The Proust Questionnaire: David McMillan
The Proust Questionnaire started as a Late Victorian parlour game, aimed at revealing key aspects of a person’s character. While still in his teens, author Marcel Proust answered a similar series of questions with such enthusiasm that, when the manuscript containing his original answers was discovered in 1924, his name became permanently associated with this type of informal interview.
Winnipeg-based artist David McMillan originally trained as a painter, and started working with photography during the late 1970s. Exploring interiors, landscapes and cityscapes, his early work was already focused on the interaction points between nature and architecture, and the tensions this can create. It was his seminal journey to the Ukraine in October 1994 to photograph "the Zone" – the area affected by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident – that instigated a visual story of decay and beauty that would span 25 years. He has re-visited the area 21 times, and the contrast between the decaying man-made structures and the imposing force of nature has resulted in images of haunting beauty. Commenting on the project for the Atomic Photographers Guild, the artist remarked: "An unanticipated consequence of having returned so frequently has been the opportunity to photograph the changes taking place within this very unique environment. Nature has proliferated while the built environment has deteriorated, and this has become the subject matter of my photographs." Speaking to Global News Manitoba in 2016, he underlined his fascination with "what happens when nature is given free rein" and culture subsides.
The collection of the National Gallery of Canada holds over 50 photographs from McMillan's Ukraine project. The majority were taken in the town of Pripyat and date from his first visit and 13 return visits to the region. Andrea Kunard, the Gallery's Associate Curator of Photography, comments "The artist uses his well-honed aesthetic skills to dramatic and effective ends, ensuring maximum viewer engagement by presenting the site as both visually familiar and exotic, alluring and appalling. The rigid geometry of human dwellings is slowly crumbling through exposure to the elements; the photographs show human order being steadily and irrevocably broken down bit by bit. " His work was featured in Shine a Light, the Gallery's 2014 Canadian Biennial, as well as the Photography in Canada 1960–2000 exhibition in 2017.
From 1973 until his retirement in 2009, McMillan taught at the University of Manitoba. His work has appeared in more than 30 solo exhibitions, 43 group exhibitions and some 30 publications. In addition to the Gallery's collection, his photographs are also held in collections that include the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and his work has been exhibited nationally and internationally. His most recent publication, Growth and Decay. Pripyat and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, was published in 2019.
Your earliest memory of art:
Before having a sense of what art might be, I had an appreciation of handmade pictures. An aunt was an amateur painter and my mother drew to amuse me.
When you knew this would become your vocation:
After attending art school, nothing else seemed as interesting.
Your greatest influence:
The work of other artists. Essays by John Szarkowski helped me form a conceptual framework.
Occupation you would have chosen (other than art):
So many have been important, but French photographer Eugène Atget tops the list.
Favourite writer and musician/composer:
My favourite writers and musicians have changed over the years. When I was younger, I read Charles Dickens then John Updike, but now it is writers such as Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard. I listen to a lot of various genres of music, but Mozart and especially Beethoven are hard to beat for emotional depth.
Favourite weather or season:
In my part of the world, the autumn.
Your definition of happiness:
Working on something that is meaningful to me and that has a chance of being successful.
To me art is (in five words or less):
Sensibility made manifest.
For details of works by David McMillan in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, see the collection online and the Gallery's Photo Blog. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.