History and Identity: Althea Thauberger's "L’arbre est dans ses feuilles"
Althea Thauberger’s video installation L’arbre est dans ses feuilles (The Tree Is in its Leaves) immerses the viewer in the photographic archive amassed by the National Film Board of Canada fifty years ago. Co-commissioned by the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal and the National Gallery’s Canadian Photography Institute, L’arbre est dans ses feuilles is a critical historical intervention that addresses gender performativity, memory, the mutability of the archive and the “imagined community” of the Canadian nation. The two-channel installation, first shown in the exhibition In Search of Expo ’67 at Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal last year, is now the focus of PhotoLab 5: Althea Thauberger at the National Gallery of Canada.
Since the early 2000s, Vancouver-based Thauberger has produced an extensive body of work across various media. Well known for collaborative social documentary work, she consistently explores questions of performativity, historical contestation and institutional critique.
In L’arbre est dans ses feuilles, the artist turns her attention to the NFB’s Still Photography Division, which from 1941 to 1984 was known as “the chief official photographic agency for the federal government”. Although eclipsed by the NFB’s cinematic productions, the Still Photography Division produced and disseminated hundreds of thousands of photographs promoting Canadian nationhood. From within that long history, Thauberger looks specifically at a series of ambitious projects organized for Canada’s centennial in 1967 by the Still Photography Division, then under the direction of executive producer Lorraine Monk. Each of these three projects – The People Tree installation created for Expo ’67 in Montreal and two 1968 photographic NFB books, Call Them Canadians and Ces visages qui sont un pays – featured dozens of gelatin silver images of unidentified Canadians. As a whole, they formed a composite portrait of an idealized model of the Canadian citizenry in the mid 1960s. These centennial composite portraits – with their suggestion of stable, individual (Cartesian) identity – stood as metaphors for a coherent, unified nation. At the same time, however, it was a selective portrait that focused on white, middle-class identity.
Thauberger reactivates that complex visual and social history by mining the Still Photography Division archive, now divided between the Canadian Photographic Institute and Library and Archives Canada, and by inhabiting the persona of Lorraine Monk. The structure of L’arbre est dans ses feuilles is adapted from The People Tree, the six-storey spherical installation dedicated to Canada’s citizens. Developed by the Office of the Commissioner General for Expo and the Still Photography Division, The People Tree was a stylized maple tree; its ‘leaves’ were meant to signify the people of Canada and comprised panels in vivid fall colours, including about 500 with these seemingly candid photographs of Canadians. Wandering inside the tree among life-sized photographs of Canadians with the voices of people from across the country playing through speakers, visitors were beckoned to identify themselves as members of the imagined community of Canada.
Decades after Expo '67, Thauberger's work offers a critical re-enactment of the NFB’s nationalist "family tree". Two screens surround the viewer with images and voices. Thauberger selected the black and white archival images from the same group that Monk surveyed for the centennial projects. They feature the work of the innovative photographers championed at the time by Monk and the Still Photography Division: Michael Semak, George Hunter, Lutz Dille, Michel Lambeth, Ted Grant and Pierre Gaudard, among others. Many of their images appear on “grey cards” or copy prints with accompanying cataloguing information. The images alternate across the two screens: children and adults, pictured in groups or as solitary figures, appear gazing at us and are then supplanted by more photographs of other unidentified sitters. But here, Thauberger has selected images that show a more culturally inclusive picture of Canada.
In place of the variety of Canadian accents played on The People Tree’s sound system, for L’arbre est dans ses feuilles, Thauberger has invited collaborators to contribute poetic verse and scholarly analysis accompanied by the sound of rhythmic breathing for her soundtrack. The poetic component reflects the use of verse in the two 1968 publications. She approached poets and spoken word artists Kama La Mackerel, Natasha Kanapé Fontaine, Chloé Savoie Bernard and Danica Evering – all women whose work reflects critically on relations between nation and identity. Their contributions infuse the work with emotional urgency and remind us that the narrative of history is always in negotiation. As Kama La Mackerel writes in an excerpt from the 2017 poem The People Tree:
“Stories … stories of exploitation … colonization … you are the tree whose leaves speak in unknown tongues … you are the tree of knowledge … You are the tree that knows all the stories … the stories that cannot be told…”
The soundtrack also underscores these negotiations with the past through analysis about the NFB archive and its history by CPI Associate Curator Andrea Kunard and myself. As Kunard points out, “The archive is never stable. It is always changing.”
At the centre of this dynamic montage of sight and sound is the figure of Thauberger, appearing in the guise of Lorraine Althea Monk, executive producer from 1960 to 1980. With her hair upswept and wearing a 1960s shift dress, Thauberger looks uncannily like Monk did fifty years ago. We see her surrounded by archival photographs and then, irreverently, tossing them aside and standing on stacks of reproductions. In this playful retelling of the NFB Still Photography Division’s history, Monk appears as a subversive figure whose insistence on female commentators was a challenge to the narrow, patriarchal model of nationhood usually seen at the time.
Althea Thauberger’s collaborative work, L’arbre est dans ses feuilles, engages the viewer in critical historical analysis, inviting us to consider how we negotiate with the past and how models of citizenship and nation have and have not changed.
PhotoLab 5: Althea Thauberger is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from October 19, 2018 to February 3, 2019. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page. Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest Gallery news, and to learn more about art in Canada.