In Vancouver, there is no image of nature that is not at the same time an image of private property. Possession structures the visual culture and economy of the image. Whether this image is a meticulously crafted photograph for a condo advertisement staged in False Creek, or a self-portrait posed for at the top of Grouse Mountain, almost always the photograph is invested with an inflated sense of status, projection, and desire. And regardless of whether the image circulates on Instagram or Twitter, Grindr or the gallery system, the image is strictly that of appearance, never perceived as the product of labor or violence. Its value is measured by likes, dates,♡, second dates, re-posts, and most importantly, in the context of real estate, the inflation of the property’s price-tag. The possession of nature goes hand-in-hand with nature’s commodification.
In the central rotunda of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Alison Yip has constructed a mural of a ruined gazebo. Rendered in trompe l’oeil, Yip’s Gazebo (2016) is a scene sensed at twilight. Occupied by skunks, foxes, overgrown weeds, garden tools, and a raft of mythological figures, her vision is steeped in a strange mingling of dream, nature and everyday domesticity — reminiscent of the murals in Robert Altman’s unnerving film, 3 Women (1977). In one panel, the side profile of a figure is composed from an array of cleaning tools; another pictures a long garden hose snaking across a lurid yellow ground, spurting water erratically. Yip’s gazebo is no west coast arcadia, where nature is imagined to exist in a harmonious relation to its subjects. In fact, the central figure of Gazebo is the veiled goddess Themis, the blind goddess of Justice, whose furtive presence suggests a persistent and speculative haunting.
2013: THE YEAR OF EVICTIONS
After the predatory spectacle of the 2010 Olympic Games, a state of precarity and relentless eviction has become the norm in Vancouver. A landmark example was the closure of the Waldorf Hotel, and since then casualties have piled on top of each other like a sea of ivory in an elephant graveyard: VIVO Media Arts Centre, the Junction, ROYGBIV, Nowhere, Spartacus Books (temporarily reversed), to name just a few. Although each case is different, these evictions are a result of a pernicious mix of excessively high rents, restructured state funding, profit-driven renovictions, and an apathetic city council who turns a blind eye to slumlords and developer greed while maintaining an absurd regulatory protocol for cultural space.
“That the world is out of joint is shown everywhere in the fact that however a problem is solved, the solution is false.” – Theodor Adorno
After years of political negligence, a failed architectural proposal, and prolonged economic recession, the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) is finally getting a new building at Larwill Park. A good dose of public elation, institutional relief, and civic boosterism has accompanied the announcement. But situated squarely within the double-edged contradictions of cultural production and presentation, the new VAG might be less a rebirth than a last gasp. To complicate matters, a wild spate of developer-city-state evictions of artist-run spaces have recently exacerbated the fierce symptoms of Vancouver’s rapid gentrification. And with the surprising yet decisive re-election of a BC Liberal majority at the provincial level, coupled with unilateral corporate control at the municipal level, the political and aesthetic status quo appears practically guaranteed. The VAG’s announcement in the context of ongoing neoliberal reforms and much decried cultural fragmentation and displacement, may yet be a “kiss of death” for Vancouver — sweet at contact, but fatal in the long run. Viewed critically, the announcement seems more sobering than joyous, more foreboding than fortunate.