liked the history and all the contradictions that are contained within the site," she says. In addition to Belmore's invocation of the primordial and the indigenous, she has consciously incorporated evidence of resource-based industry, international travel, and environmental pollution into both the audio and visual aspects of Fountain. "It's not only about history, it's also about the future," Belmore says. "About our future as a country, as countries, as a planet."
The wall of running water in the installation will both complement and disrupt the video's images and sounds. Belmore characterizes the water screen as an "aggressive" presence, then explains its technology (water is pumped at high pressure through pipes drilled with small holes) and origins (it has been used at spectacular pop-culture events such as rock concerts and fashion shows). Water is the most essential of the elements in Fountain, not only as a symbol of our common origins and common needs, but also as a tie to Venice, famously threaded with canals and floating in the Adriatic. The title and execution of the piece also allude to the cultural trope of the fountain, Belmore explains, imported to North America from Europe with all the other baggage of colonialism, and returned now in an altered, postcolonial form.
An Anishinabekwe artist, born and raised in Northern Ontario and later educated at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, Belmore began her career immersed in alternative art practice and identity politics, developing different ways of depicting the relationship between history, place, and culture. As she evolved her performance, installation, photography, sculpture, and video work, she examined themes ranging from colonialism, cultural stereotypes, and the relationship between land and landscape to women's issues, homelessness, resource exploitation, and environmental degradation. She has also addressed suffering, loss, displacement, and genocide, from the 1890 massacre of the Oglala Sioux by the United States army at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, to the missing and murdered women of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Throughout, performance has been central to her creative strategy, and her body has been central to her performances, reinforcing the theory that culture and history are inscribed on the body.
Also essential to her art is the use of simple props, rudimentary materials, and repetitive movements or gestures suggestive of rituals of endurance or purification. Ritual, however, is a culturally loaded term with which Belmore is uncomfortable. Deeply felt and profoundly moving as her art is, she also challenges the word spiritual, which she regards as a simplistic and patronizing way for non-Natives to characterize-and misunderstand-contemporary Native art. Although there are indigenous subtexts in Fountain, the work extricates itself from the particular in order to speak to the universal. "It's about essentially human things," says Belmore.
The universality of her position has been repeatedly challenged since she was named, last summer, as Canada's artist-representative at this year's Biennale. The media and the art world have made much of the fact that Belmore is the first aboriginal woman artist this country has sent to Venice. "It's something that everyone wants to point out and talk about," she remarks with a sigh. "But at the same time, it is about time."
It's about bloody time.
Rebecca Belmore is sponsored at the Canadian pavilion in Venice by the Kamloops Art Gallery and the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia. Co-commissioners are the KAG's Jann Bailey and the Belkin's Scott Watson. For more information, visit www.belkin-gallery.ubc.ca/belmore/.