To the Island

My less frequent posts as of late have been in part due to a vacation I took to Vancouver Island. I like to call it my “To the Island” trip as a take-off on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

She felt… how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach.

I visited several small towns along the east coast that I’ve never been to before, including Crofton, Ladysmith, Duncan, and then up to Nanaimo and down to Victoria (which I have been to before since I lived there as a grad student).

I’m not one for small towns, but I concede there is a certain charm to them when visiting. I was pleasantly surprised at the plethora of used bookstores and vintage/consignment clothing shops in a number of places. Aaron Espe captures the small town life in this song:



And I’ve tried to capture some photos that, even if they don’t exactly characterize the town, at least characterize my experience of that particular town:

Ladysmith

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There’s only one main street running through Ladysmith. It hosted the town’s annual “show and shine.”

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If that wasn’t rural enough, I was about to get even more country by staying on this picturesque farm on the outskirts of town.

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A day lounging at the beach, petting goats, and walking the boardwalk around Crofton’s harbour.

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Duncan

The town doesn’t look like much from the highway, but once you turn off and actually get into the downtown area, it has some really quaint spots. Duncan is also known as “The City of Totems.” Apparently there’s over 80.

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IMG_5748Nanaimo

Home of Nanaimo bars and Diana Krall. Lovely, colourful harbour city.

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Victoria

I took the least amount of pictures here, probably because I took so many when I lived in this city. In any case, I love visiting this old “home” and running the ocean route along Dallas Road I used to do as a student.

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Pico Iyer says we carry many versions of home inside of us and I think that is very true. Sometimes we may even call a place home that we’ve never lived in but dream of living in, because we spend just as much time thinking about it. I had never thought about that until he said it, but it made sense. Vancouver was home to me long before I moved there. So, where is home for you? Small town, big city? Both?

Here’s the TED talk if you have fifteen minutes:

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Garbage to Gold

I was on Granville Island the other day and was able to snap some pics in the last stretch of sunny weather before another batch of rain sets in. What I love about Granville Island:

  • how colourful it is

  • its views of False Creek and the iconic glass condos that are a staple of Vancouver’s skyline

  • its juxtaposition of art and industry as seen on buildings’ exposed structural and mechanical elements, representing traces of this man-made island’s industrial past

Malaspina Printmakers

warehouse-turned-university

  • the public market. Even though walking through the narrow aisles feels as packed as the sardines they have for sale in the fresh seafood section, there are some yummy eats and unique artsy gems you can find when browsing through the hundreds of vendor stalls

  • there’s a store for literally everything under the sun, which you can get a sense of by reading these names: “Umbrella Shop,” “The Postcard Place,” “Rhinoceros,” “The Granville Island Soap Gallery” and “The Granville Island Broom Company.” Yes, there is actually a store that just sells brooms. No joke. I should have taken a picture of that one.

In the words of Paul Delany in Vancouver: Representing the Postmodern City,

The success of Granville Island has been based on its mixture of uses and its (post)modernisation of existing buildings. Post-industrial society can afford to feel nostalgic about factories: abandoned machines and structures are not experienced as mere junk, but rather as relics of an heroic age when goods were hammered out, with toil and skill, from recalcitrant materials.”

In other words, the success of Granville Island revolves around repackaging what was formerly an industrial “junk” or “garbage” site into an attractive and desirable site of high cultural and economic capital. To read about a future dystopian Granville Island that plays with the idea of art and commodity, check out William Gibson’s short story, “The Winter Market.”

Dockside Brewery – active remnants of an industrial past

Indeed, yesterday’s garbage is tomorrow’s gold. And how golden it is.

Pictures of Women

See the similarity in these pictures?

Edouard Manet. A Bar at the Folies-Bergere. 1882.

Jeff Wall. Picture for Women. 1979.

Édouard Manet painted the one on the left in the 19th century; Jeff Wall photographed the one on the right in the 20th century.

I came across Jeff Wall while reading Vancouver: Representing the Postmodern City. He calls himself an artist-photographer because many of his photographs are staged in studio with elaborate costumes and a troupe of actors. This theatrical, staged side to his photographs puts the “artist” in “artist-photographer,” whereas the “photographer” title standing alone implies a natural, spontaneous, lifelike medium.

The Vancouver Sun recently had an article on him as the Vancouver Art Gallery just added this Wall photograph to its permanent collection:

Jeff Wall, Ivan Sayers, costume historian, lectures at the University Women’s Club, Vancouver, 7 December 2009.

Wall himself says he takes inspiration from painters like Édouard Manet. The article compares Wall’s and Manet’s pictures based on their similar architectural motifs and mirrors, but also on their depiction of the power dynamic between men and women.

While the woman in this photograph (Virginia Newton-Moss) exudes a strong presence with her solid stance and black garb, she is literally in costume and on display, showing off a British ensemble circa 1910. Ivan Sayers, a costume historian, holds the floor as he gives a lecture at the University Women’s Club. The male professor lectures; the female model is on display. The man teaches; the women listen. This reminds me of the whole idea of the active versus passive gaze dichotomy that often comes up when analyzing social relationships in paintings or photographs.

A great painter who depicted these complex gender interactions was Impressionist painter Édouard Manet. I like the intertextual relationship between Wall’s modern photograph Picture of Women from 1979 and Manet’s classic painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergère from 1882. I find Manet’s picture more striking, which is why I’ll address my comments to this one.

Here are some notes I dug up about it from an Impressionist art course I took in university:

  • these café-concerts are less about the concert and more about the social interaction between strangers – notice the casualness. It hints more at separateness than at conviviality
  • waitress has immense dignity even though she’s confined
  • viewer is disconcerted with her matter-of-fact, cool glance that lacks expression
  • she’s a victim of commercialized leisure
  • waitresses typified the new Paris
  • many of them used their jobs as waitresses as a cover for prostitution, yet Manet gives waitresses dignity in his portrayal of them

I’ve always been intrigued by this painting and remember visiting the Courtauld Gallery in London where it hangs. I stood and stared at it for a long time. It was much bigger than I expected and even more striking in person.

It’s disturbing to view because the waitress looks directly at the viewer, and we do not know how to read her. Notice the image in the mirror. It’s faulty. In the reflective glass, she leans in to the male customer, but in the real image, she is standing perfectly straight. The man’s location is where the viewer would be standing, so what does this say about us? Are we the man, the villain of this leisure society that commodifies women? Is she on display for us? Do we consume her with our gaze? Some art critics think she’s not so much selling drinks as selling herself, as symbolized by the ripe oranges that are a motif for sexuality in many of Manet’s paintings.

Every time I look at this painting, I am still moved by the waitress’ aloof, ambiguous expression, while there seem a million different thoughts going through her head. I wonder if the interaction in the reflection is one of these scenarios she’s playing out in her mind of how the impending transaction will go with the new customer who’s just approached the counter. Perhaps the reflection is five seconds ahead of the reality, for when she faces us, she looks professional as she waits for him/us to come to her, yet when she turns to the man in the mirror, she looks yielding — yielding to his desire. It’s like she knows how the scene will play out even though she doesn’t want it to. Seeing that a mirror comprises the entire background of the painting, the themes of appearance versus reality, thoughts and actions, engagement and detachment seem entirely plausible.