Jeneen Frei Njootli at Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver
The inherent intimacy of inheritance, transmission, and knowledge-sharing all operate in Jeneen Frei Njootli’s current exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery. Titled my auntie bought all her skidoos with bead money, it includes a series of four large sheets of steel and a newly commissioned video work. Frei Njootli pressed handmade beadwork onto her body and then, relying on the natural oils from her skin, transferred the beaded texture to the surface of the steel. She takes the formula of intentional wear and tear (like commodities that are treated to appear aged), and applies a mercurial poetics to determined patination.
Jeneen Frei Njootli, my auntie bought all her skidoos with bead money, 2018, installation view (photo: Michael Love)
Her video work has a similarly layered form that superimposes a projection of the artist’s back onto a sheet of steel. The image is veil-like without coyness or ethereal qualities. A beadwork pattern impressed on the surface of her skin gradually vanishes from her back as the surface evens out, and then reappears as the footage plays in reverse. For the static works, the range of visibility of her body-marks on the steel is influenced by slight shifts in temperature and air in the gallery. However, despite being a time-based medium, the video positions Frei Njootli’s body as always present on the surface. It is the site of reception where knowledge and circumstance are internalized – unseen but always somewhere in the depth of the frame.
The exhibition proposes an anti-capitalist aesthetic regarding the stain of human labour. The stain given to be seen is not a generalized kind of labour though; it’s specific to the artist and the identity of that particular body. This body is employed as an interface for the complex touching of hands, beads, body, and steel. These human-to-material relationships speak volumes about systems of domination, but what we retain in their wake is necessarily fugitive. The system of contemporary art facilitates this touching, so we have to ask: To what extent are these anti-capitalist aesthetics cannibalized by the white cube? Can institutions facilitate the fugitivity of the dispossessed?
Every gallery grapples with these questions whenever they show work that discursively contends with dispossession, colonial violence, and gendered labour (an indirect way of referring to the exploitation of women). We don’t rely on artists or exhibitions to provide answers (we would never get anywhere), but Frei Njootli’s notion of the “given to be seen” supplies us with a means of edification that inverts the settler paradigm of circulating and withholding knowledge – the history of knowledge on demand. This exhibition leads one to think more about selective opacity and the agency we foster in receiving what is given to be seen – a receiving that results in affirmation, rather than accumulation.
Steffanie Ling‘s essays, criticism, and art writing have been published alongside exhibitions, in print, and online in Canada, the United States, and Europe. She is an editor of Charcuterie and co-curator at VIVO Media Arts Centre. Her books are Nascar (Blank Cheque, 2016) and Cuts of Thin Meat (Spare Room, 2015). She is Akimblog’s Vancouver correspondent and can be followed on Twitter and Instagram @steffbao.