Audain Gallery’s latest exhibition is a powerful exploration of the performativity of identity

Contemporary artists expand on the effect of performance on score in Relations of Responsibility

Gabi Dao’s Excerpts from the Domestic Cinema, Ch. 1 is one of the pieces showing in Relations of Responsibility. Image courtesy of Gabi Dao / SFU Galleries.

By: Kim Regala, Peak Associate

08/11/2019: This story has been corrected from an older version. The previous version stated that the Gitxsan Nation drum that Raven Chacon’s piece revolves around was resounded by Chacon. The drum was resounded by Shabnam Honarbakhsh, Collections Coordinator at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology.

Hoping to explore the relationship between performance and score, SFU’s Audain Gallery joins the work of three artists in their new exhibition, Relations of Responsibility. The title borrows from the ideas of feminist scholar Karen Barad who, in her essay “Nature’s Queer Performativity,” discusses the materializing effects that a performance has on its corresponding score.

We may think of the two as separate from each other: the score simply holds a set of instructions for executing the art piece, while the performance itself is the aftermath of said instructions. However, contemporary artists Raven Chacon, Gabi Dao, and Lou Sheppard have come together to challenge this very idea, implying that the relationship between the two is actually more dynamic than we think. Their work showcases how it is through interpretation and performativity that the score is brought to life and given new meaning.

Raven Chacon, SFU’s Visual Artist in Residence, gives a fitting introduction to this very complex idea. His sound art installation, Still Life No. 4, explores the performativity of identity as it operates against its given narrative or score. Chacon’s piece revolves around a Gitxsan Nation drum that had been unsounded since 1948 when it was claimed by UBC’s Museum of Anthropology. Tucked away in storage for all this time, it wasn’t until Shabnam Honarbakhsh, Collections Coordinator at the museum, resounded the drum in August 2019 that it was brought back to life. His artist statement explains that “Still Life No. 4 lets the drum sing, operating against an imposed script of silence and enclosure, and aligning the cultural belonging with its object-lifeforce.” The banging of the drum can be heard in four separate sound stations: one in Burnaby at the SFU Gallery, at the Audain Gallery, in one of SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts’ main offices, and at Western Front. The further the station is from the location of the drum, the faster the oscillation pattern of the beat sounds within headphones. Chacon intends for this rapid succession to be symbolic of the heavier impact that this silence holds as measured through physical distance.

Continuing this exploration of a score’s relationship to performance, Vancouver artist Gabi Dao transforms written text into a cinematic art form with Excerpts from the Domestic Cinema, Ch. 1 (2018) and Ch. 2 (2019). Having been gifted her father’s autobiography that recounts his experiences at the time of the Vietnam War, Dao’s work addresses the notions of cultural supremacy faced especially by refugees. The narration tosses back and forth between father and daughter, further emphasizing the collaborative yet nurturing nature of the piece. The video is not so much a literal translation of the text; instead, it is fuelled with abstract imagery that paints a delicate portrait of domestic life. This pairs well with the overall design of the gallery space, as the comfortable seating arrangement of couches and pillows evokes feelings of home. 

Bringing the exhibition to a powerful conclusion is Lou Sheppard’s performance piece, A Strong Desire. As a trans person, Sheppard draws from the diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria to create a piece that allows them to exert their agency over a text that is meant to discriminate on their identity. At the gallery, the diagnostic criteria is printed onto the left-hand side of the wall, in opposition to Sheppard’s text-based performance score displayed on the right-hand side. The choreography itself is a bodily performance meant to replicate movements of looming over and within the gaps of the written text. Sheppard’s performance occurred on October 9, where the public witnessed the laborious series of movements take place. To execute the choreography, Sheppard covered their hands with charcoal and dragged them all over the walls in various shapes, leaving marks on the spaces that were touched. Additionally, they dragged around a riser and climbed up and down these steps, furthering the physical labour that is inherent to the piece. The overall performance lasted for half an hour, leaving Sheppard exhausted and covered in sweat. However, it is the piece’s work-intensive nature that is resonant of the equally burdening experiences that trans people undergo on a daily basis from the institutionalized discrimination of their identity.

Relations of Responsibility is located at the Audain Gallery and is open to the public until December 7. Gabi Dao and her father, Duc Kim Dao, will be holding a workshop for Storytelling in the Domestic Cinema on November 6 at the Audain Gallery.