ArtWay

Art does not reproduce what we see. It makes us see. Paul Klee

Artists

Spackman, Betty - by Karen Mulder

VIVISECTIONS

 
From the exhibition catalogue of Betty Spackman’s Found Wanting: A Multimedia Installation on Grief and Gratitude, 2010

by Karen Mulder, Ph.D
 
Locating a considerate response to FOUND WANTING, which it deserves, requires an overview of the work that precedes and informs it. Various lines of intent and concept must be followed to their ends; simple statements with complex implications must be investigated. Yet, if forced to take on the unenviable task of summing up Betty Spackman’s work in one phrase, a serviceable response might end up sounding like this: this is an art that juxtaposes perverse and sometimes perversely humorous objects, statements and ideas with a sense of wonder and care, producing a dialogue salted with paradox.

A critical dilemma immediately surfaces. Spackman employs words as adroitly as a bard, claiming them as one of her main tools, along with a prized Dutch hand drill and an ostensibly infinite collection of images. Using words to describe her installations, however, clutters up the eloquent proposals that her visual compositions evoke at a glance. Truly, this work is multivalent, metamodal, polyfaceted, many layered—but such qualifiers merely muddle the clarity, integration and wisdom behind her ideas. Words, which endow Spackman’s artistic propositions with unique wit and edge on the one hand, become an occupational hazard to the critic, who must parley with Spackman’s art in unwieldy vocabularies and garbled phrases that seem like a foreign language, by contrast. There’s the rub. Parsing Spackman’s conceptual wellspring too finely would be as deadly as dissecting a lizard to find out how it works, only to kill it—which would consequently stifle the opportunity to see how it really works.

Dissection requires a dead subject. Vivisection, however, experiments on living organisms for further knowledge. Spackman’s art arises from a necessary vivisection, not without its pains, and freighted with the same controversies that such a procedure provokes in actual life circumstances. In this instance, however, Spackman is the primary organism under the knife in her laboratory of ideas. She is also the vivisectionist, grimacing as she wields her intellectual scalpel. And we, as viewers and percipients of her art, become additional subjects on the gurney. A successful ending to the experiment for Spackman, I suspect, would amount to extracting thoughtful responses, and sewing up flappy ends in an uninterrupted flow of full-bodied conversations. 

A cradle gently rocking a disjointed skeleton, or fleshless cow shanks gussied up in bridal lace, may read superficially as perversities, and secondarily as a new twist of morbid humor. On further reflection, such juxtapositions animate a dialogue that Spackman discovered to be ‘found wanting.’ Unconventional reliquaries generously offer their antiseptically cleansed relics to our gaze, as mute testaments to lives left behind. Beyond their metaphorical or prophetic projections, the bones translate into beautiful aesthetic forms in a purely visual sense. Gleaming and naked, the bones are, in effect, found wanting. They want for the bodies, souls, spirits, and lives that once animated them; they want for the marrow, blood and flesh that encased them. The justifications they provoke in us may also be found wanting.

 
On the Table: Biological Certainties
 
By 2008, Spackman had constructed a significant portion of FOUND WANTING in her studio barn, and had invented most of its notional concepts. I recall the pungent smell of lanolin, less eloquently known as sheep fat, wafting through the thick July air from the black wool felt pieces that ground the installation. Spackman’s meticulously recorded narrative about preparing these exhibit pieces documents some of the hard, unremitting labor that each stage required. Much like Orthodox iconographers, who trace and retrace the lines of traditional icons as a devotional practice until they can draw them blind, Spackman and her crew of diehard volunteers familiarized themselves to an intimate degree with hundreds of animal bones. Their lingering odor also attested to Spackman’s full-immersion baptism into this dialogue by grease, offal, and integuments.
 
Spackman’s text repeatedly reminds us that feasts—including visual feasts, and moveable feasts—never occur without sacrifice, and prompts us to consider sacrifice from many angles. One famous feast with a sacrifice surfaces in the well-known parable of the prodigal son. After recklessly, callously squandering an entire inheritance, and being reduced to eating pig slop in the troughs with porcine acquaintances, the humiliated prodigal is surprised to find himself lavishly feted upon his return, with a fatted calf. The prodigal is entirely relocated by forgiveness, not only after being lost to the family, but after completely losing a sense of self. Prodigality often accompanies an artist’s journeys, but rarely results in a fatted calf. Paradoxically, Spackman gifts us with a fatted calf in an exhibition made of dry bones, welcoming us to enter a place of understanding and reconciliation between the reckless squandering of life, and the selflessness of sacrifice. 

One has to move sometimes to survive, sometimes to find new opportunities, and sometimes to restart a stagnating imagination. Spackman recently tallied up her record at about 40 moves, but this explains little of the quality of her hegiras from west to east Canada and back on multiple occasions, and the many migrations that lace the Atlantic with crossings. Delving now into the places of childhood like a miner, she prizes tangible remnants of her past from fleeting sensory memories, called back by the smell of rust, the rime of dust in the nose, the aftertaste of lead shot in freshly-killed venison, the slippery weight of a flapping fish on a hook, or a slimy clot of pure cream, carelessly chugged out of a milk bottle, that caused a moment of gagging panic. Even though Spackman’s memory bank attaches each instant securely to specific locations, she admits to belonging nowhere in particular, like a wandering monk. The rootlessness is both a blessing and a curse, imbuing her life with freedom as well as a sense of separateness.

She readily admits to her own carnivorous transgressions as a meat eater, yet presses on about the addiction to convenience that drives our consumerist economy, and the generally unacknowledged suffering this drive produces for animals as well as humans. Yet, she is not an editorialist, nor a humorist, nor a demagogue, nor a cultural critic, nor a silent witness regarding matters of conscience. And yet again, as an artist, she generates thoughtful responses that sidle up to all those arenas. “I am, mostly, just an observer of cultural theory,” she reflects. “And though I do consider myself a participant and agent, as an artist, in certain portions of various debates, I am usually caught in a place somewhere in between the stance of opposing ideologies.”

This place between opposing ideologies generates enough creative energy to fuel Spackman’s open-ended dialectical approach. Toggling between paradoxes supplies Spackman with a wider sphere of action. She has never shown interest in simple pairings or obvious binaries, like “good” versus “bad.” Destruction and restoration co-exist in Spackman’s cosmos. FOUND WANTING plies the gray waters between enjoying and exploiting, between satisfaction and indulgence, between compassion and ruthless efficiency. Complexity is expressed in the simplest, most reduced terms (bones), and the most economic juxtapositions (cradle and bones). This kind of art leaves the viewer grappling with a broad selection of possibilities. Sometimes, the viewing experience is reminiscent of a very annoying scab in a very obvious place that itches, irritates, hurts, or just won’t go away. Although itching signals the beginning of healing, its persistence may chafe extreme or fundamentalist thinkers who prefer everything fully healed and zipped up. Spackman’s personal take on faith allows for the possibility that this life cannot supply the complete resolution we long for, but that resolution nevertheless persists in a realm beyond our present sightlines. This gives her just enough strength to reside in the between zone, and compels her to make art that always attempts to start rather than finish a dialogue. In short, it gives her hope, which she generously shares.
 
 
Lab Culture
 
Even a consistent record of installations inspired by fabulous, original concepts will not carry the majority of artists into celebrity or notoriety. Serious artists work hard and receive little return for their labors. Perhaps a fleeting sense of satisfaction wafts over their lifescapes when exhibits open, or less than idiotic reviews ensue, but that is soon replaced by the suffocating weight of maxed out credit cards and neglected bills. Brilliant concepts from the ranks of anonymous artists, particularly in the hazy margins of conceptual art, may never receive the validation of critical acclamation. Original concepts have a fragile pedigree, and a short shelf life, after all. Artists like Spackman usually have to be satisfied at an internal level. Although she has a consistent record, and a lengthy string of strong exhibitions that earned her recognition in Europe during her professional life there, celebrity has seldom been the reward. In her case, it was certainly never the motivation.

Spackman was born to the generation that includes Jeff Wall, one of the founders of the Vancouver School, but her own artistic practice started later in life, after a long incubation in places like northern Ontario and the Okanagan, far from the Vancouver or Nova Scotian movements of the 1970s. During several decades devoted to different kinds of creative work, including four years of spiritual dance drama, and animation studies that resulted in a national film award, she always felt driven by a strong desire to ‘help people’. When she finally realized that art could ‘give’ to people, she shrugged off her concerns about being useful to society in a conventional sense, by her own accounts, and threw her energies wholeheartedly into artmaking and teaching art. From the late 80s to 1991, she surrendered her ‘art habit’ to the credentialing process in the fine arts departments at the University of Toronto and York University, finally connecting with her true tribe—the art community—and ecstatically sharing an innate visual language that, for the first time, those around her understood. For Spackman, this late start provided a mature perspective that unified a stream of recurring themes in her art, and gave her confidence about handling language and concepts. Finding this true love as a fully-fledged woman forged a permanent commitment: living as an artist is something that Spackman never takes for granted, even for a moment, although the hardships and solitude of such a life can be daunting.

I met Spackman in 1994, at an arts festival in the Netherlands, and soon realized that I had encountered a prodigal talent, in the best sense. Spackman and her collaborator from 1991 to 2001, Austrian artist Anja Westerfrölke, commandeered a small dock on a Dutch canal. Westerfrölke and an architect from Britain, both slight but strong women willing to suffer major blisters for the cause of art, were ‘sewed’ into two heavy rowing boats, concealed by quilts of coarse black burlap. Spackman asked passersby, quite simply: “Would you like to go across?” Once on board, passengers received a burlap blanket marked with a large “X.” The rowers strained stoically with unwieldy ten-foot oars to transport them gracefully to the opposite shore, while volunteer singers, violinists, trumpeters, or flautists serenaded them from the bow. As a passenger, I recall being accompanied by Jean Pierre Rudolph’s haunting fiddle—the same violin, incidentally, which animates the original music in FOUND WANTING. As a collaborating performer, I recall an impromptu duet with Swedish artists, and the freeing levity of spontaneous singing. Passengers disembarked on a slippery, overgrown shore, left behind without a timetable regarding their return to the festival. Surveying the festival grounds, merely 500 feet across the water but suddenly inaccessible, the “X” stated the simple fact: You Are Here. But…where? This far shore was spiked with stinging nettles, weeds, buzzy summer insects, sticky mud and wayward cow pies. Suddenly, the mysterious burlap square became an essential, even comforting protection.

This performance piece, Transport, tailored for an international conference about art and Christianity that attracted 3,000 attendees, was an organized happening complicated by the chance component of the passengers’ reactions. Although the boats made their slow, stately arcs through the water to various points in plain sight, passengers isolated and separated on the far shore dealt with the absence of a pick up time. In the end, they activated the performance piece by processing myriad responses to their stranded status that obviously reflected their personal states of mind. Those carrying a burden of anxiety fretted about abandonment, or being late. Others reported that this time away from the noise and people provided the only moment’s rest they experienced during the entire conference. Some gratefully used the time to meditate, pray, or compose themselves, finding a square of peace among the nettles.

The artists had transformed a simple biblical metaphor about crossing the river into a contemporary art interaction of astounding complexity and originality. Spackman gathered anecdotes from the participants, which she incorporated into her daily seminar about contemporary art, and reveled about the reactions—even the negative ones. She vividly recalls how two men in business suits—rather formal attire for an arts fest out in the countryside—morosely challenged the piece’s use of black, and seemed unable or unwilling to entertain the journey metaphor. For some, the experience generated a new appreciation for the freedom of expression; for others, like the two legalistic men, it aroused only fear and suspicion. It is the nature of good art (dare we say it) to confer confidently with open-endedness, to anticipate human reactions, and to value all responses equally.
 
From 1990 to 2000, Spackman initiated and collaborated on more than 20 projects in as many different spaces based in Canada, California, Holland, Austria, and Germany, supported by several dozen international grants. Early multi-media installations invariably involved sound components, moving imagery, and metaphorical containers for journeying or being sheltered (e.g., cradles, boats, and coffin forms; tents, cubicles, and draped spaces). Although Spackman habitually recycles objects from prior exhibits, and plies the same querying themes, each installation is distinguished by its particularities: designed for particular spaces, in particular contexts, and responding to particular questions relevant to a particular time period.

The early solo installations all tinkered with adroit, deliberate combinations of words, imagery, sounds, and filmed actions, titled in wordplays such as Altar-Nativity (1990), or In Different Out Looks (1991). The first collaborative project with Westerfrölke in Austria, Zwischenraum (1993)—roughly translated as “between space”—dealt with the ways that humans are processed, with film loops from waiting rooms in immigration centers, airports, hospitals and offices, shown in constricted, blandly institutional cubicles. In 1994, documentation and props from the canal piece Transport, described above, resurfaced in an exhibit centered on textile-related art in Austria, accompanied by the works of accomplished locals like Valie Export. 
A / B (1993), a video art piece, recorded the inscrutable results of a rigorous, conceptual performance action, demonstrating in tightly scripted exchanges how language, rules, human ambition, and nature clash or collaborate. Accepted by Ars Electronica, which also featured short performance films by art heavyweights Bill Viola, Tony Oursler, Constance DeJong and Gary Hill (among several dozen others), A / B aired in Linz, Vienna, and Long Beach (California), and was digitally archived for online access. Increasingly, Spackman and Westerfrölke’s projects incorporated websites that documented the processes in their conceptual art, in league with the most outré art efforts at the time.

The practice of recycling props from past collaborations continues in FOUND WANTING, which includes a trough in the Cantina that debuted in 1990, in Altar-Nativity. This is rather impressive when you consider that Spackman singlehandedly shuttled dozens of bulky, often unwieldy (if not dangerous) items through countless customs departments. For “Arttraffic” (1999), Spackman joined a public art project with 60 prominent Austrian artists that aimed to make original art both affordable and accessible to the general public. Each artist supplied 75 items packaged in cigarette-sized boxes that were loaded into cigarette vending machines, strategically placed near Viennese museums and galleries. Spackman’s objects, collected along the shores of Lake Ontario, connected to cards and a website that documented their narratives and provenance, linked to specific URLs about industrial waste. “Arttraffic” sold out completely in two days.
Descriptive summaries of such works utterly fail to capture their carefully compiled infrastructures; words reduce practice to dry litanies of objects, actions or concepts meticulously arranged in reality or cyberspace. The last major project with Westerfrölke, Reading Room, was reconfigured from 1997 to 2000 for Canadian, Austrian, and German settings. It presented an unsentimental exploration of the storage of history and the relationship between story and artifact, with many of the stories from Spackman’s pioneer relatives captured in a soundscape, and meticulously archived in an accurate computerized catalogue. The pivotal inquiry raised in FOUND WANTING also focuses on story, exporting one of the Reading Room themes into the twenty-first century by investigating the way we tell stories about nature, and how this affects the way we treat it.
In addition to story, sound has animated most of Spackman’s installations from the beginning. In FOUND WANTING, auditory elements add a deeper sensory dimension to the reliquaries and set pieces. Spackman commissioned an original requiem by Jean Pierre Rudolph and Torsten Harder for this exhibit, designed to “caress” viewers, who are taking in a bone yard’s worth of memento mori, with a combination of lament and lullaby. Flapping wings in the music track suggest capture as well as escape. Layered voices burble in the Cantina loop, meant to accompany the viewers’ interior dialogues by “pulling them out, making suggestions, whispering secrets, sharing confidences, confessing,” Spackman explains. A video of a sheep being slaughtered plays in the Cantina, hurling the savageness of butchery against the composed urbanity of our collective dining experiences. Spackman knows that we don’t want to know so much.

As she developed FOUND WANTING during intensive if not frantic spurts of work, Spackman often sponsored the bone work with the proceeds from exhibits of paintings. Even though painting may not shake up Spackman’s imaginative juices quite as strongly as assemblage or installation, Spackman relies on painting as one of her creative anchors. Beginning in 2005, Spackman’s return to British Columbia for family reasons brought her to another threshold when she co founded the Fort Gallery, an artist’s collective, in Fort Langley, BC. Spackman participated in gallery exhibitions, eventually collaborating with painter Suzanne Northcott over a fifteen-week period on shared canvases (30 large, 60 minis) and a series of written poems that were part of the process. Using stones as subject matter, the two artists explored in tandem the poetry of nature and the nature of poetry with visual as well as written poems inspired by landscapes of nature and of the heart. “Stone Songs” (2006) traveled from the Fort Gallery to the Xa:ytem Longhouse Interpretative Center, in Mission, BC, accompanied by a video that documented the creative process of collaboration.

During this period, Spackman also illustrated stories by a Dutch psychotherapist about a journey beyond debilitating abuse, premiering 23 intensely hued 4 x 5-foot paintings at The Silver Forest book launch in Holland. Meanwhile, she continued to teach, organized conference events, designed books and graphics, illustrated, and wrote, both at home and abroad. Spackman is currently developing an Open Studio program to encourage emerging artists who have been unable to attain educational credentials, or who want to jumpstart their art careers after time off for life, and all its distractions—another sacrifice that leads to a marvelous feast.

Since words matter as much as painting to Spackman, her keyboard never stays inactive for long. Through many moves, she has managed to preserve years of original poetry and journal entries that still inform her creative directions. Spackman’s unique brand of wit and wisdom, sharpened by incessant wrestling matches with faith and art, reached its apex in a virtual dissertation about religious kitsch titled A Profound Weakness (2005), which she forged during many safaris in search of bric-a-brac, and five years in close communion with her laptop. Profound Weakness—an admirably paradoxical word play all by itself—pokes around the meaning of meaning when it is distilled and replicated by cheap, mass-produced imitations.

Spackman observed the culture of kitsch as a junky nexus where profundity and superficiality collide, driven by our collective desires to promote and then mass produce what seems to be important.   “In my attempts at understanding more about kitsch,” Spackman explained in Material Religion (Oxford), “I had to not only read the accepted texts about it (Clement Greenberg, Gillo Dorfles, et al), I had to meet the stuff on the street. I had to encounter (and not just analyze) the Elvis bust, the night light Jesus, the kewpie doll, and the people who use them.” Following her almost rabbinical logic, the text questions content and emptiness, relativity and absurdity, significance and crap.

 
The Poetry of Paradox
 
Some may find it difficult to believe Spackman’s assertion that FOUND WANTING amounts to the most concentrated exposition on redemption that she has ever attempted, to date. The silent relics on display are donations from beings that not only experienced the awful eventuality of death firsthand, but have moved beyond it to some purported mysterium tremendum et fascinans, some realm beyond the grasp of human knowing which, if we are honest, produces fear, trembling, anticipation, and awe. We should all be so fortunate to be able to smile at death, and to observe its creative manner of arrival without flinching. We are mostly not able to handle it this way.

While Spackman rationally surveys the cruelty and carelessness of our species, she also anticipates the absurd yet very real possibilities of redemption and transformation—a very real anticipation that she rarely reveals in an overt way. By whatever name one calls it, redemption miraculously overturns the scientific theory of entropy, which foretells the gradual loss of energy in our universe, and transforms what is life taking into a life giving force.

By comparison, most twentieth-century art displays a steadfast seduction with our tragic separation from a ‘source,’ and the catastrophic consequences of the displacement this produces, including our total annihilation. What Bible scholars call the Fall, Marxist philosophers view as permanent suspension in a state of alienation, to paraphrase Marshall Berman in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (1982). It is not in Spackman’s nature to leave things in such hopeless disarray; chaos saddens more than fazes her. Her works, while dry-eyed, tend to supply escapes and loopholes, edging us toward an underlying conviction that transformation, rather than eternal disintegration, actively makes plays to win the upper hand. In Spackman’s universe, what we call transformation, redemption, or restitution never assumes conventional forms; there is no tract, cleric, or church big enough to contain them.

The firm, unyielding critique of industrially processed food that Spackman advances in FOUND WANTING surrenders not a single gratuitous thought. Spackman’s message is not like the shrill diatribes of animal activists, nor the strident rhetoric of crusading vegans, nor the tear-jerking requests of animal shelter fundraisers; it asks for none of the validations of such noble causes, though it may dally with their commentaries. It does not glorify or prettify the fascinations with death exhibited by other artists, such as Sally Mann, whose photographs of maggot-shrouded subjects at Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Facility emerge in What Remains (2003), or Damien Hirst, who arrested whole animals in tanks of formaldehyde. FOUND WANTING does not project a trendy meditation on death for death’s sake, which deadens less articulate, more predictable contemporary art.
 
thing beyond the dry bones even more relevant, and bigger, than death. If anything, FOUND WANTING may be characterized as the earnest keening of an unarmed, disarming heart and soul, lit by the lamps of two very open, wide eyes, and a restless intellect. It revels, and it mourns; it loves, and it laments; it celebrates, and it decries. This winning flirtation with paradox provides the spinning tension that animates Spackman’s dialogues, for anyone who takes the time to really see, hear, and feel their meaning. She already anticipated the twists and turns of the conversation during her own lengthy excavations of conscience, while she tossed the symbolic heft of the bone yard around in her head.
 
In full bloom, as it is in FOUND WANTING, Spackman’s artistic vision might be described as an art that intends, or hopes, to jumpstart epiphanies. This is neither a lucrative nor patently successful objective. Like the effort that understanding contemporary art can require, epiphany is a completely voluntary action for most of us. We have to be open to it to activate it, and even if we are receptive, there are never any guarantees that a connection will occur. We have to want it, and wait for it. Art, like epiphany, remains silent and waiting in the wings for us to receive it. Epiphany—an awakening of such spiritual intensity that it interrupts the normal routines of life—forces us to see some aspect of life or the world in a new way, as if for the first time. The strength of this renewed insight usually leads us to make different choices or conclusions, because our understanding has been converted to truth propositions that we had not previously entertained.

While it may be Spackman’s intention to grant epiphanal realizations through her art, she has always accepted the fact that the viewer’s reception of her ideas is a personal exchange over which she ultimately holds little sway. Any resolutions we might extract from our experience remain our personal property. Spackman only seems dismayed by reactions of indifference, intractability, or ignorance. She treasures most, perhaps, those fleeting epiphanies that paradoxically fix a moment in time forever—the dance of bees, the spontaneity of a child’s giggle, or the smell of rust in the air…the simplicity that is All and in all, as she would put it.
 
Spackman’s earnest interactions with reality, as she sees it, ultimately produce an art that is satisfyingly fresh and original, driven as much by hard questions and insecurities as confidence. While the many parts of FOUND WANTING begin as an exploration of conscience and context, the sum of the parts leaves us in a realm of paradox, cycling between knowing and wondering, between ethos and action, between life and death. Perhaps we will allow ourselves to be found wanting, in the gap, just this once.

Art and architectural historian Karen L. Mulder has spoken, taught, and written internationally on the connectivity between art and spirituality since 1981, focusing on the history of art and architecture after studies at Yale University, as Menil Scholar of Visual Arts. Her doctoral research at the University of Virginia provided the first analysis of a postwar German movement in stained glass design in its full cultural and psychosocial context. She currently teaches graduate studies at the Corcoran College of Art + Design in Washington, D.C., writes in various venues, continues to lecture at professional gatherings, and does curatorial work.