Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Tripping on museums

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I am a freak for museums. A lot of this has to do with the fact that my mother used to bring me to the Detroit Institute of Arts almost weekly when I was a kid and I thought it was the best place ever to spend the day. I still remember how magical I thought a particular sculpture by Claes Oldenburg of a giant electrical plug was. There was also a small sculpture, maybe in wood or cloth, of a Good Humor bar made out of the alphabet. (At least in my mind it is a sculpture — I can only find examples of this as a print online. Maybe my memory is melting.) I loved the café, the courtyard, the fountain where I’d toss a penny to make a wish. I felt like I was visiting my friends when I went to see my favourite pieces in the museum. According to my mother, my taste got less sophisticated as I got older. My goal is to continue to regress.

When I was just out of college, I lived in London, England, for a year and then traveled for a month through Europe by train. I spent a couple amazing days in Venice by myself in the off-season and I went to the Peggy Guggenheim museum while I was there. It’s in her old house on the Grand Canal and features her private collection of modern art — she was married to Max Ernst (disastrously by most accounts) for a minute, and she was an important supporter of the Surrealists, so as batty as the lady seems to me — she had about ten of her fancy little dogs buried in the back — I have to give her props for her bad-ass taste. This is where I first saw anything by Joseph Cornell — two of his montage boxes — and he has been one of my heroes ever since.

What I liked the most about spending time in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection was how personal and intimate the experience was — it reflected an individual’s idiosyncratic vision. This is the same reason I love the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario, which is located inside the former home of Canadian collectors Robert and Signe McMichael.

The museum is a manageable size, and at this time of year you can see the fall leaves through almost every window, which makes a nice backdrop for all the Group of Seven paintings on display (the site was originally surrounded by farmland and most of the trees were planted by the McMichaels themselves). It doesn’t feel like an institution, it feels like a labour of love.

The McMichaels were early champions of aboriginal Canadian artists, like Norval Morrisseau (there’s an excellent room devoted to work by Morrisseau and the Woodland School he inspired), and so the current exhibit of prints, drawings, and sculptures from Cape Dorset celebrating the 50th anniversary of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative fits excellently with the gallery’s history and it’s commitment to promoting Canadian culture.

Curator Anna Stanisz gave me a tour of Nunannguaq: In the Likeness of the Earth today and it was incredible to listen to her passionately link the role of mapping to the way Inuit artists represent landscape. I would have enjoyed the work for its beauty alone, but I became more and more excited about reconsidering the use of negative and positive space and how it relates to narrative and memory. I’m drawn to the idea of incorporating multiple points of view simultaneously rather than following a linear perspective, but I don’t yet know how this might translate into my own writing. (And yes, I’m aware that postmodernists have been exploring this in various ways for decades.) Still, I feel on an intuitive level that there’s something significant for me to learn here.

In general, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I might apply some of the more interesting concepts I find expressed in visual art and music to the medium of language. I’m not sure where it will lead me, but it’s changing the way I think about text on the page and the possibilities I imagine for story. Sometimes not knowing is a really good feeling.

Nunannguaq: In the Likeness of the Earth runs until January 17, 2010. The McMichael is about 35 to 40 minutes out of the city by car; you can get there on the Go, but I’m not sure how long that takes. Probably a while. But when you think of how long you can spend just trying to get across the city, it’s not that big a trip.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Damian Rogers

Damian Rogers lives in Toronto. Paper Radio (ECW Press) is her first book.

Go to Damian Rogers’s Author Page