You are on page 1of 11

Today Your Host is Speaking Out:

Ideology, Identity, and the Land in Hachivi Edgar Heap


of Birdss Native Hosts
Catherine Falls
UBC Undergraduate Journal of Art History Issue 1 | 2010
Te land is the beginning and the end
Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds
1
Writer and cultural historian Dot Tuer describes Rebecca Belmore as an artist who creates
a memorial to the lived experiences that the written documents of history excise or mis-
represent.
2
Working with dramatically diferent media, Belmores contemporary, Hachivi
Edgar Heap of Birds, is an artist whose work performs a strikingly similar function. With
a message which serves, much like Belmores work, to refresh the collective memory, Heap
of Birdss twelve-piece sign series, Native Hosts, provides a compelling example of why this
is so. Situated on highly contested land that has never ofcially been ceded to the Canadian
government, Native Hosts afrms the ongoing presence of First Nations land claims. Te work
positions the non-Native viewer as a guest on First Nations lands, inverting the relationship
between the two groups and acting as an authoritative public statement of these lands rightful
owner. In doing this, the visual strategy of the twelve signs functions to challenge dominant
Western ideology perpetuated by traditional landscape painting and by a strict categorization
of both art and artists, which defends legitimate Western ownership of the land and control
over the people who inhabit it. Trough the appropriation of authoritative modes of address
and the employment of irony and site-specifcity, Heap of Birdss Native Hosts challenges
these ideological assumptions, thus reasserting an alternative and all-but-forgotten history
with its own ideology and claims to the land.
Consciously positioned as part of the urban landscape, the twelve signs comprising
Native Hosts have been installed throughout the grounds of two major Vancouver institutions:
the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG), previously the Vancouver Law Courts, and the Point Grey
campus of the University of British Columbia (UBC), where they currently reside (fgs. 1, 2).
1 Nick Blomley, Artistic Displacements: an Interview with Edgar Heap of Birds, Environment and
Planning D: Society and Space 22, no. 6 (2004): 799.
2 Dot Tuer, Performing Memory: Te Art of Storytelling in the Work of Rebecca Belmore, in
Beyond Wilderness, ed. John OBrian and Peter White (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2007),
340.
2
Catherine Falls
Fig. 1. Edgar Heap of Birds, Today Your Host is Cree, 1991-2007. Aluminum Sign. Collection of the
Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia. Gift of the Artist. Photo:
Edgar Heap of Birds.
Te work was frst exhibited at the 1991 exhibition, Lost Illusions, at the VAG and was later
donated by the artist to UBC through the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery. Te series
consists of twelve white aluminum signs, similar to road signs, with red block-letter typeface
stating British Columbia Today Your Host is followed by the name of one of twelve First
Nations bands that inhabit the province. British Columbia, on each of these signs, however,
is written backwards. Installed in pedestrian zones, the series draws the protracted gaze of
slow-moving passersby able to contemplate the work, which is similar in appearance yet dis-
tinct in message from the ordinary trafc signs and other components of the surrounding vi-
sual feld (fg. 3). Te works minimalist, text-based aesthetic calls to mind the language-based
Conceptual art of the 1960s such as that produced by Joseph Kosuth or Lawrence Weiner.
Native Hosts aesthetic conforms to Charles Harrisons description of Conceptual art of this
era, which is characterized by the lack of physically robust materialno expressive brushwork
on the walls, no accumulations of three dimensional stuf on the foorand by the recourse
to linguistic specifcation and description that followed from that absence.
3
Tis similarity is
3 Charles Harrison, Conceptual Art, the Aesthetic and the End(s) of Art, in Temes in Contemporary Art,
ed. Gill Perry and Paul Wood, (London: Yale University Press, 2004), 51.
3
UBCUJAH Issue 1 | 2010
Fig. 2. Edgar Heap of Birds, Today Your Host is Lillooet, 1991-2007. Aluminum Sign. Collection of the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University
of British Columbia. Gift of the Artist. Photo: Britt Gallpen.
4
Catherine Falls
Fig. 3. Edgar Heap of Birds, Today Your Host is Lil wat, 1991-2007. Aluminum Sign.
Collection of the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia.
Gift of the Artist. Photo: Howard Ursuliak, Belkin Art Gallery.
5
UBCUJAH Issue 1 | 2010
strengthened by the series apparent absence of artistic skill or even the necessity of the artists
participation in the construction or installation of the work itself. Tis latter characteristic,
according to Elisabeth Schellekens, defnes Conceptual arts tendency toward distancing the
task of the artist from the actual making and manipulating of the artistic material.
4
Produced
from industrial materials, such as aluminum sheeting that could theoretically be purchased
and assembled by anyone according to Heap of Birdss specifcations, the work performs this
distancing, drawing from a Conceptual lineage with precedents such as Dan Flavins light
installations or Carl Andrs metal works. Tis Conceptual heritage forms an important part
of Heap of Birdss oeuvre and of Native Hosts in particular.
According to Schellekens, Conceptual art challenges our intuitions concerning the
limits of what may count as art and what it is an artist does and promotes a rapprochement
between art-making and criticismboth artistic and socialby raising questions about the
products of artistic activities and the very purpose of art.
5
As part of this Conceptual lineage,
Native Hosts questions the nature and role of art by examining its legitimate presence in
realms outside those deemed strictly cultural. In doing this, Native Hosts continues a tradition
within the First Nations cultural community that aims to extend its voice beyond the artistic
sphere into the political domain. As Susan Roy explains, the struggle for the recognition of
Aboriginal rights and title has been waged on several fronts and has included both formal
political activities and cultural presentations, adding that politics, protest, and publicity ap-
pear to be at the heart of many performances of culture.
6
Although it is unlikely that one
would read Heap of Birdss Native Hosts as an apolitical piece, it is important to think of this
work as part of a tradition in which, as Roy observes, the provincial government viewed his-
tory (or culture) and politics (or land claims) as distinct and separate areas of involvement.
7

His work speaks to just how closely these two areas are intertwined. Inverting the widely
accepted understanding of land ownership in the province, the series, a cultural product, quite
clearly enters the political spherea sphere within which, as Charlotte Townsend-Gault as-
serts, land claims have been identifed as the fundamental issue upon which all others
depend.
8
Yet, because of the works authoritative form and tone, it may be read further as ac-
tually making a concrete land claim on behalf of British Columbias First Nations people. Tis
claim both mirrors and complements the kinds of claims made in the more formal political
sphere, such as those of the Musqueam band (whose name is included on one of the signs) in
the Musqueam Declaration. Tis document, written and signed by members of the Musqueam
First Nations band in June 1976, proclaims Musqueam rights and resource entitlement within
4 Elisabeth Schellekens, Conceptual Art, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.
edu/entries/conceptual-art/.
5 Ibid.
6 Susan Roy, Performing Musqueam Culture and History at British Columbias Centennial Celebrations,
BC Studies 135 (2002): 90.
7 Ibid., 70.
8 Charlotte Townsend-Gault, Having Voices and Using Tem, Arts Magazine 65, no. 6 (1997): 68.
6
Catherine Falls
the geographical area in which Heap of Birdss work is installed.
9
It states, as part of its as-
sertion, that neither we nor our ancestors have ever given up, extinguished or diminished our
aboriginal rights and title by treaty or agreement with any foreign government or power.
10

Like the work of many other artists, Heap of Birdss work makes similar claims, yet it is only
these types of ofcial statements that have been historically recognized as part of the politi-
cal realm, though they constitute but one part of a broad political campaign.
As part of this broader political agenda, Heap of Birdss work co-opts the authorita-
tive language taken up by documents such as the Musqueam Declaration. In this way, Heap
of Birds emphasizes further the similarities a cultural work such as his shares with activities
more widely recognized as political. Using an assertive mode of address and presented in a
format similar to the signage used to legitimate messages of administrative authority, such
as trafc signs, the work subverts the ideological messages often disseminated through these
types of channels. Te series undermines these messages in a way similar to that of politically
subversive grafti and adbusting, yet is more efectively disarming due to its ofcial appear-
ance, creating the sense that the signs were placed by those with authority over the space. As
Heap of Birds asserts, the signs use the same communicative form of declaration, like the
treaty document or law, which was inficted upon Native people.
11
Tis use of an authoritative
voice and appearance contrasts ironically with a message told from the perspective of those
who have historically had little or no authority. Indeed, the works overall tone mirrors the
defnition of irony posited by Allan J. Ryan, which he bases on a defnition by Canadian liter-
ary theorist and cultural critic Linda Hutcheon, asserting that ironys primary function is to
perform a critical reworking of history.
12
In positioning the non-Native viewer as a guest on
the land, Native Hosts performs this reworking of history by disrupting that viewers learned
expectations of land title created through the erasure of First Nations from the grand narra-
tive of European history. Tis irony is further entrenched in the work by its location on land
inhabited by the types of institutions in which those expectations have been learned, an idea
discussed in more detail below. Te works use of an ironic and almost welcoming, convivial
tone must not, however, lead the viewer to read its message as merely a facetious joke. In light
of its role in making concrete and legitimate claims to the land, the works message, though
ironically humorous, must also be taken very seriously.
In addition to this central relationship with land claims and because of the formal
artistic mode in which these land claims are addressed, Heap of Birdss work places him di-
rectly within an ongoing cultural debate over authenticity, modernity, and the categorization
9 For a complete version of the Musqueam Declaration, see Aboriginal Rights and Legal Issues:
Musqueam Declaration, Musqueam Band, http://www.musqueam.bc.ca/Rights.html.
10 Ibid.
11 Blomley, 802.
12 Allan J. Ryan, Postmodern Parody: A Political Strategy in Contemporary Canadian Native Art, Art
Journal 51, no. 3 (1992): 59.
7
UBCUJAH Issue 1 | 2010
of art. As Townsend-Gault observes, our current situation within art and history forces the
question, what is the point of perpetuating a category called Native Art, when the work is
irreconcilably diverse and the category restrictive or discriminatory?
13
In other words, where
we could and should be talking simply of artists we are instead separating these artists and their
work into outdated classifcations based on the attributes that are deemed authentic to their
class. As an American artist of Cheyenne and Arapaho descent producing work for Coast
Salish people in a style that evokes the language-based Conceptual art of the 1960s, where,
may we ask, does Heap of Birds ft within the restrictive categories of race and authenticity?
Historically, the Western tradition has been reluctant to accept modern First Nations experi-
ence as authentic, as part of the desire to keep the aesthetic or cultural separate from the
political.
14
Under this system, it would, therefore, be difcult to classify Heap of Birdss work
as authentic because it is most certainly modern.
Heap of Birdss American heritage further poses problems concerning how Native
Hosts should be categorizedis it Coast Salish art? Native American Art? Or should it be
placed in another category altogether? Te fact that the creation and installation of the work
theoretically requires only the artists specifcations and not the artists specifc skills or pres-
ence further complicates the works authenticity in regards to First Nations identity, as ex-
ecution of the work could be carried out by anyone, regardless of ethnicity. In light of these
myriad layers of artistic identity and production, how are we to ascertain the nature of the
works authorship and classifcation? As Heap of Birdss colleague, Jimmy Durham, has ob-
served, there is no way to see [Heap of Birdss] work as ethnic, as Indian art; but there is no
way to escape the Indian reality his work represents.
15
Perhaps the problems with questions
of category and authenticity are not then in the difculty in answering these questions, but in
the nature of the questions themselves. Both Heap of Birdss identity and his work provide a
compelling example of why such categorizations are outdated and irrelevant as they are un-
necessary to the functioning of the work. Tis conscious ambiguity is an important part of a
growing discourse, which also includes work such as Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptuns Daliesque
landscapes or Rebecca Belmores performances. Tis more inclusive discourse embraces mod-
ern infuences and adaptations as part of legitimate, authentic experience, acknowledging First
Nations culture outside of the historical prison of tradition and authenticity that, as Paige
Raibmon asserts, holds aboriginal people to impossible standards of ahistorical cultural pu-
rity.
16
Once such restrictive categorizations have been overcome, it becomes possible, as in the
case of Heap of Birds, to acknowledge the individual experiences that are part of an increas-
ingly integrated society.
13 Townsend-Gault, Having Voices, 67.
14 Jean Fisher, In Search of the Inauthentic: Disturbing Signs in Contemporary Native American Art,
Art Journal 51, no. 3 (1992): 44-45.
15 Charlotte Townsend-Gault, Ritualizing Rituals Rituals, Art Journal 51, no. 3 (1992): 52.
16 Paige Raibmon, Introduction: Authenticity and Colonial Cosmology, in Authentic Indians: Episodes of
Encounter from the Late 19
th
Century Northwest Coast (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 9.
8
Catherine Falls
In contrast to this increasingly inclusive discourse, the Euro-centric modern tradition,
its accepted canon of Canadian landscape painting and the institutions that have created this
canon have left First Nations people, both as artists and largely as subjects, conspicuously ab-
sent. In a radically diferent form of landscape art to that of artists such as the canonical Group
of Seven, Heap of Birds helps reinterpret landscape in a way that is more inclusive of a First
Nations perspective. As former Vancouver Art Gallery director William Holmes discusses in
the foreword to the exhibition catalogue for Lost Illusions, work such as Heap of Birdss chal-
lenges the simplistic conception of landscape that historically has been constructed by painters
like Emily Carr and the Group of Seven as a central tenet of Canadian identity.
17
Tis con-
structed identity includes an afnity for and a representation of a Virgin North, discovered
by artists such as the Group of Sevens hero, Tom Tomson.
18
Venerated by institutions such
as the National Gallery of Canada, these artists works have achieved a celebrated iconic sta-
tus within the Canadian cultural canon. In recent years, however, their work has become the
subject of considerable scrutiny for its exclusion of those marginal groups that exist outside of
the cultural mainstream.
19
One signifcant critique is that these canonical artists have, as Tuer
writes, denuded the landscape of its sacred elements and empt[ied] the northern woods of
human traces, creating a historical narrative in which memories of conquest and resistance
are vanquished from the representational feld, their absence papered over by mythologies of
pristine wilderness or technological progress.
20
As part of an overarching ideology that has
erased the multiple histories of Canadas marginal groups, traditional landscape art has par-
ticipated in and perpetuated a national identity that is blind to the sufering it has inficted
upon these groups. In reconceptualizing this landscape, presenting it as an entity with both
historical and contemporary political and social signifcance, and further reinvesting it with
a First Nations presence, Heap of Birds challenges this ideological construction of Canadian
identity created, in part, by landscape painting.
Native Hosts accomplishes this reconceptualization of landscape art through its pres-
ence as site-specifc art actually situated within the landscape, existing in public space at the
VAG, and semi-public at UBC. Tis contrasts with traditional landscape art, which has gen-
erally acted as a window onto what Oleksijczuk describes as beautiful uninhabited vistas
detached from the viewer.
21
Instead, Heap of Birdss work dissolves the boundaries between
landscape and art, the actual landscape it represents and its audience. Te series thus mim-
ics again its Conceptual predecessors, which according to Harrison, functioned without the
necessity of the frame, whose role it was to manage the relations between the painting and
17 Denise Oleksijczuk, Lost Illusions: Recent Landscape Art (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1991), 4.
18 Robert Stacey Te Myth and Truth of the True North, in Beyond Wilderness, ed. John OBrian
and Peter White (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press: 2007), 261-263.
19 See, for example, Tuer, 339.
20 Ibid., 339-340.
21 Oleksijczuk, 15.
9
UBCUJAH Issue 1 | 2010
22 Harrison, 63.
23 Hilde Hein, What Is Public Art?: Time, Place, and Meaning, Te Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism
54, no. 1 (1996): 4.
24 Charlotte Townsend-Gault, Review: Lost Illusions: Recent Landscape Art, Canadian Art 9, no. 1
(1992):76.
25 Charlotte Townsend-Gault, Translation and Perversion: Showing First Nations Art in Canada Cultural
Studies 9, no. 1 (1995): 101.
26 For details concerning UBC construction controversy, see Keith Baldrey, Land Debate Shows Double
Standard, Now, June 26, 2007, 14; Kevin Grifn and Mark Hume, Man with a Mission, Vancouver Sun,
November 25, 1995, A1; and Carolyn Walker, Hope Sprouts for UBC Farm, Te Tyee, July 28, 2008, http://
thetyee.ca/News/2008/07/28/UBCFarm/.
27 Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review
Press, 1968), 141-148.
the surrounding world of not-the-painting.
22
In its current location at the UBC campus,
with its mixture of nature and architecture and its views of the surrounding bodies of water,
the series functions within the type of idyllic landscape conveyed in traditional landscape
painting. Without the detachment that the frame provides the viewer, however, Native Hosts
prevents him/her from enjoying an uninterrupted escape to a pristine wilderness and from
disassociating the landscape from its political and social roles in the real world. As such, Heap
of Birdss work fts with Hilde Heins description of site-specifc art, which aims to evoke
critical adjustment to a place, and also, in a broader sense, to Heins defnition of public art
which both occupies public space and questions the meaning of that space and draws the
public into intelligent discourse with it.
23
Situated as part of the landscape in its present state
and referring explicitly to issues of past and present ownership of that landscape, the series
calls attention to the current use of the land in comparison to its use by its original occupants.
As Townsend-Gault observes in her review of the Lost Illusions exhibit, one of the multiple
messages of Native Hosts is the idea that the societies that originally inhabited what is now
British Columbia looked at nature in a radically diferent way from those that came after
Columbus.
24
Tis approach to the land by its original inhabitants was informed, according to
Ojibwe artist Carl Beam, by the belief that man was to live in accordance with nature, a belief
he opposes to the prevailing Christian view that man has dominion over it.
25
Tis reference to
current and historical land use is particularly relevant given the current setting of Native Hosts
at UBC in light of the recent ambitious and controversial corporate-funded development
projects that currently continue at the university.
26
In its physical positioning, Heap of Birdss work also functions as a critique that gains
meaning through its site-specifcity in the prominent Western institutions of the art gallery
(formerly the law courts), as well as the university. Louis Althusser connects these types of
institutions to the overarching ideologies that govern a modern societya connection that
is also drawn within Heap of Birdss work. According to Althusser, these three institutions
function as cultural, legal, and educational Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs), which work
alongside repressive state apparatuses, such as the police and army, to perpetuate the domi-
nant ideology.
27
Tey accomplish this by acting pluralistically upon the subject, in the form
10
Catherine Falls
of material practices and rituals, to ingrain ideological beliefs that appear to the subject to
stem from his/her own self-conscious belief system.
28
In the context of Heap of Birdss work,
this dominant ideological belief is non-Native ownership of the land and legitimate con-
trol over First Nations people. Trough the works self-conscious placement at the sites from
which these ISAs operate to perpetuate this ideology, the series supports the claims made by
Althusser of the importance of these institutions in creating ideological beliefs. At the same
time, Native Hosts disrupts these beliefs through its subversion of the ideologically determined
guest/host assumptions regarding land ownership created by the ISAs at these and other
sites. Tis subversion is deepened through the works unexpected and unexplained presence at
these institutions. Its disarmingly irrational reversal of the name British Columbia not only
draws the viewers attention to the work, but also suggests the inherent backwardness of the
dominant ideology of the province, and perhaps of Canada as a whole. As a result, the work
blocks or interrupts the viewers visual experience of these spaces and produces a discontinuity
in their otherwise continuous visual facade and the ideologies they produce. As both Heap
of Birds and Oleksijczuk have mentioned, the original positioning of Native Hosts on the
lawn of the former law courts meant that the work made claim to land ownership in a space
in which Western land titles, not First Nations titles, have historically been upheld.
29
On
the property of the art gallery, the signs asserted a First Nations artistic presence and under-
mined outdated ethnic classifcations in a place where First Nations art has only recently been
included. At the university they present an inverted and seemingly irrational message and
reintroduce a marginalized history at an institution where Western concepts of history and
Enlightenment rationality have been perpetuated to the exclusion of First Nations peoples
and their cosmologies.
Tis critique of Western ideology may be seen to form the basis of Heap of Birdss
work. Its method of simultaneously appearing as an ordinary part of its surroundings, yet sub-
verting the viewers visual and ideological expectations does not, however, come without risk.
While the works unexplained presence and ingrained irrationality work to disarm the viewer
and undermine his/her ideological assumptions, these may in fact alienate viewers who do
not understand the purpose of the work, or even its existence as an art installation designed
for contemplation. As a result, some viewers may simply ignore what they do not understand.
While the works fner nuances may be lost on a general audience, its basic message is clear, and
its current positioning at a university campus means that the work is available to a viewership
perhaps more highly attuned to local political debates. For those who are willing to engage
with the work, it provides a forceful and thought-provoking reversal of common perceptions.
By refusing viewers both the pleasure of the landscape and the ideological assumptions that
28 Ibid., 167-169.
29 Oleksijczuk, 20; Blomley, 802.
11
UBCUJAH Issue 1 | 2010
the land is pristine, detached from the social and political events of everyday life, and owned
and controlled by a legitimate source of power, Native Hosts reasserts the unjust displacement
of First Nations people from the land and also grounds the land as part of existing struggles.
Its appropriation of an authoritative tone, its use of irony, and its site-specifcity function to
invert the accepted relationship of the non-Native viewer to the land. Te work reconceptual-
izes the genre of landscape art that has been integral to mainstream Canadian identity and
discards the categories by which all art and artists have been defned. As a result, Native Hosts
contributes to a more inclusive discourse of artistic practice, within which Heap of Birds con-
tinues the task of his Conceptual predecessors, whose work was meant to, as Sol Lewitt wrote,
engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye or emotions.
30
By reinvesting the land
with one of the many marginal histories excluded by the monolithic Western grand narrative,
Heap of Birdss work performs a similar function to the work of other artists, such as Rebecca
Belmore and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, serving to refresh the collective memory, and thus
ensuring that First Nations demands remain an integral part of public debate.
30 Sol Lewitt, Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, in Art in Teory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas,
ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Blackwell Publishing: Malden, Massachusetts, 2007), 849.