Greg Staats, Condolence – Elizabeth Kalbfleisch

[Fall 2011]

Articule and Oboro, Montreal
January 14 to February 20, 2011

Grief and loss are guiding principles in Greg Staats’s exhibition “Condolence,” but so, too, are more complex notions of alliance and reconciliation. The exhibition, co-presented by Oboro and Articule galleries and split between these two sites, offers Montrealers rare access to the work of an artist whose works are not often seen in this city. And while Staats does not mourn a specific human relationship, the exhibition’s multi-pronged expression of condolence is just as raw and affecting, and just as complex, as the tangle of emotions that arise from the death of a loved one. In his most recent work, Staats, who is Mohawk, grieves the loss of language among First Nations people, the void that it has left in his own life and culture. Navigating how he aesthet­icizes this experience of loss as linguistic, visual, and embodied ritual is a challenge, albeit one with rich dividends for the in­vested viewer.

With the work gathered here, Staats extends his reach, exhibiting video, a silk­-screen, and installation in addition to his more familiar photography. At Articule, the exhibition opens with a display of items drawn from the artist’s personal archive. Family photographs, taken in and outside of the home, lie alongside a reel of tape and a stack of journals with notations of date and place – apparent references to funeral services – belonging to Staats’s father. These family intimacies are also historical artefacts, records that link the Toronto-based artist and his practice to the Six Nations Reserve where he grew up. Family photographs are a prominent trope in con­temporary First Nations art practice, used to great effect in the work of Rosalie Favell and George Littlechild, for example, as intervention in a history of representation by outsiders or to counter stereotypes of First Nations people. Staats complicates this association by exhibiting his archival mate­rial with work that more obliquely weaves loss, mourning, and memorial with place, culture, and worldview.

An older work, Auto-Mnemonic Six Nations (2007), presents a series of six black-and-white prints, among them images of a denuded, colossal tree, a wooden folding chair, and planks propped against the side of a house. The five prints that comprise Presage (2010) expound the sense that, collectively, Staats’s photographs are mon­uments to sites ordinary and precious, as further images referencing wood recall both the natural world and built environments. Unpeopled, these photographs bring to mind a sense of loss and abandonment while also evincing the artist’s studied familiarity with place.

Less familiar is Staats’s video work, in which he more directly explores the role of language, Mohawk condolence ritual, and embodied traditions. Two recent videos, Untitled and Vocode Condolence, both 2010, are shown at Articule, while at Oboro, visitors can view untitled liminal effort (2011). In this video, based on the artist’s opening-night performance, Staats recites a series of seventeen Mohawk phrases of condolence. While his voice remains strong, his breath sounds laboured and at times he hesitates, stumbling over diction and phrasing. Shot close to the body, the visuals remain largely abstract, as they do in the similar Vocode Condolence. As he passes a string of wam­pum through his fingers, the artist’s hands come in and out of focus. Like his fist, the swaying vertical line of the wampum string sometimes disappears into a bright flash of light or into shadow, then re-emerges; the wampum remains where the body fades and when the voice falters. The use of wampum here galvanizes the dual themes of mourning and alliance, emphasizing heir intractability. Wampum is significant in Iroquois culture as a medium of exchange and as a device for recalling events of con­se­quence, notably inter-tribal or inter-cultural alliances. This mnemonic capacity is appar­ent as the artist grasps at the string of shell beads, searching for language that he does not possess or no longer possesses. Wam­pum, too, can be used to externalize the pain of loss or as a condolence offering, a meaning deployed to powerful effect in this context.

Staats’s use of Mohawk condolence rhetoric points to the complexity of his expression of grief and its inflection in his photography. The photographic work where submerged bushes tremble – tashina general (2010) memorializes a young woman murdered on the Six Nations reserve, her likeness distorted and ribboned in horizontal bars. The Haudenosaunee Great Law of Peace, from which the artist draws the titular phrase, also has roots in both alliance and grief. Through his speaking voice, Staats’s sadness in untitled liminal effort fills the room, engulfing a trauma here only gestured at. The potential for reconciliation remains unresolved.

Elizabeth Kalbfleisch is an art historian specializing in First Nations art practice. She teaches at Concordia University in Montreal.

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