Constructing and deconstructing identity: buck, beck, and more in Vancouver, Canada

I finally got back to the Rennie Collection located in Vancouver, Canada (it’s been a little over a year since my last visit [Mar. 22, 2012 posting about the Damian Moppett show]). The current show running from Mar. 2, 2013 – June 8, 2013 features Robert Beck/Buck. From the Rennie Collection’s (March 2013?) news release,

In 2008, Robert Beck changed his surname by a single vowel to Buck. [emphasis mine] This act of artistic self-nomination, a work of art itself, was precipitated by what he had achieved through his work as Beck, which was often autobiographical in content and persistently diverse in form. As an alias, Buck appealed to the artist for its precision and associations: stag, son, cash, to throw off. To substantiate this artistic transfiguration, Buck created the shrine (from e to u), 2012, a makeshift memorial of candles, flowers, and stuffed animals. [emphasis mine] The transitory work, susceptible to entropy and the elements, provocatively re-frames the now-common practice in which a community marks the site of a violent event, a fatality or loss, as a place of collective mourning.

Working in various mediums (drawing, sculpture, photography, and video) the artist utilizes many artistic procedures, including appropriation and installation. [emphasis mine] He has returned repeatedly to the universal themes of family, memory, identity, authorship, and loss. While his own singular experiences are central, Beck wittingly withholds information to solicit the viewer’s own unique associations. Beck has described his work as a way to “create an index by which I could make sense of earlier, often traumatic experiences […] so to transcend them. Evidence of this riddles my work: bodies, holes, camouflage, mimicry, memorials, erasure, guilt, corruption, sex, and death – even my own! And so much of it is haunted by the presence (or is it the absence) of the Father.” Beyond his own father, Beck is referring to the Name-of-the-Father, a psychoanalytic term, via the Church, that designates one’s given name, as well as the symbolic order of things.

Several works by Beck are again relevant in the wake of recent shootings in the United States, notably at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and the Century movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. The thirteen images of teen shooters in Beck’s Thirteen Shooters, 2001 echo Andy Warhol’s 1964 mural Thirteen Most Wanted Men. In 2004, Beck fired a 12-gauge shotgun into three 25-lb buckets of mortician’s wax to create 01/25/04 ‐ Shots No. 12, 13, 14. Traces of a violent event, the resulting holes in the wax evoke an injured body, yet the “wound filler” substance also implies its repair. The work exemplifies Beck’s ability to exploit the meaning inherent in materials, and suggests why his work evolves from one medium to another.

Beck’s scrutiny of violence in American culture extends beyond its effects to its causes, and thus envelopes private realms like home and family. The title Screen Memory, 2004, a series of five silver-gelatin photographs refers to Sigmund Freud’s 1899 essay concerning the paradox of childhood memory, wherein consequential, often traumatic events are not usually retained, while trivial ones are.

Robert Buck, The Shrine (from e to u), 2000/2012 Flowers, candles, stuffed animals, balloons, thrift store artifacts, etc. [Downloaded from]

Robert Buck, The Shrine (from e to u), 2000/2012
Flowers, candles, stuffed animals, balloons, thrift store artifacts, etc. [Downloaded from]

First off: I had a professor of communication who cured me (and I imagine many others) of ever using mediums as the plural form of medium. This is paraphrasing what he said, “If you want to contact your dearly departed, you may want to speak to several mediums. Otherwise, the plural of medium is media.” Thank you to Paul Heyer who now teaches at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.

Buck’s show aroused in me (for the most part) the kind of response I have to reading a literary piece, which is a little disconcerting. The distinction for me and it is a rough distinction between writers and other artists is the way in which the minutiae of our lives is conveyed or reflected back to us. Reading a book or a story is a private and solitary experience whereas viewing a visual arts exhibition or attending a dance or theatre performance are intended to be public or group experiences.

As usual with the show at the Rennie Collection, I was part of a tour; it is possible to make other arrangements but it’s easiest to sign up for a tour. This particular tour (Buck/Beck) starts twice although none of us were aware of that. My first experience of the show along with everyone else’s was the encounter with the shrine that’s outside on the street in front of the building as per the photograph in the above. It’s a bit disconcerting to realize that you started the tour before you entered the building.

The tour guide, Cemre (pronounced gem reh, I think) started us with the bathroom wall. Buck (formerly Beck) removed part of a bathroom wall with graffiti which he has overpainted and is now mounted on a wall just like any other art work. The words aren’t visible but you know what is usually scrawled bathroom walls. It almost seems as if you’re being invited to scrawl something on that wall in your imagination if nowhere else.

The other piece that caught my attention was a set of images contained within a single picture frame. The images were cropped and laid out in the style that would remind someone of an old-fashioned photo album. All of the images were parts of scenes, mostly parts of bodies that have been clothed  in white dresses and formal wear. Cemre asked us if we knew what the photographs were about. Someone identified the images as being from one or more weddings. He saw parts of white dresses and veils and didn’t notice that the bodies were those of children. The photos depicted, as any Catholic will tell you, First Holy Communion. This wasn’t the only game Buck and Gemre played with us and, while that first one was obvious to me, I missed my fair share of cues later. Before going further, I have to extend my compliments to Cemre because she was careful not to embarrass or put someone on the spot. Her decision to engage us in an interactive storytelling session with us was very helpful in this regard.

The next piece that really caught my attention was the chalkboard (30 ft [or more] x 20 ft [or more[) covered in words that had been erased but were still visible beneath the chalk dust (it’s on the 2nd floor of the Rennie Collection). Then as we proceeded further, there was an installation composed of printing plates bookended by newspaper/media images of boys on both of the far walls of the room. Buck’s (or Beck’s) 13 shooters on one side and a lone boy on the other. Seeing those images is particularly poignant in the wake of the recent Boston Marathon bombing but they function primarily as an eerie reminder of evil and violence. The images are eerie because most of the boys look like ‘regular’ kids and if we hadn’t been informed they were all shooters, we would have never guessed. As for the boy on the other side, he and his brother claimed to have killed their father—but they did not. In fact, a friend of their father’s, with whom both boys having sexual relations, had committed the murder.

In the next room, we saw representations of pictures that were in Buck’s family home along with a sculptural installation. The most interesting, for me, was the picture of Jesus, all greyed and pixellated, which came from Buck’s mother’s room. It was very fuzzy but I’m pretty sure it was the Sacred Heart, which is a very specific Jesus image and one which is charged for me personally (I went to a school called the Convent of the Sacred Heart for a few years). The Sacred Heart image, I’m most familiar with has the heart, which is  external to the chest, with a crown of thorns signifying his crucifixion and his love for humanity. As a child I took that image for granted but wandered somewhat from my Catholic roots over the years and after a break of several years saw a Sacred Heart image and realized it’s a very peculiar image.

Nearby in yet another room of the Rennie Collection’s 2nd floor is a portion of a urinal wall. Like the portion of the bathroom wall downstairs, it too has words scrawled on it. Unlike the bathroom wall, these words are not covered up. Interesting juxtaposition and that’s all I’ve got for that one.

In retrospect, I don” know how we missed it for so long but there was a hidden image within Buck’s reproduction, from a hunting book his father had given him, of an image illustrating how to skin an animal . The ‘hidden’ picture within Buck’s reproduction was a Ku Klux Klan hood (and it’s obvious once it’s been pointed out) but it took minutes before anyone ‘saw’ it. Cemre commented that the only time it has been identified within seconds was when someone from the US saw it.

At the end of the tour, it turns out there are two endings. Cemre ended the show in the basement with a huge painting featuring a huge bee (and I think flowers too). She then directed us to look at a painting that she hadn’t discussed when she was started the tour.  She didn’t discuss it any further and we were left to seek it on our own. I won’t spoil the surprise other than to say, it references aspects of  the show’s Catholicism, death, and rebirth themes.

I think what Buck makes clear in his work  is that how one sees and what one sees is very much rooted in one’s identity/ies and culture(s), which we both construct and, sometimes when we change our names, deconstruct. I think one of the reason’s I found Buck’s approach curiously literary is that he uses words differently than most artists who tend to view words and typography as objets d’art rather than meaningful cultural and personal communication.

Overtly, Buck has worked with duality. Two beginning, two endings, two names, etc.  but it’s not quite that neat and tidy, not least because I suspect Buck/Beck is an unreliable narrator. I do encourage you to visit the show if you have the time.  No. I have no relationship to the people at the Rennie Collection.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *