At Artspeak until February 11
To step into Marianne Nicolson's installation, Bakwin-a`tsi: the Container for Souls, is to enter a hushed realm of shadows and light. It's a spectral world in which the living and the dead, the young and the old, the enduring and the ephemeral come together in a celebration of the continuity of existence. It's also a subtle and sinuous expression of the Kwak'waka'wakw artist's concern for what has been lost from her culture, and of her belief in what must be reclaimed in order to sustain it.
At the centre of the gallery is a large glass box, the size and shape of a traditional ceremonial chest, etched and sandblasted with northern Northwest Coast form lines, ovoids, circles, and U-forms and brightly lit from within. The two manifestations of these designs-directly inscribed into the glass walls of the wood-framed box and projected, much enlarged, onto the gallery walls-describe ravens (Raven is the ubiquitous Trickster of the Northwest Coast); owls and death's-heads (among the Kwak'waka'wakw, each owl is thought to represent a human soul); and a range of human faces integrated into the eyes, mouths, and bodies of their ancestral creatures.
Within the box, Nicolson has also mounted two black-and-white transparencies: one, a photo of her late aunt as a small child; the other, a photo of her mother and a friend as young women. Their ghostly likenesses are projected among the shadows on the wall, again suggesting the cyclical nature of birth, aging, and death, the interconnectness of human beings and the natural world, and the possibility of rebirth through ancestral animals. The moving shadows of viewers in the gallery intermingle with the still projections: we mediate the images with our own bodies.
The central element of Bak-wina`tsi-the chest brightly lit from within-makes reference to the widely disseminated myth in which Raven steals the box of daylight from its keeper and bestows its contents upon the world. (In a recent interview with the Straight, Nicolson emphasized that although this legend has become associated with the entire Northwest Coast, it originates with and properly belongs to the Tlingit people.) But the light within the chest also symbolizes the spiritual meaning that traditionally resides within the material culture of the Northwest Coast First Nations-just as our souls reside within our physical bodies.
Nicolson suggests that the present extreme emphasis upon the focused production of masks, rattles, boxes, headdresses, and so on, for sale within the lucrative non- Native market, threatens her culture with a profound loss of meaning. (The locating of this work at Artspeak, in Gastown, refers explicitly to the commercial galleries of First Nations art in the area.) While she appreciates the economic importance of such sales to her community and the role the market has played in the "revitalizing" of Northwest Coast art forms, she also mourns the displacement of the spiritual element-the true meaning-from the forms that once embodied them.
The wonder of Bakwina`tsi is how deeply reasoned it is (Nicolson is a PhD student in linguistics and anthropology at the University of Victoria) and, at the same time, how nondogmatic-how tender, beautiful, and moving. It is a consummate work of art.