As she walks around the second floor of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Dana Claxton emanates happiness and excitement. An internationally acclaimed multidisciplinary artist, Claxton works across film, photography, video, performance, and installation. She is also, and not incidentally, a screenwriter, playwright, poet, Sundancer, and associate professor in the department of art history, visual art, and theory at UBC. On this brilliant fall morning, however, as she previews her big solo exhibition with the Straight, she underplays her accomplishments. She recounts that two years ago, when the VAG proposed the idea of this show to her, she asked, “Are you sure?” Now she reacts with genuine delight at the sight of her recently uncrated works, shipped from public and private collections across the continent. It’s as if she were greeting old friends after a long absence.
Dana Claxton: Fringing the Cube is the first major survey of this Vancouver-based artist’s 30-year career—and it powerfully conveys her themes. These include Indigenous history, culture, beauty, labour, and spirituality, especially as related to her Hunkpapa Lakota (Sioux) people in Saskatchewan and North Dakota. As VAG curator Grant Arnold writes in the exhibition catalogue, Claxton “combines contemporary technologies and aesthetic strategies…to address the impact of colonialism on contemporary life”. At the same time, she weaves longstanding Lakota forms and beliefs into her imagery, creating works of inspiration and affirmation as well as criticality.
From Claxton’s earliest mixed-media installation with single-channel video, Buffalo Bone China, a performance-based work that, she says in an ironically understated way, “looks at the extermination of the buffalo”, to her most recent large-scale photographic and video works depicting Indigenous ironworkers, much of the art in the show hasn’t been exhibited in Vancouver before. Claxton also promises a few surprises, not to be revealed until Fringing the Cube opens.
One of the most arresting works here, 2016’s Cultural Belongings, is installed at the show’s entrance, near the top of the VAG’s grand marble staircase. A large colour transparency mounted in a lightbox (which Claxton calls a “firebox”), it depicts a woman veiled in beads and dancing forward, with a cargo of beaded, painted, quilled, and embroidered Indigenous objects behind her on her long buckskin robe. Also on view is the actual Lakota dance stick that she holds aloft in the photo.
As well as featuring some of the belongings that appear in her still and moving images, the show will include a number of pieces that Claxton was invited to curate from the VAG’s permanent collection. “I selected works based on themes in my own work,” she says, “whether it was simply the colour red, or heads and faces, or labour.” Among them is a small, 19th-century Cornelius Krieghoff painting of an Indigenous woman selling moccasins. When Claxton sees it again, in the gallery rather than in the VAG’s vault, she literally gasps. “Isn’t it gorgeous?”
Near the dance stick hangs an extravagantly fringed deer-hide garment, which Claxton wore in a performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2015. Made by her sister Kim Soo Goodtrack, this garment takes on additional meaning here, informing the show’s subtitle. “Her efforts to make space for the Indigenous subject in the gallery/museum system could be described as ‘fringing the cube’,” Arnold writes, although you could argue that Claxton’s fringe more than “makes space” in the white cube of the modern art gallery. It stakes Indigenous claim to it.
Born in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, and raised in Moose Jaw, Claxton is descended on her mother’s side from Kangi Tamaheca and Anpetu Wastewin, who were among the large group of Hunkpapa Lakota who followed Sitting Bull from the United States to Canada after the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. Although Sitting Bull and many of his people returned to the U.S. in 1881, some 150 of them, including Claxton’s great-grandparents, remained encamped in the Moose Jaw River Valley. (Eventually, they were granted land in the form of the small Wood Mountain Reserve.) This place and history are honoured in her 2004 four-channel video, Sitting Bull and the Moose Jaw Sioux. Claxton recounts the extensive research its making required, and also remarks on the natural beauty of the original campsite. “It has flora and fauna that no other place in Saskatchewan has.”
From early childhood, Claxton aspired to be a filmmaker. “I think it has to do with the sky there,” she says. “It’s the biggest screen in the world.” She also speaks of the influence of watching old movies on early black-and-white television, which she describes as “surreal”, and, later, MuchMusic. “I’m first-generation music videos,” she says, “so that sensibility goes into my work—and not in a frivolous way.” She also talks about the impact Vancouver’s punk art and music scene had on her when she arrived in the mid-1980s, then says, “It took me a long time to locate my own voice creatively, and to bring it out publicly, as well.” Before she found that voice, she studied theatre, developed educational TV programs for children, and worked for Details magazine during a three-year stay in New York. She even did a stint as a fashion columnist and photo-shoot director for the Georgia Straight.
The seductive colour and formal beauty of her photographs, films, and videos suggests influences from Claxton’s earlier media and fashion work. By these means, she engages viewers in her work’s critical content. “I want to celebrate and acknowledge this ‘presence-ness’, ” she says, “ ‘presencing’ Indigenous beauty.” Then she adds, “We’re all born into beauty.”
Dana Claxton: Fringing the Cube opens at the Vancouver Art Gallery on Saturday (October 27) and runs to February 3, 2019.