One sign from Edgar Heap of Birdss 12-sign project Native Hosts, located at the University of British Columbia
The appraisal of contemporary art is becoming more of a challenge due to the changing nature of what is considered artistic practice within our postmodern society. Postmodernism has redefined art in terms of cultural artifact mandated by cultural theorists to tolerate its own manifestations and permutations in the service of the culture-industry. How do I appraise a controversial conceptual work gifted by an artist to The University of British Columbia through the The Belkin Gallery?
As set out on the Belkin Gallery website, Edgar Heap of Birds is an internationally known artist and scholar of Cheyenne and Arapaho descent. Native Hosts consists of 12 aluminum signs which make reference to the relationship between First Nations and British Columbia. They are sited at 12 different locations across the northwest sector of the UBC campus.
On a white background in red text, British Columbia is spelled backwards followed by the phrase Today your Host Is, and completed by one of 12 names of British Columbia Indian Bands. Heap of Birds employs the format of official public signage. Signs guide the way a person moves through public space and direct ones behaviour. The viewer is prompted to consider and to potentially question their authoritative power. These signs use text in an imaginative and disconcerting way to stimulate thoughts about issues of history, public space, land claims, and even generosity and sharing.
In an interview with writer Robert P. Willis, for his article on the UBC Faculty of Arts website, the artist stated that There is method to some of the text on the signs being in reverse and that It's looking back at all history, all BC tribes. I put the text in reverse to try to specify the true hosts of BC. The red symbolizes the blood of Native peoples, which also symbolizes renewal. Keith Wallace, past-interim associate director and curator of the Belkin, described Native Hosts as not only filling the void of public art on campus, but that it will enhance how people interact with the campus; it will add another level of experience as people move through the university as each section of the artwork also looks like an official sign.
The difficult question of classification is explored in an article, published in Issue 1 of the online UBC Undergraduate Journal of Art History by Catherine Falls, who asks ... is it Coast Salish art? Native American Art? Or should it be placed in another category altogether? The fact that the creation and installation of the work theoretically requires only the artists specifications and not the artists specific skills or presence further complicates the works authenticity in regards to First Nations identity, as execution of the work could be carried out by anyone, regardless of ethnicity. In light of these myriad layers of artistic identity and production, how are we to ascertain the nature of the works authorship and classification?.
It would appear that the monetary value of artwork which is associated with intangible aspects of conceptual work is no longer a legitimate indicator of desirability and acquirability, both of which affect worth. We are therefore left with the economies of material supply and cost of fabrication as an indicator of value. Is it justifiable to deem the work worthless because its value appears to lie beyond a commodity-driven market economy? This raises issues associated with possession, use, ownership and control, ironically the very issues that Heap of Birds is addressing within the context of Native land claims.
Next: The Case of the Long-Tailed Monkey