"Monuments unmoored": Works by Caroline Monnet
Caroline Monnet is an emerging multimedia artist based in Montreal. Originally from Gatineau, she holds dual French and Canadian citizenship – her mother being an Algonquin Anishinabekwe from Kitigan Zibi First Nation in Quebec, and her father having emigrated from France. Since her first experimental film, Ikwé, was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009, she has produced prolifically in a wide range of mediums.
Monnet's films, including Mobilize (2015) and Tshiuetin (2016; which was nominated for Best Short Documentary at the Canadian Screen Awards), are influenced by the logic-subverting strategies of Dadaism: collage, cabaret and psychological suggestion. In Mobilize, a video work commissioned by the National Film Board of Canada, Monnet reworks footage from the NFB archives into a surging vision of Indigenous expertise and energy. With its narratives clipped apart and dialogue replaced by Tanya Tagaq’s "polar punk" throat singing, the settler-produced source material loses its didactic content and takes on a thrilling urgency to go and do. Its title suggests a political call to action addressed to an Indigenous audience.
These influences cross seamlessly into her other mixed media work, where she experiments with found photo collage and monuments both pre- and post-modern. Monnet cites as key influences Neolithic standing stone sites of Northwest France and the Mexican Mestiza artist Teresa Margolles. Margolles is known for her concrete structures made with material taken from sites of violence. Monnet’s 2015 Unlikely Processes builds directly on this idea of material with memory. Clothing is partially pushed into concrete and then clipped away, so that only a ‘scar’ remains to texture the smooth surface of the resulting cube. In her 2016 solo show at AXENÉO7, Standing in the Shadow of the Obvious, she experimented with similar cubic concrete structures, embedding them with the straps for their own suspension or stacking them into monoliths with drapery trailing up to the ceiling.
Two new works by this internationally acclaimed artist have now been acquired by the National Gallery of Canada and will be on view in the Gallery's upcoming exhibition Àbadakone / Continuous Fire / Feu continuel. Transatlantic is a large-scale video installation, shown alongside Proximal, consisting of five concrete spheres. Transatlantic is an abstract documentation of the artist’s 22-day voyage by cargo ship from a port in Europe to Montreal (where she lives and works today, and where the waters of her mother’s home, Kitigan Zibi, meet the St. Lawrence seaway). Shots of sea, sky and port play out in steady succession, abstracted into disorienting shapes by the mirroring of the image, and by the weaving motion of the ship on the water.
Although the film begins and ends in the visually stable spaces of the ports, time and distance in the middle are governed by water and by the moon. The horizon ceases to be the reference point from which the future flows in measurable increments; it bends and breaks instead across the central axis that divides the doubled image, pointing up and then down, or disappearing entirely. Similarly, the logic of piers, bridges, and the ship’s interior become absurd and incomplete. Patterns emerge from the water, like Rorschach inkblots, evoking impressions from the subconscious. The moon, as the body that governs tides and (in Monnet’s interpretation based on Algonquin tradition) women’s inner lives, is speaking through these patterns. But like the modulating radio signals of the soundtrack (by sound artist Simon Guibord), the message is left as an open-ended suggestion. This doubling and remixing introduces a space of possibility in colonial frames and timelines. As an Indigenous woman of mixed ancestry, Monnet is looking with a critical eye to the history of movement from Europe to Canada, charting her progression in a way that destabilizes the linearity and determinism of colonial time.
Transatlantic is a hopeful work in its freeform imaginings, but it stops well short of romanticism. In stark contrast to the triumphant feeling of possibility in Mobilize, Transatlantic is heavy with tension, nervousness, boredom, and even fear – emotions that for Monnet dominated the journey. She describes the Atlantic as a “middle ground” – a fraught zone of intercultural contact, as scholar Richard White articulated it in his landmark history The Middle Ground (1991). Crucially, this middle ground was not necessarily a space of accommodation or compromise, as popular use of the term suggests, but one heavy with violence and uncertainty. Monnet’s transatlantic route is well traversed by histories of violence and exploitation. When asked about the experience of the trip, Monnet first recalls the precariousness of being the only woman on board in this male-dominated realm of shipping and industry. On arrival in Cleveland, she was initially told she would not be able to disembark due to complications over entering the US on her French passport. Although she was within the territorial bounds of her Great Lakes homeland, the colonial border between Canada and the USA was poised to exclude her.
As already pointed out by Haudenosaunee scholar Jolene Rickard in her essay for the Gallery's 2013 exhibition Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art, transnationalism for Indigenous artists is not a new kind of collective global politics or space of freedom, but a familiar ground where an old colonial logic plays out – that of capitalism and commerce. The ship’s route itself is part of an ongoing history of colonial movement. It also stands in inextricable relation to the 3-part Europe – Africa – North America route of the transatlantic slave trade and the brutality of the middle passage. The cargo ship and the global "middle ground" of international waters are spaces where borders are negotiated and bodies transformed in fundamentally violent processes.
The sculptural complement to Transatlantic is Proximal I-V, a set of five concrete spheres set atop glossy black plinths. In their scattered arrangement, the plinths reflect the landmasses that morph in and out of view toward the beginning and end of the film, and the spheres atop them refer to the standing stones of the Neolithic people of north-western France and the earthen mounds of the Great Lakes. Standing among these forms, the viewer is a participant in the transatlantic journey. The five spheres also refer to heavenly cycles, a parallel made most clearly in the quintupled moon appearing in the film. The moon remains a guiding presence before being sectioned and then eclipsed by the jagged skyline of Montreal. The stones of Proximal are ponderous presences, sitting without visible support on their stands and threatening to roll at any moment. Unlike in her previous works in this medium, Monnet here leaves the concrete smooth and only lightly dimpled. Without the embedded clothing to make that visceral connection to the human, these pieces refer more generally to natural cycles of moon and earth, as they exert their pull on the body in tension with industrial structures. The spheres are something between waystone and gravemarker. Through the marriage of industrial processes and the water of an unspecified location, they become both guideposts and monuments to bodies unmoored in the interstices of the global.
Caroline Monnet's Mobilize is on view in Gallery A101a and the two newly acquired works will be on view in Àbadakone / Continuous Fire / Feu continuel, the National Gallery of Canada's major exhibition this fall, from November 8, 2019 to April 5, 2020. 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.