Soundings: An Exhibition in Five Parts at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, Vancouver

By Yani Kong

My visit to the Belkin Art Gallery this weekend felt like a homecoming. It was my first time in a gallery since March. Like most arts professionals, I think of art constantly, but I can’t always experience it in person. This necessary practicality means that much of what we learn about art is grounded in knowledge, but not always lived experience. When I do get to view art, I try to stage it as a practice where reception means circulating information through the body to build non-cognitive data. The traditional gallery set-up is frequently structured to produce a more cerebral contemplation, directing our viewing historically or narratively – but whose story and whose narrative? As a challenge to this idea, Soundings: An Exhibition in Five Parts, curated by Candice Hopkins and Dylan Robinson, activates the musical score in a kinaesthetic way, where listening guides participation and creates the opportunity to decolonize our bodies.

Tania Willard, Surrounded/Surrounding, 2018 (photo: Rachel Topham)

The most unique quality of Soundings is the patience it requires. As it says in its title, the exhibition unfolds in five parts. This means that works are always changing, being added to or activated differently while they are mounted. This means viewers will take the show in over time, rarely experiencing it as “complete”. Moving away from the barely-there act of land acknowledgement, the works in Soundings instead provide instructions for a sensory comprehension of Indigenous history, actively asserting its resurgence in the present. Works by Raven Chacon and Cristóbal Martinez, Sebastien De Line, Cheryl L’Hirondelle, Tania Willard, and Peter Morin, among many others, share the quality of time, or, rather, the dilation of time. Video and sound installations from Chacon and Cristóbal, and the guided sound walk from De Line remind us that listening requires stamina and structures a journey that can’t be rushed. The score ends when it does and not before that.

Peter Morin, NDN Love Songs, 2018-ongoing (photo: Rachel Topham)

Morin’s NDN Love Songs, at once thrilling and beautiful, overwhelmed me. Seven video “drum portraits” feature drums from the collection at the Royal British Columbia Museum. Each represents someone Morin has loved, but where that love hasn’t come into full expression. The artist has provided a score of instructions to musicians, and this music sounds during the video works. The portraits are in a line, each playing at different speeds, singularly activating the score. The videos run from a few minutes to over an hour. You would need an entire afternoon to view them in succession, and I found I had to follow my own rhythm instead of the scholar in my head so I could enter into the work and come out of it in my own time, catching silences at one monitor and a chorus of violins at another. The score written on the wall reads:

A decolonized body has the ability to remake love/loving/sex/sexuality
One draw across the strings is a body
One draw across the strings for the release of breath
One draw across the strings for the acknowledgement of desire
One draw across the strings is to let go
One draw across the strings to complete their name
The rest is up to you
Repeat eight times

We activate the score with our breath and with the extension of our bodies in time. In repetition, we begin to redraw the deep etchings of colonization. 

Greg Staats, Do-gah – I don’t know [shrugging shoulders], 2020 (photo: Rachel Topham)

Take the time you need to enter and exit this exhibit. Come back to it often. Follow the performance painting by Greg Staats, Do-gah – I don’t know [shrugging shoulders], and release what you do not know from your shoulders, from your hands, out of your mouth. Commit to the long experience of learning and let this new understanding settle in your body.

Soundings: An Exhibition in Five Parts continues until December 6.
The Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery:
The gallery is accessible.

Yani Kong is a SSHRC Doctoral Fellow of Contemporary Art at The School for the Contemporary Arts at SFU. She is the managing editor of the Comparative Media Arts Journal, a freelance writer and critic, and an instructor and TA in Art History and Communication.