by STIRworldJun 28, 2022
The rampant display of power, both in the political sphere and visual culture, is a fact not to be swept under the carpet. The glorification of power through the metaphoric figures and symbolic objects profusely feeds the visual culture. The exhibition, The Tin Man Was A Dreamer: Allegories, Poetics And Performances of Power, at Vancouver Art Gallery was curated by Grant Arnold, Audain Curator of British Columbia Art and Mandy Ginson, Assistant Curator of Vancouver Art Gallery. The Tin Man of the title is borrowed from the European folk tales, which frequently appeared in the 19th century American political cartoons and newspaper ads also. In the movie The Wizard of Oz, by Victor Lonzo Fleming, the Tin Man sets on a journey in the search of the heart and realises he already has the power of empathy. But never far from self-contradictions, the Tin Man exercises his power to control nature; however, turns immobile after the rainwater rust his joints. The dreamer Tin Man requires assistance to complete the rest of his journey. The contradiction and ambivalence around the Tin Man make it, to borrow Arnold’s words, an “evocative emblem for the exhibition”.
Through a widespread display starting from the 17th century paintings to the video art of postmodern times, the exhibition is an attempt to interrogate the play of power, and even its abuses. Talking about the curatorial strategies applied to conceive and conceptualise this exhibition, Ginson, in an interview with STIR, says, “The curatorial premise for this exhibition drew on a few overlapping ideas and social and political circumstances. The timeline for the exhibition coincides with the presidential election in the US and we were interested in thinking about how we recognise a leader - particularly in a circumstance like an election where we may not know people’s true character. In these circumstances we are often, consciously or unconsciously, basing our judgements on appearances. This led us to think about all of the many ways in which people present and display their personal power, or their position in relation to others, through different visual cues and signs, some of which are very obvious, and some of which are subtler. The exhibition encompasses diverse artworks that deal with themes of self-performance and the construction of identity within the public domain; physical posturing and displays of aggression; and a continuum of self-conscious image-making that extends from traditions of political portraiture to the cultivation of personae within contemporary media”.
When the works at the display have a range of variety not just in terms of mediums, but also in terms of the time-period, the audience gets acquainted with the change in the representation of power over the years. Ginson further explains this, “There is one room in the exhibition that is focused on the political portrait or the military portrait as a genre within art and popular culture, and I think that in that room you can maybe observe some stark differences in how the subjects are presenting themselves. There is a humorous contrast for example between the very controlled and self-serious portrait of William Frederick, painted by English artist William Beechey in 1802, or even the stern face of John Diefenbaker on a poster in a store window captured by Fred Herzog in 1962, and the completely relaxed and warm expression of Jean Augustine, photographed by Althea Thauberger in 2005. These sorts of comparisons might provide us with an opportunity to think about how these differences reflect shifting values and ideas about who can be a leader and what a leader looks like. I think we also began to think about the relationships between how people were controlling their image in paintings hundreds of years ago, and how people control and manage their image on television and social media within contemporary society, and the different rapport and levels of intimacy that we might have with all of these different modes of image-making”.
The exhibition leans towards the thematic and not the chronological structure to let the works resonate with the viewers’ understanding of the power in the current times. Ginson says, “We may have taken a light hand with some of the labels and wall texts so that viewers might make their own connections between the various works and sections of the exhibition. We will be curious to see what you took away from the exhibition, or what connections you might make!”
The exercise of power is largely perceived to be physical and political action, where its impact on cerebral dominion seldom receives importance. The exhibition implicitly refers to it, yet more remains to be discussed, displayed and dissected.
(The Tin Man Was A Dreamer: Allegories, Poetics and Performances of Power, was on view till November 1, 2020, at Vancouver Art Gallery.)