The Bald Eagle's Claw at Xpace Cultural Centre

I have to confess, when I saw the call-for-submissions for The Bald Eagle’s Claw which recently closed at Xpace, my first response was apprehension. An exhibition about American patriotism, I thought, had the potential to be both as corny as the fields of Iowa and to be inherently self-defeating in that it might perpetuate the illusion of American exceptionalism (would the USA ever put on a show about an aspect of Canada’s national identity?). However, once it opened, and after spending some time with the work and reading the accompanying publication, I have to say, I was impressed.

The collection of works in sculpture, installation, performance and text have been brought together to tell a nuanced story of hubris, examining the nature of American patriotism and “call[ing] attention to ideas of false-superiority”[1]. In a forward to the publication, curator Philip Ocampo references the catastrophic event of the 2003 U.S. Space Shuttle Columbia crash. He frames the accident as an illustration of the country’s “pioneer spirit” and its close kinship with tragedy, and as an example of a mass shift from national pride to disillusionment and despair. Simultaneously, this allusion introduces the celestial symbolism (aspiration, exceptionality, Space Race etc.) found throughout the show. This imagery, found together with other nostalgic iconography and Americana, recalls a broad but instantly recognizable suite of American myths, which have been reinterpreted, complicated, and retold from a number of original and critical perspectives here in The Bald Eagle’s Claw. It’s in relation to these myths that we should think about the show and the works within it.

Installation shot, Photo credit: Philip Ocampo

We have the tale of freedom on the open road, for instance, of Kerouacian transnational travel, of the impulsive, romantic, rugged, roving hero. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, even the Hell’s Angels. Engaging with this narrative, Philippe Pamela Dungao writes poignantly of an experience driving across America with her partner; he is white and she is not. As she travels state by state experiencing moments of ecstasy and of bitter prejudice, she maps out her interior sense of belonging, at the same time drawing parallels to the boundaries of shared understanding in her relationship. In this tender, hopeful, and honest text, Dungao reveals the privilege embedded in the classic story of the roaming-hero, and what it means to feel at home, understood, free.

With his multi-media installations Safe Travels 01, 02, and 03 Andrew Harding also addresses the notion of the journey story, albeit in a much more subjective and abstract way. With the inclusion of a plexiglass car hood, a “Magic Tree” car freshener, disposable camera photos, and multiple souvenir and kitsch objects, his three works openly converge around the idea of transience. They also feel deliberate and carefully composed, a t-shirt precisely folded, stacked objects lining up at satisfying right angles. Along with the subdued palette, this creates a mood of comfort and softness which is echoed again in the titles. Counter to the recklessness often associated with this myth, his works remind me of the importance of treading one’s path lightly, with openness and respect.

Andrew Harding, Safe Travels 02 (detail), Photo credit: Polina Teif

Andrew Harding, Safe Travels 01, Photo credit: Polina Teif

Mythic visions of American industry, so often sentimentalized, are also alluded to on multiple occasions throughout the show. In Brandon Fujimagari’s painting NH Novato Gold 01, his unconcealed use of bleach, dye, and “USA canvas sourced from Mather, California”, and his appropriation of industrial language combine in a smoky and intense abstract composition evoking the California wildfires. Here, Fugimagari gives us a chance to confront, both viscerally and intellectually, the catastrophic environmental consequences that often follow from the reckless conversion of the natural landscape into manufactured product.

Touching on everything from the unionized manufacturing job and the perceived attainability of the American Dream to the free market conditions and economic imperialism that have allowed the world’s most iconic brands to flourish, the works in The Bald Eagle’s Claw often directly confront the popular fictions embedded in the lore of the American economy. Yan Wen Chang paints on raw denim—the quintessential symbol of the American working class—in her star-shaped pieces Malaysian moon moth 1 and 2 and Josi Smit’s resident of uncey-le-franc includes a slurry of vintage enamel pins from iconic fast food restaurants, beer companies, and other corporate logos, documenting the role of marketing and merchandising in the creation of an American national identity.

Brandon Fujimagari, NH Novato Gold 01, 2019, Photo credit: Polina Teif

Yan Wen Chang, malaysian moon moth 1, 2019, Photo credit: Polina Teif

Josi Smit, resident of uncey-le-franc, 2019, Photo credit: Polina Teif

The themes of glamour and stardom, other facets of the American Dream, also ripple through the exhibition. In her text “We Should be Dancing…” and her sculpture “It was almost like you were there…”2, Josi Smit refers to disco and to prom dresses respectively, exploring the power of dressing-up and going out as aspirational ritual, a way of living-out fantasy versions of our lives: clothing as talisman, dance as invocation. In the latter work she also uses objects including replica Barcelona chairs and materials like white vinyl, to conjure up the modernist dream of space-age industrial design which, seen today, reads mostly as luxurious retro-futurism. Another metaphorical rise and fall.

On the other side of the coin, the profound absurdity of contemporary stardom is taken up in Madelyne Beckles’ performance One Light, for which she recites a monologue, composed of interwoven Kim Kardashian quotes and Kanye West lyrics, speaking in the voice of the celebrities’ daughter North West. Portraying the image of fame in America today with an air of strange perturbation, she points to the exploitation at play within our current “attention economy”[3] and the commodification of lifestyle and identity that has seemingly reached into every private corner of our lives.

Josi Smit, It was almost like you were there... , 2019, Photo credit: Polina Teif

Madelyne Beckles performs "One Light" in front of Yan Wen Chang's "do you remember"

Among these themes (as you may have noticed) are interwoven commentaries on the immigrant experience of looking for belonging in a country like America, references to film and Hollywood motion picture-making (perhaps the greatest engine of America’s self-mythologizing), and nods to post-internet popular culture and aesthetics.

Now, having given a good amount of space to what succeeds in the show, it’s artful adherence to a central theme and aesthetic, compelling renditions of America’s fables, well-chosen artists and artworks etc., it’s time for some deeper probing. In my consideration of the exhibition, I am left with single late-blooming and nudging question. This is a concern about a cultural trend of Canadian urbanites to point to turmoil in the states, shaking their heads in abhorrence, meanwhile ignoring or not caring to attend to problems faced domestically. The show, complex and far-reaching as it’s criticism was, contained notes of this tendency. What about Canadian hubris? The self-congratulatory myth of Canada as some kind of utopia that’s so frequently created by placing the U.S.A as the Other? What about drawing some kind of connection between the two kinds of patriotism? Although the work in The Bald Eagle’s Claw is framed more generally, as an account of America’s effect on “global consciousness”[4], I thought the dialogue proposed here could have benefitted from some kind of minor acknowledgment of the way this conversation usually takes place in Canada. Particularly because Xpace is a centre with a socially and politically-focused mission, it seemed to me like a bit of a missed opportunity.

While this concern still rings quietly in my ears, all in all, The Bald Eagle’s Claw is an exciting exhibition with a strong guiding concept and an even stronger execution: at once specific in its stories and expansive in their interpretations and implications. Collectively, the works tap into the psychology and the symbolism of the American experiment, breaking-up incoherent myths of inherent supremacy and proposing new ones. Having thought much about the show over the last month or so, I feel I have a renewed understanding of the dangers of blind arrogance, and how (with the help of certain delusions) the modern empire of America, like the eager young Icarus, can fall from such great heights.

[1] Ocampo, Philip Leonard. “Exhibition Essay: The Bald Eagle's Claw.” Xpace, Toronto. Pg. 7

[2] Full Title: "It was almost like you were there. I could hear you, I could see you, smell you. I could hear your voice. Sometimes your voice would wake me up. It would wake me up in the middle of the night, just like you were in the room with me."

[3] The contemporary economic idea that human attention is limited and, thus, is to be considered a commodity (and one which is especially scarce in today’s world).

[4] Ocampo, Philip Leonard. “Exhibition Essay: The Bald Eagle's Claw.” Xpace, Toronto. Pg. 8

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