Monday, May 28, 2012

The Game of Life, the Dance of Death

Nathan Cann, "Fallen Soldiers" series of monoprints on paper, 2012


The figures are faceless and loosely drawn, but clearly identifiable as soldiers in bulky military gear with camouflage blotches.  These men are warriors stunned by bullets, thrown off-balance by the impact of a grenade, or already fallen, lying wounded and helpless on the ground.    Artist Nathan Cann depicts violent moments, but his ability to aestheticize raw subject matter turns death into a gestural, even graceful, dance.  The "Fallen Soldiers" series of monoprints steers the viewer towards an appreciation of style and away from any sense of morbidity.  These works are more concerned with surface and effect than disturbing or grisly content.

Nathan Cann, "Soldier 13," monoprint on paper, 2012

Nathan Cann, "Soldier 16," monoprint on paper, 2012


 The danse macabre began in the 1300s as a church drama based on the theme of the inevitability of death. Death, portrayed by an actor clad in a yellow linen skeleton costume, visited each member of the social chain in a sequence that started with the Pope and continued through a line of 24 characters, moving from nobleman to knight, monk, merchant, craftsman and peasant right down to a small child.   The script involved an invitation from Death, a refusal from the intended victim, an insistent rebuttal and the hasty removal of the chosen dance partner against his will.  The abrupt exit stage left was highly relevant to the everyday experience of the medieval audience as the  Black Death was rapidly and indiscriminately decimating the population.  The church performance served as a reminder that no one was exempt, so it was best to be prepared for, rather than fearful of the end of life.  The danse macabre was a morality play that addressed the anxiety of a death-conscious society.


 Hans Holbein the Younger revisited the theme of  "Der Totentanz" in a series of 41 woodblock prints issued in 1538.  His characters are depicted in everyday surroundings, being seduced, tricked, distracted or destroyed by a skeletal representation of Death.  With Holbein, the strength of the drawing is always the underpinning for the composition, and this famous series of prints demonstrates a masterful use of line.  It also reveals a rather wicked sense of humour and irony applied to very serious subject matter.

Hans Holbein the Younger, "The Knight" woodblock print, 1538
The caption for "The Knight" reads:

"After escaping the perils in his numerous conquests, he is vanquished by Death whom he ineffectively resists."


Nathan Cann states that his generic soldier images are appropriated from popular video games such as COD - Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.  COD is a first-person shooter game that situates the player in a squad of soldiers to wage a battle with enemy insurgents in a virtual landscape.  The artist has extracted elements from this war game simulation of extreme violence and reworked them as universal, benign iconography.  Are his fallen soldiers enemies or comrades?  In the end it doesn't really matter, as death is the victor in all battles.   Cann's images relay the same message as Holbein's - the final dance is inevitable.

The "Fallen Soldiers" series is included in the BFA Graduating Students Exhibition on display at the Owens Art Gallery, Mt. Allison University in Sackville NB until June 24.  His work may also be seen in his Flickr photostream.

NB update 08/07/12:  Nathan Cann was awarded the provincial prize of $5000 in the BMO 1st Art! Student Art Competition. His "Fallen Soldiers" will be exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto beginning October 1, 2012.  Congratulations Natt!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Frye, Gilmour and "The Perfect Order of Things"



When it was announced that author David Gilmour (student of Northrop Frye) would be participating in a writers' panel discussion in Moncton as part of the Frye Festival, I was eager to attend the event.  This year marks the centenary of Northrop Frye's birth and his literary contribution to Canadian culture was being celebrated locally with a 24 hour playwriting contest, symposiums, authors' readings and the festival slogan "Feed Your Imagination."   Gilmour's latest book "The Perfect Order of Things" had been described in a CBC radio interview as a "fictional autobiography."  An oxymoron, perhaps, but the premise of the story - a middle-aged man returning to the scenes of his past suffering to extract valuable life lessons from negative experiences - was certainly intriguing.

The panel discussion was supposed to be on the topic of "Telling Family Secrets" but the four invited writers, Jean-Francois Beauchemin, Dave Bidini, David Humel and Gilmour actually had more to say about the craft of writing and the selling-points of their latest books. The question of how much truth could be safely injected into fiction was overshadowed by a fixation on literature as revenge, a means for the writer to settle a score.   The fact that this was an all-male panel may have contributed to a certain amount of boasting about wielding the mighty pen in lieu of a sword to get back at detractors.  There was also some talk (initiated by Gilmour) about whether the size of a book really matters;  is longer and thicker really favoured by readers ?  The author made a point of mentioning, with obvious disdain, that a reviewer had commented that "The Perfect Order of Things" was a lightweight book that didn't seem hefty enough at 222 pages to warrant its $30 price tag.  It dawned on me then that David Gilmour, former film critic, doesn't like criticism.   He never hesitated to dish it out when he worked for CBC or the Globe and Mail, but clearly cannot tolerate being on the receiving end.

I did remember to get my pen out after the discussion had concluded and David Gilmour signed the title page of my brand new copy of his latest book.  In the course of reading "The Perfect Order of Things,"  I came to regret the fact that I had witnessed his performance as part of a panel discussion.  I wanted to like the book,  but David Gilmour in his multiple guises as author/narrator/subject intervened.

David Gilmour (right) making his point
The other signed book on my shelf, Margaret Atwood's "Negotiating with the Dead" gives insight into the craft of writing.  Atwood describes the relationship between the writer, the book and the reader as forming a V with the writer and reader remaining at points eternally separate, connected only through the text.   It is interesting to note that Atwood, like Gilmour, was a student of Northrop Frye at Victoria College.

"The writer communicates with the page.  The reader also communicates with the page.  The writer and the reader communicate only through the page.  This is one of the syllogisms of writing as such.  Pay no attention to the facsimiles of the writer that appear on talkshows, in newspaper interviews, and the like - they ought not to have anything to do with what goes on between you, the reader, and the page you are reading, where an invisible hand has previously left some marks for you to decipher, much as one of John Le Carre's dead spies has left a water-logged shoe with a small packet in it for George Smiley. I know this is a far-fetched image, but it is also curiously apt, since the reader is - among other things - a sort of spy. A spy, a trespasser, someone in the habit of reading other people's letters and diaries.  As Northrop Frye has implied, the reader does not hear, he overhears."                                                      - Atwood, "Negotiating with the Dead" p.126


Atwood's reference to Frye's version of John Stuart Mill's statement that "the artist is not heard, but overheard" points to a separation between the writer and the reader that makes the book come alive in a comfort zone, an imaginary world one step removed from the personality and curriculum vitae of the creator.   That's vital to the reader's pleasurable feeling of being immersed in or transported by fiction.

I would rather not hear the insecure David Gilmour trying to justify his past behaviour, whining about lost opportunities, indulging in self-pity, seeking revenge, or confessing his sins on every page of his autobiographical novel. Overhearing any part of that would have been far more enjoyable.  Here's a sample, describing an over-reaction to a negative review:

"Don't believe that old adage that a bad review is supposed to ruin breakfast but not lunch.  A bad review can spoil a good deal more than that.  This one, this ugly-minded pigeon shit ( I'll kill that m-----f-----!), made me feel as if my novel, only days out of the gate, had already a stain on it and that every time I looked at it, like at the couch, I would see only the stain.  It made me feel as if everyone in the world had read the review - people on the street, people going by in cars, people looking out the window of a hairdressing salon - which produced in my body a sensation of physical distress, like being in a horror movie.  No matter where I turned, I couldn't shake it."

In a CBC interview with Shelagh Rogers, Gilmour delivers a dire warning: reviewers who pan a book will make lifelong enemies!  (Especially if it's one of his books.)