Carl Beam’s Voyage: An Interview with Greg Hill
Carl Beam (1943–2005), from M’Chigeeng First Nation, was an internationally acclaimed contemporary Canadian artist known for his powerful narratives. Usually involving multiple layers of text and images on canvas or other materials, Beam’s thought-provoking works address a wide range of cultural, historical and political references.
One of Beam’s few sculptures — Voyage (1988) — is on view in the new National Gallery of Canada exhibition Canadian and Indigenous Art: 1968 to Present. The skeletal white ship is a 1/5 scale model of the Santa Maria, one of Christopher Columbus’ ships from his 1492 journey across the Atlantic. The imposing sculpture was a key part of Beam’s “The Columbus Project”: a body of work created over a five-year period to re-evaluate the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, and as a counter to 500th-anniversary celebrations in 1992.
In 1989, Beam said of the work, "The idea of constructing a boat like Columbus' ships . . . is not any homage to seamanship or carpentry, but more like trying to see if the idea of sailing, or aspiring to something else in a voyage, can be conveyed — the idea of taking a trip into an unspecified area."
In 2010, the NGC had a Beam retrospective called, simply, Carl Beam. Through art that included Voyage and the painting The North American Iceberg (1985) — another work on view in the Canadian and Indigenous contemporary galleries — the exhibition examined the legacy of an artist who not only explored the enduring tensions between Indigenous peoples and Europeans, but who also presented an unflinching look at what it means to be Indigenous in Canada today.
In this interview, Greg Hill, Audain Senior Curator of Indigenous Art, talks about the importance of Voyage and how it fits within the narrative in Canadian and Indigenous Art: 1968 to Present.
NGC Magazine: You recommended that the NGC acquire this sculpture back in 2008. What struck you about this work, and why was it important for the NGC to have it?
Greg Hill: Carl didn’t make a lot of sculptures — unlike his voluminous output in other mediums, especially printmaking; so, it’s a rarity and a very stately, impressive object. Even though it is an eviscerated hull of a ship, and while you get that it’s a shipwreck, it is also painted white and this gives another kind of presence to it. Sometimes people think of that as a skeleton, maybe a whale skeleton. That’s the first visual impression many have upon first seeing this — you see this white disembowelled ship. The sculpture raises a lot of questions. It grabs you, and provokes you to ask questions and to think. One of the things Beam used to say was that he made art for thinking people.
NGCM: What key themes is Beam exploring in Voyage?
GH: It’s about the idea of venturing out into the unknown. There is something that Carl thought was instructive about that. He thought it was an important thing for people to consider and to value: to do something; to be brave; to take a risk; to challenge your knowledge. When Columbus sailed on the Santa Maria, that voyage was risky; it was life threatening. They didn’t know if they were going to be sailing off the edge of the earth. The sculpture was part of a show, The Columbus Project, in 1992, calling into question celebrations of the 500th anniversary since the landing of Columbus in the Americas. The project was a re-evaluation of the impact of the colonial history that followed. There is very much a critical side to his work. This sculpture evokes that.
NGCM: Sculpture is not a typical medium for Carl Beam. Do you know why he chose this medium to tell this story?
GH: Artists have ideas about things they want to do, which may sometimes be outside of their skills or their normal practice. In a sense, it was a voyage for Carl as well, to do something that he hadn’t been able to do, or wouldn’t normally be able to do. He worked with a carpenter to realize that sculpture, which was a big step for him. It was an investment of time and resources — financial resources, so there’s a certain amount of risk for an artist. That’s a liability: the size of that work. That’s in part how it came to be in the NGC. The sculpture was being stored in a warehouse in Minnesota, then at a property of the owner for more than ten years. He donated it to the NGC because he thought it belonged in Canada with Carl’s other work.
NGCM: The NGC purchased Beam’s The North American Iceberg in 1986. It was thought to be the first work by a First Nations artist to enter the contemporary art collection. Carl was not happy about that distinction, because he thought that the acquisition might be viewed as motivated by political reasons. How did Carl Beam see his work as an artist who is also Anishnaabe?
GH: Carl was in a tough place. It was the height of identity politics, and also a period of active lobbying by Indigenous artists to gain access to art galleries and have their work brought into fine art collections, as opposed to ethnographic museum collections. At the same time, artists wanted to be recognized as artists, first and foremost. That it was viewed as a political act for a fine-art-collecting institution to acquire a work of contemporary Indigenous art was an unfortunate backlash to what would otherwise be considered a great and necessary acquisition.
Some artists wanted to say, “We’re artists and we want to be recognized as artists first. And, we’re artists who also happen to be something else.” There’s been a shift; now a lot of artists are saying, “I am a proud Indigenous person who makes art. It’s time you recognize who I am if you want me to allow you to bring my work into your collection.” There was a time when artists had to come in with their identities in their back pockets. Now artists can proudly and openly be who they are. This also means that artists are identifying by their specific tribal affiliations and abandoning generic terms, further claiming their subjectivity.
NGCM: Tell me about where this sculpture will be placed in the newly reconfigured contemporary galleries. What is the significance of its location?
GH: It’s a powerful place; the space itself has a lot of presence. The Donald E. Sobey family gallery is a very large atrium. There are windows looking out towards Sussex Drive, and these windows are around 18 metres high — the full height of the gallery. You can also look at the sculpture from above, from the second floor. It’s going to have a lot of impact there, in the centre of that grand room. There’s a nice relationship with the architecture and other works in the adjoining spaces. For example, if you look at Voyage and then look up into the upper contemporary galleries, you’re going to be able to see Brian Jungen’s Shapeshifter (2000) and Vienna (2003): two suspended sculptures that look like whale skeletons, but which are made of white plastic lawn chairs. There will be a strong correlation between these works and Voyage. It’s going to be austere and beautiful and contemplative, and will generate the kind of thinking that Beam wanted to inspire in people.
NGCM: Does Voyage set up visitors in any way for the rest of what they will see in the reconfigured contemporary galleries?
GH: Visitors can use it as a metaphor for this whole project, which is about venturing into the unknown, bringing cultures together, and the positive aspects of everything that has ensued. It explores the art that has come out of it, which is all part of this voyage that the people of Turtle Island (North America) have been on — and that Canada, as a young nation within Turtle Island, has been on. The galleries are being completely deconstructed and reconstructed. There is a new and deeper integration of Indigenous art, more Indigenous art, in the historical galleries and in the contemporary galleries. This will generate enquiry, dialogue, and new conversations.
NGCM: Given Carl Beam’s views on the motivation behind the NGC’s first purchase of his work — and that his work has been called ‘Post-Indian' — do you think the NGC’s integration of Indigenous art within the historical and contemporary galleries is something Carl Beam would have appreciated?
GH: I think Carl would have loved to discuss the issues, the pros and cons, and have a very active, possibly volatile, debate on what’s transpiring. I think he would be supportive of these efforts, and the dialogue and conversation that will ensue.
Voyage by Carl Beam is on view in Contemporary Gallery B105 at the National Gallery of Canada. The North American Iceberg is on view in Contemporary Gallery B101.