Sort By:

Screenplays of “The Cook from Canton” and “The Expulsion” (2021, 2022), 2024

How I came to write two screenplays. For more information, please get in touch with me: I teach a graduate seminar course at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia on the history of Chinese contract laborers and other indentured groups in the United States and other regions of the Americas.  (Indentured labor of course reached across the globe, not just the Americas). It is a popular course that draws in students from across many Schools of the University.  I developed the course due to the topic’s salience to the history of the United States yet one that is deeply underrepresented and acknowledged. The pandemic started during the time I taught the course.  Soon after, some of my ethnically Asian students experienced anti-Asian abuse and threats, something I also experienced while loading groceries into the trunk of my car in a supermarket parking lot! The content of the seminar resonated in real time and space for many of my students for unfortunate Read More.

Encountering Chen Zhen: A Paris Portal (2007), 2023

Published in Chen Zhen: The Body as Landscape, ed.Ilse Lafer Vienna: Kunsthalle Wien, 2007 I first met Chen Zhen in 1995. I was living in Paris and teaching at the École des Beaux-Arts. While there I was introduced to a number of Chinese artists and curators who had immigrated to France. They included the artists Yang Jiechang, Huang Yong Ping, Yan Pei-Ming, and the curator Hou Hanru. It was the latter who suggested that I contact another Chinese artist living in Paris: Chen Zhen. Hou said he was sure that we would get along. His intuition intrigued me. Apart from our Chinese heritage, what common ground could I possibly share with someone who had grown up an ocean away? I did not know much about Chen, except that he was one of many Chinese artists who had moved to Paris during the 1980s and chose to remain after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. I was interested in learning more about him. This was at a time when I felt great disillusionment about art and great disapp Read More.

On Monument Lab (2018), 2023

Published in Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2019 Monument Lab: A Public Art and History Project began with a conversation between Paul Farber and I five years ago. Farber had just returned to Philadelphia after completing his PhD in Michigan and I had just arrived from Vancouver. We both had new positions at the University of Pennsylvania, where we taught classes on public space—he in urban studies and I in fine arts. During our first encounter, we discovered that we had been asking parallel diagnostic questions about the complex narratives of Philadelphia’s memorial landscape. We mused about organizing an exhibition for understanding the mechanisms of memorialization, particularly by questioning the status of the monument and how we might challenge a monument’s canonical character. We were also interested in issues of embodiment that are inherent to the ambivalence that is part of any construction of symbolic unity, as wel Read More.

Something’s Missing (2006), 2023

Published in Canadian Art 23, no. 4 (winter 2006) Several years ago, in Dakar, Senegal, on the occasion of Dak’Art, the largest art biennial in West Africa, I was on Gorée Island, a short ferry ride from Dakar, a place developed during the seventeenth century as an administrative post for the embarkation of slaves destined for the Americas. For more than three centuries, European nations fought for control of Gorée’s lucrative trade in human beings. At the former fort, now a museum known as Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves), a “door of no return” signals the threshold over which slaves would pass to begin their harrowing, often deadly transatlantic voyage, shackled to the low-ceilinged holds of wooden slave ships. The slaves were forced to lie on their backs, pressed up against one another in head-to-toe and toe-to-head formation. On display in the House of Slaves were various historical documents produced by colonial officials, including drawings that depict Read More.

Looking Up (2013), 2023

Lecture at M+ Matters ARTWORKDOCUMENTATION: Rethinking the Categories of Art and Documentation M+, West Kowloon, Hong Kong, November 2013 I would like to begin with a work by the Soviet-born artist Ilya Kabakov. At first it is jarring to see what appears to be a radio antenna in such a pastoral setting. But upon further inspection handwritten words can be made out between the aerials: My Dear One! When you are lying in the grass, with your head thrown back, there is no one around you, and only the sound of the wind can be heard and you look up into the open sky—there, up above, is the blue sky and the clouds floating by, perhaps this is the very best thing that you have ever done or seen in your life. The work provides a space for the viewer to simply lie down, look up, and wonder. It may be open-ended in its specific meaning. But it is very specific in terms of how it calls up our relationship to the earth, technology, community, and the question of freedom without le Read More.

Dear Steven: A letter about art education (2009), 2023

Published in Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century), ed. Steven Henry Madoff, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009 Dear Steven, I’ve been struggling with the essay for the art education book. I just can’t seem to get a proper handle on what I want to say. Much of this has to do with a kind of doubt that I have about the role of the art school in today’s world. This doubt has surfaced from time to time, but never with such persistence as of late. Two years ago, I resigned from a tenured teaching position at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and this year I decided not to return to teach at Bard College in New York. I still enjoy teaching, but only for defined periods of time and if it allows me immersion in a new place. Writing this letter has been helpful in that it’s forced me to re-evaluate my relationship to both art and pedagogy. Despite my mixed feelings about the nature of many art schools today, I’ve found this exercise extremely useful in remi Read More.

Emptiness is the nature of all things., 2023

I first met artist Brenda Draney at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in 2010. My initial impression of her paintings was that they were not fully realized, with their sketchily defined vignettes floating like islands in a sea of undifferentiated canvas. There was, however, a quality about them that expressed her ambition to tap into what French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan described as “the malaise of the society in which we live.” Like Lacan’s definition of psychoanalysis, Draney’s artistic practice is concerned with “whatever is not going right,” and it is “prone to all sorts of ambiguities.” I realize now that the seemingly incomplete character of her paintings for the sake of an uncertain status is precisely the point. Draney paints with a broad brushstroke, generating a formal flatness of image, but this lack of detail transmits the idea of a depth that cannot be known. Her paintings are fraught with an ambiguity regarding the said and the unsaid. They Read More.

Melly Shum Hates Her Job But Not The Witte de With (2012), 2023

Commissioned by the Witte de With Gallery Rotterdam, 2010, for online publication Published in 20+ Years Witte de With Witte de With Publishers, 2012 I had the honour of being the inaugural exhibitor at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art when it opened its doors in 1990. The exhibition was a survey of my furniture sculptures, language paintings, and photo-text works. One of the latter works included was Melly Shum Hates Her Job (1989). Represented is a dishevelled young woman sitting in her cramped office. Along with this photograph is text that echoes the title of the work. The vibrating “HATES” speaks to the frustration of Melly Shum, even though the voice of the text is ambiguous. Before the opening of the Witte de With, the work was only ever shown indoors alongside other artworks. When I was asked whether I would agree to remake one of my photo-text works in billboard form so that it could be displayed in a street context for Rotterdam, I Read More.

Art and Ethnology: A Relationship in Ironies (2005), 2023

Published in Intruders: Reflections on Art and the Ethnological Museum, eds. Gerard Drosterij, Toine Ooms, and Ken Vos Zwolle, Netherlands: Waanders; with the National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden, 2005 The train departs Linz for Vienna in fifty-four minutes and I am hungry. The only true restaurant in the Linz railway station is rather shabby-looking, a quality that somehow lends itself to the cabin-in-the-woods theme of its weathered, wood-panelled interior. Once I have seated myself, I scan the assortment of display boxes that are distributed on the walls throughout the room. There is a vintage-looking Joseph Cornell–type box showing off various types of paraffin. On either side of this box, there are stuffed songbirds (presumably of the alpine forests) perched on tree boughs. There is another box displaying tresses of unrefined wool. The paraffin-and-wool displays remind me of the work and myth of Joseph Beuys. But the displays reference beyond the art museum to nat Read More.

The Figure in the Carpet (2016), 2023

Published in Wall to Wall: Carpets by Artists, ed. Cornelia Lauf Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2016 The oldest hand-knotted carpet in existence is the Pazyryk Carpet. It was excavated from one of several burial tombs in the Altai Mountains of Siberia in 1949 along with mummified human bodies, a funerary chariot, decorated horses, wooden furniture, and Chinese silks. All of the objects were discovered frozen and remarkably intact in spite of the fact that they had been buried for more than 2,300 years.1 Evident from the array of objects excavated was the importance of the horse to the nomadic Pazyryk in their movement over large areas of the Eurasian Steppe during the Iron Age. The carpet itself features rows of horsemen and horses in the outer friezes. Their style is similar to that of the horsemen and horses represented in reliefs at the ruins of Persepolis in present-day Iran. But unlike those reliefs, the carpet was physically mobile and therefore Read More.

Canadian Cultural Policy: A Problem of Metaphysics (1999), 2023

Published in Canadian Art 16, no. 3 (fall 1999) A quip from former Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King (1874–1950) contends that too much geography rather than too little history afflicts Canada. Add to this the racial and ethnic diversity of the Canadian population and the problem of how to forge and project Canadian culture becomes especially difficult. But this is a problem rooted in paradox because the multicultural composition of Canada’s population was to a significant degree a consequence of its social engineering of culture that began in full force immediately after the Second World War and then developed in two principal stages. The first stage was marked by the establishment of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, better known as the Massey Commission, in 1949. Massey was a two-year inquiry that had as its purpose the setting of Canadian cultural policy, including the principles of governance Read More.

The Difference Between Art and Fact (1995), 2023

Published in Camera Austria International 51–52, 1995 Formalism teaches us to consider every visible aspect of art as significant. Social history teaches us that a consideration into context and an analysis of the historical environment of a work of art can provide insights into the underlying factors contributing to meaning. We have all become as capable as fine surgeons in terms of our ability to diagnose art from inside and out. And like the fine surgeon, all that we see and think becomes readily available data filed in some conceptually limitless file cabinet. Even those moments in the artistic process that seem so highly personal can often be a formulation mediated by market constructions of artistic genius. This is often what is meant by the “decisive moment” of photography. It is defined and categorized as a moment of intense critical cognition so crucial to the artistic defence of photographic practice. Such moments, seemingly so filled with the artist’s subjec Read More.

Me and Mel Chin, 2023

In Romantic literature, representations of the self are often haunted by the spectre of the doppelgänger, the concept of the lookalike double being at once a harbinger of misfortune and a symbol of divided existence. The doppelgänger counteracts aspirations of a subject founded on principles of autonomy and represents a rupture to the politics of self-interest. Whether an evil twin embodying a conflicted personality or experienced as a sensed presence, the doppelgänger disturbs the action of self-identification in social space. It deconstructs the either-or dualism that is, according to Jacques Derrida, the foundation of all metaphysical history and logic, and which needs to be rejected in the process of recognizing the self as contingent to others.1 Through the doppelgänger’s being, hallucination inverts into desire, absence into presence, and Self into Other. In “Modernity and Ambivalence,” Zygmunt Bauman writes: In dichotomies crucial for the practice and the Read More.

L’espoir à Saint-Roch (2010), 2023

Published in Habiter, curated by Giorgia Volpe and André Gilbert, Quebec City: VU, 2010 In 2006, I was invited to Quebec City to participate in Habiter, an exhibition that took as its theme the Saint-Roch neighbourhood of the city. This neighbourhood constitutes the working-class heart of the city and is markedly multi-ethnic relative to the rest of the city. Its history is fraught with poverty and gang violence. The largest church in the city, Saint-Roch Church, anchors the neighbourhood. It was constructed between 1914 and 1923 on the site of two previous churches. I came to Quebec City as an outsider, having visited the city twice before as a tourist. These previous visits were spent in the older sections of the city. As I walked around Saint-Roch, I was struck by how different it was from the museum-like setting of Old Quebec with its many tourist haunts and high-end restaurants. Saint-Roch is a neighbourhood where its inhabitants live, work, and socialize. But I Read More.

Barthes in Beijing (2009), 2023

Published in Punctum: Reflections on Photography Salzburg: Salzburger Kunstverein, 2009 I took the picture of the Roland Barthes boutique in Beijing in 2009. At the time, I was astounded by my discovery, which gripped me with hilarity. But I can now see that I should not have been so surprised. Over the years, I have taken many pictures that are akin in spirit. In Wuhan, China, there is an “Amega” watch store, the first “A” designed in sleight-of-hand fashion to resemble an “O.” Last year, several faux Apple stores shut down throughout China. I recall reading that several of the dismissed employees were convinced they were working in an actual Apple store! The devil is in the details, but apparently the details were well attended to for the most part. During one of my first visits to China, I recall walking by a vendor selling signature Burberry scarves. On one table were “Buberry” scarves—without the first “r.” On another table was a sample Burber Read More.

Surprising Sharjah (2005), 2023

Published in Canadian Art 22, no. 3 (fall 2005) Monday, 21 February 2005 The seventh Sharjah International Biennial opens in a little less than two months. Every morning, more emails arrive in my Sharjah inbox. I have numerous must-dos each and every day, including hounding artists to send in their statements for the catalogue and/or passport information for air reservations to Sharjah. Besides all this, I have a presentation to give in Miami and a public art project to work on in Melbourne, Australia. There are also University of British Columbia duties, lots of them. Princess Hoor Al Qasimi, director of the biennial and one of the daughters of the ruling sheik of the Emirate of Sharjah, wants to discuss the film series being planned in conjunction with the biennial. I find it rather surreal—or is it unreal?—to be in this position of associate curator of an art biennial in the United Arab Emirates. I remember my first visit to Sharjah, in the summer of 2003. I Read More.

To Say or Not to Say (2009), 2023

Published in theartsection: An Online Journal of Art and Cultural Commentary 2009 Twelve years ago I visited an exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris titled Face à l’Histoire (Confronting History). The exhibition brought together art objects and archival documents that dealt with French history between the years 1933 and 1996. Themes focused on the French experience of the Second World War and the German occupation of France. Other themes included the events of the Algerian War of Independence as well as the Indochina Wars. The archival documents were displayed in long glass vitrines located along the central corridor that connected large galleries on either side where art was displayed. The vitrines formed the spine of the exhibition, with photographs, street pamphlets, and posters anchoring history in an agonistic face-off against the historicity of art. The galleries contained major works by artists such as Salvador Dali an Read More.

Unfolding Identities (2005), 2023

Published in Sharjah Biennial 7: Belonging, ed. Kamal Boullata Sharjah: Sharjah Art Foundation, 2005 In recent years, it has become de rigueur for major art exhibitions that survey large swaths of global art developments to draw parallels between the nomad as a figure of creative resistance and the cultural figure of the artist. The disseminations of contemporary artistic interest worldwide signal a decentralization from a more historically particularized and syndicated understanding of art to one that has seen a shift of emphasis from aesthetic concerns to social issues, from static to temporal processes or events, from object-oriented to site-specificity, and from art that is declarative to art that can double as non-art. In conjunction with social and political activism and emergent anti-imperialist movements, critical practices and institutions are looking for new modes of production and participation and new spaces of critique in the overlapping fields of culture, urba Read More.

Prix de Rome Commentary (2003), 2023

Published in Prix de Rome 2003: Sculpture, Art and Public Space Rotterdam: nai010 publishers, 2003 In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau drew a distinction between “space” and “place,” according the meaning of “practiced place”—that is, shaped by historical subjects who constantly redefine its use—to the first term, and according a configuration of discursive stability—that is, under the command of the law of the proper—to the latter term. Certeau thought of “space” as a fomenting point of mobility and resistance to the enshrinement of power and locatedness in “place.” “Space is fundamental to any exercise of power,” Foucault famously wrote. Both Certeau and Foucault identified spatial practice in political terms. After all, what is public space if not political public space and, by extension, what is public art if not, to some degree, political public art—art that is concerned with the expression of new and diverse polit Read More.

Gentle Indifference: The Art of Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky (2006), 2023

Published in Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky Lethbridge: Southern Alberta Art Gallery, 2006 A slab of concrete sidewalk patched up with a dollop of unevenly applied asphalt. Flat-topped metal newspaper boxes that double as platforms for Starbucks coffee cups or 7-Eleven drink containers, until they are, inevitably, lost to the wind. The urban landscape is full of such combinations and assemblages—metastasizations that function intransitively to any actual object; their physical presence is understood and undermined not so much by their provisionality but by their makeshift character. As such, their presence is as much image-based as it is physical or sculptural. According to Walter Benjamin, absence and presence are articulated in a productive synthesis within the artistic dream-work;1 however, the two examples cited here (and there are innumerably more) exist as combinations without feelings. Nor do they ever generate feelings, except as the perfunctory Read More.

Ian Wilson: From Chalk Circle to Full Circle (2013), 2023

Dia Art Foundation Artists on Artists Lecture Series, New York, 10 December 2013 When the Dia Art Foundation invited me to speak about one of the artists in their collection, I chose Ian Wilson for the most personal of reasons. I would like to take you back to 1983. I was running a little storefront gallery in the industrial sector of Vancouver, Canada. One of the first exhibitions that I did was to co-organize an exhibition with the artist Ian Wallace that included Wilson’s Chalk Circle on the Floor (1968) along with works by Daniel Buren, Dan Graham, On Kawara, and Lawrence Weiner. I remember feeling a sense of exhilaration over an exhibition of such celebrated artists in what was basically my living room at the time. The works for Wilson, Buren, and Weiner were realized by following instruction cards. The instructions for Chalk Circle on the Floor were as follows: Attach a white china chalk pencil to one end of a 3-foot-long thin wire (the actual cha Read More.

From Analog to Digital: A Consideration of Photographic Truth (2012), 2023

Lecture at the Banff Centre for the Arts Banff, Alberta, 7 February 2012 I want to start by describing three images as a way to start thinking about the intersection of photography, facticity, and politics. What you will see is that they present us with a revelation in excess of what they depict. This is the case with any photograph. Meaning will always be in surplus. It is just the noumena, or the “thing itself.” A famous photo portrait of Abraham Lincoln has his head placed upon the photo of another politician, John C. Calhoun.1 The trickery is attributed to Thomas Hicks, although no one knows for certain—a portrait painter from that era who had painted Lincoln before and who was thought to have created this composite in the early to mid-1860s. Many historians believed that the photo was created after Lincoln’s assassination because there were hardly any heroic, presidential-looking portraits of Lincoln at that time. Calhoun’s image is a woodcut while th Read More.

Aesthetic Education in Republican China: A Convergence of Ideals (2004), 2023

Published in Shanghai Modern, 1919–1945, eds. Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, Ken Lum, and Zheng Shengtian Museum Villa, Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2004 In preparing for Shanghai Modern, the curators—Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, Zheng Shengtian, and I—paid several visits to the West Lake (Xi Hu) city of Hangzhou, ninety minutes by train west of Shanghai. One of six capital cities in the long history of China, Hangzhou was the national capital during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279). Many of China’s most celebrated poets and writers, including Lin Bu, Bai Juyi, and Su Shi, lived in and around the Hangzhou area. The beautiful West Lake, around which is poised the city of Hangzhou, is the source of many of China’s most cherished myths and fables. During the middle of the Ming Dynasty (sixteenth century), Literati traditions in literature and art flourished in Hangzhou. According to Christopher Reed, Hangzhou from the middle of the Ming through to the Qing Dy Read More.

Tracking Colonialism from Delhi to Toronto (2018), 2023

It was a picture-perfect day as I sat down on a public bench in the centre of Queen’s Park in Toronto. There were children playing about me, people casually strolling, and sunshine breaking unevenly through the canopy of oak and maple trees. I was early for my presentation at the nearby University of Toronto, so I sat and took in a scene from Toronto’s most symbolically important park.1 What I saw before me called up not just memories of previous park experiences but countless design renders, from city planning to landscape architectural presentations. Directly in front of me was a large equestrian statue cast in bronze. I did not think much about it until I noticed a plaque at the front jutting up awkwardly from the ground. I was immediately compelled to know more about this work. It turns out that the statue depicts Edward VII, who was king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1901 until his death in 1910.2 Dressed in military regalia Read More.

The LondonArt Diaries, part 1, 2023 1999–2000 June 1999 I am on the train from Wroclaw to Warsaw. Earlier, a desperate looking man fled down the passageway of my car in an attempt to dodge the ticket enforcers. He was carrying a small bindle, much like the one Charlie Chaplin’s tramp character carried in City Lights. At the end of the movie, Charlie’s character jumps off the train and rolls down a muddy slope. The man’s attempt was a rather exciting, and also depressing, start to an eastward journey. Being in Poland is like also being in a Jerzy Skolimowski movie, where the loss of innocence, the uncertainty of any moral compass, and the need to make sense of the wreckage of a suffocating Communist order still defines the Polish social landscape. In Warsaw, I took in my friend Pawel Polit’s Polish conceptual art show, Conceptual Reflection in Polish Art—Experiences of Discourse: 1965–1975, at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle. Pawel’s show reveals the l Read More.

On Board The Raft of the Medusa (1999), 2023

Published in Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art no. 10 (spring/summer 1999), Duke University Press Towards the centre a rising, mounting movement begins. Here some of the shipwrecked (among them an Arab), have awakened from their apathy, and with lifted hands push excitedly towards the horizon, where the rescue ship appears. Then the single stream of the composition broadens out towards the sides, like the short arms of the Latin cross, through [sic] all the movement still points forward, and the central axis moves straight on to its triumphant summit, the slim, nude back of the Negro. Mounted on a barrel and supported by his comrades, waving a white cloth into the air, he is the final peak of a pyramid of moving and excited bodies.1 —WALTER FRIEDLÄNDER, David to Delacroix (1952) Friedländer’s description of the composition of Théodore Géricault’s famous painting, The Raft of the Medusa, is rendered in a manner that suggests a kind o Read More.

Six Vancouver Modern (1998), 2023

Published in Canadian Art 15, no. 2 (summer 1998) Not only has art within modernism been rife with contradiction, it has been propelled by it. Calls for a new beginning in art have frequently been issued in unison with calls for the death of art. By rejecting representational modes predicated on realism, non-objective, or abstract, art aimed for a deeper realism. Arguments in support of the autonomy of art have always been countered by arguments for the conflation of art and life. And on and on it goes. Until, that is, the contradictory nature of modernism itself became institutionalized within the frameworks of art-historical research, art-school teaching, and curatorial practice. Until, also, the point has been reached when each and every characteristic of modernism has become so familiar its very operation reveals at every instance an even bigger contradiction, that of the complete integration of modernist iconoclasm within the iconographism of the art-institutional system. Read More.

Homes (1993), 2023

The irony of converting a building whose function remains articulated in its very design into an entirely different use can have a certain appeal. There is a degree of enjoyable challenge in trying to remember when such and such a building served this or that function. But the constant flux of the city causes a strange fooling, it is a feeling of living in limbo, of always being in a state between remembering and not remembering, of being familiar and unfamiliar. As confusing as all this can be when one takes a walk through the heart of a city, the affects of disruptions in commercial spaces seems nothing more than a series of distractions when considered beside the dynamics of the home. After all, a home can be created out of just about anything. A home can be staked out anywhere. Home can mean a shack built from refuse. Home can be the space under a viaduct or bridge. Home can be a back alley loading bay. So it is true what has been said that home is what you make of it. Perh Read More.

On the Necrology Series (2019), 2023

In 2015, on the sesquicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s death, the Philadelphia Inquirer reprinted its front page as it had appeared on April 15, 1865, a day after the American president’s assassination. I was struck by the appearance of the page, how differently it looked from today, with what seemed like illogical spacing, kerning, eclectic use of fonts, all encapsulated in a highly florid language. Running down the entirety of the left-hand column was a series of what appeared as mini-headlines, each announcing a significant moment in Lincoln’s life, from birth to death, with the final one reading “A Nation Mourns!” I recalled studying the 19th-century designs for theatre plays frontispieces, and especially a frontispiece for Matthew Brady’s portfolio of photographs of the American Civil War. The language was equally florid, often over-the-top sensational, and again accompanied by an unexpected use of different fonts and odd kerning and spacing. While the she Read More.

Past & Present, Art & Labour Meet in St. Louis and New York (2012), 2023

It has been four months since my move to Philadelphia. I have been inundated with work at the University of Pennsylvania. Thankfully, the workload is becoming more manageable as my administrative role becomes more clearly defined. Punctuating my time on campus have been trips to St. Louis, New Orleans, Chicago and New York for art-related projects. While in St. Louis, I was struck by the former grandeur of the city evident in its massive Union Station (now a Doubletree Hotel by Hilton), Forest Park (where the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 took place), and many neighbourhoods boasting opulent mansions built in the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries. St. Louis is also home to one of the most aesthetically beautiful public monuments in the United States: the Gateway Arch by Eero Saarinen. The arch is located on the waterfront of the city and faces both the Mississippi River and the state of Illinois. Its ethereal beauty masks a fraught hist Read More.

The City of Brotherly Love (2012), 2023

I write from my new home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. From where I sit I can see the sweep of downtown from the Center City District all the way to the Old City. I can see I. M. Pei’s Society Hill residential towers, just past Washington Square, which were an early 1960s effort to rejuvenate a then-declining part of the historic heart of the city due to the massive loss of its industrial base and the exiting of the solidly middle class to the suburbs. As recently as the late 1990s, vast areas of downtown Philadelphia were little more than fallow lots full of weeds. Since then, however, the city has been rapidly gentrifying with its population growing at a healthy clip, particularly among young urbanites (many of whom have been squeezed out of the New York real estate market) and the decommissioned Navy Yard now serving as the headquarters for several multinational corporations. In short, what I see is nothing less than the history of the city’s social and economic disasters, and Read More.

Canadian Identity Debates are Broken. Let’s Fix Them. (2013), 2023

Since my last column entry, I have received two invitations to attend conferences in Canada dealing with the issue of “safeguarding” Canadian art and culture. One conference in Toronto had as its theme “What makes Canadian art Canadian?” while the other in Edmonton dealt with the question of “Who speaks for Canadian culture?” Both questions are vexing not because possible answers are elusive (and they are) but because of the presuppositions inherent in the questions. Both perpetuate a logic premised on the binaries of inclusion/exclusion and qualified/unqualified. Such logic reduces complex but legitimate debates about identity and nationality to the essential and fixed. Also problematic is the way that such logic expects deference to those authorized to speak. In his conclusion to the 1965 volume Literary History of Canada, Northrop Frye wrote about a Canadian imagination defined by a “garrison mentality.” He was referring specifically to a litera Read More.

Reflections on being an artist in Canada vs the United States (2016), 2023

July 2015 marked my fourth year in the Philadelphia area. I continue to adjust to the differences that make life in the United States so vastly distinctive from life in Canada. These differences have much to do with the ways that many Americans and Canadians see themselves and their places in the world. I have found life to be more socially atomized in the United States and this atomization produces paradoxically strong yearnings for community. The frequency of vociferous outrage can be seen as an expression of these yearnings, as exemplified by the Black Lives Matter, Occupy and Tea Party movements. Earlier this summer, I co-curated a large public-art and urban research project titled Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia. The monthlong project took place in the courtyard of Philadelphia’s iconic city hall, where members of the public were invited to propose speculative monuments that they felt were needed at this point in time in the city. I encountered many Read More.

From Monuments to Public Art: Peeling Back the Social Architecture of Power, 2023

Much has been written about the status of the monument. The themes of timelessness and universality produced by monuments are self-serving ones that seek to wash the blood from the hands of those who have profited from the violent exploitation of others. Monuments express a narrowly defined identity while suppressing the many unreconciled strivings and wounds of the past. They are riven by a fundamental contradiction between institutionalized memory and the lived and embodied memories of everyday life. They are tools for the restriction of speech and mobility with their semiotics defined in highly enforceable terms. Monuments speak of the political power of sign systems. Traditional monuments present themselves as symbolic centers from which meaning radiates outwardly from their cores. They insist on their symbology as the authoritative embodiment of collective memory, identity, and history. Movements such as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and Time’s Up have demonstrated how u Read More.

Revisiting China, 2019

The Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni accepted an invitation by Mao Zedong's government to visit China in 1972, during the height of the Cultural Revolution (1966 - 1976). His assignment was to make a film documenting the achievements of Communist era China. Throughout his visit which included a trip by train from Hong Kong to Beijing, he was accompanied by Chinese minders. The result was Chung Kuo: Cina, a fascinating documentary in which Antonioni just let his camera roll. In Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, the literary historian Stephen Greenblatt attributed the concept of wonder to a displayed object's power to "stop the viewer in his or her tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention." For Antonioni, China was that displayed object. At the time, China was closeted from the world and the country held a deep fascination for many in the West, particularly among intellectuals and artists. Antonioni was so enthralled Read More.

Eternal Glory to the People’s Heroes!, 2018

2019 marks an ignominious anniversary in China. Thirty years will have passed since the violent crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The events of 1989 continue to reverberate both in terms of China’s domestic politics and its relationship to the world. It is important to note that internal protests against the prevailing government has recurred numerous times throughout China’s history, going back to at least Emperor Qin Shi Huang in 200 BCE. The 1989 protests represent the latest mass challenge by Chinese citizens towards their own government. It was Chairman Mao Zedong himself who promoted the idea and necessity of a permanent cultural revolution to safeguard the purity of the Communist leadership as China’s sole legitimate rulers. His Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom and Smash the Four Olds campaigns exhorted in 1956 - 59 and 1966 respectively, encouraged Chinese people to protest against authority and to even denounce official government policy, with th Read More.

The Ghanaians of Vicenza, 2019

Located on a hilltop just outside of Vicenza, an Italian town designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, sits the Villa Rotonda designed by the sixteenth century architect Andrea Palladio. On a recent visit to the site I was struck by how the building and its location cater to a particular type of vision. The building functions as a panopticon that offers the inhabitant a 360-degree view of the world below with Vicenza visible in the near distance. What this view suggests is that the world can be possessed by the gaze of Palladio’s hypothetical inhabitant. In this way the building epitomizes the logocentrism of the West and the primacy given to vision in the production of both knowledge and power.  The cross-like floor plan of the Villa Rotonda and its circular dome centralized within a square registers a fetishization of symmetry and centrality and evoke the abstract concepts of balance, harmony, and purity of form. These concepts are, however, far from neutral. The reduct Read More.

Keynote Speech for the opening of the 2006 Art Biennale of Sydney, 2006

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, IN DAKAR, SENEGAL, on the occasion of Dak’Art, the largest art biennial in West Africa, I was on Gorée Island, a short ferry ride from Dakar, a place developed during the 17th century as an administrative post for the embarkation of slaves destined for the Americas. For more than three centuries, European nations fought for control of Gorée’s lucrative trade in human beings. At the former fort and now museum known as Maison des Esclaves, or House of Slaves, a “door of no return” signals the threshold over which slaves would pass to begin their harrowing, often deadly transatlantic voyage, shackled to the low-ceilinged holds of wooden slave ships. The slaves were forced to lie on their backs, pressed up against one another in head-to-toe and toe-to-head formation. On display in the House of Slaves were various historical documents produced by colonial officials, including drawings that depict the organization of human cargo on the ships in stick-figure form. Read More.

Visuality and Opticality in the Art of Tania Mouraud, 2004

Tania Mouraud (b. Paris, 1942) has consistently pursued the relationship between the body and opticality in her art. Her Borderland (2008) series comprises landscapes that have been photographed with a filter made out of the same transparent plastic that is used to bale hay. The result is an image of the landscape that is unevenly reflected in the plastic wrap. The landscape is, in effect, mutated by a material that is toxic. The reflection evokes in the viewer a desire to imagine a "natural" landscape in its place. As a result, the viewer experiences a reverberation between sensations of the body and the fomentations of the mind. Looking, filtering, distortion, and looking again together form a recurring strategy in Mouraud's work. This relationship between the body and the mind is but one of the many dualities explored by this artist. Others include the human and the animal in Roaming (2008), the public and private in How Can You Sleep (2005), and night and day in Entrer da Read More.

Review of DAK’ART 98 published in NKA Journal of Contemporary African Art, 1998

There are no necessary links between the cosmopolitanism of Western art discourse and the practical participation of non-Western art epistemologies. This is not because the worldly aspirations of Western art discourse represents little more than empty rhetoric but because its language was never meant to be aimed beyond the imagination of the Western ego. Much has been written criticizing Modern Art’s Primitivist impulses and the appropriation of African objects and motifs by artists such as Picasso for their own use, but  it was a valid and authentic step within the egocentric development of Western art’s conception of itself in the world. In Claude Lévi-Strauss’ “The Structural Study of Myth”(1955), Chthonian beings—emanating as they do from the netherworld beneath the terra (i.e. creatures from the earth)—are monsters that have to be destroyed because of their differences from the Western cosmology. In the story of Oedipus, these creatures are a met Read More.

The Ambivalent Gaze of Thomas Ruff, 1998

Published in the National Post, 20 November 1998 During the politically traumatic yet economically prospering period of the 1920s, a debate ensued in Germany about the role art should play in social affairs. The debate was only in part about the potential of art for political agency. It was mostly about defining the correct proximity of art to reality. As an aesthetic counterpoint to the angst of Expressionism, and its preoccupation with the individual’s responses to modern life, New Objectivity artists such as Otto Dix and August Sander proposed an art based on relative truths. This debate carried a particular poignancy in the aftermath of Germany’s armistice in 1918. As it turned out, the 1920s were also for Germany an antebellum society to an infinitely more terrible inferno. The almost operatic teeter-totter between reason and sensibility, sobriety, and national self-absorption continues to be the central dialectic of German art. During the 1980s, at the height o Read More.