Extremes Janet Smith W
CAGE takes improv to bold new
e can’t tell you exactly what veteran dance renegade Katie Duck’s CAGE
will look or sound like when it hits the Scotiabank Dance Centre next week—and that’s exactly the point.
The die-hard improviser changes the piece wherever she goes, the only constants three wigs, four texts, and a black dress, along with a projected film and a soundtrack she alters for every performance. Working with guest musicians from whatever spot she’s visiting—whether it’s Hong Kong or Argentina—she lets these props, words, and sounds inspire everything that unfolds on-stage.
“I’ve just watched four documentaries about your culture to see what your pop culture is,” says the U.S.– born, Amsterdam–based pioneer over the phone from the Netherlands, hinting the Cranberries’ late Dolores O’riordan and the Biebs himself may have worked their way onto her soundtrack. “It’s not about the piece. It’s about the relationship. And I need to understand how to relate to you. I need everyone to know I’m a visitor.”
Duck says her wish to connect to different cultures probably stems in large part from being a lifelong nomad. “I’ve always been a touring artist,” she says. “I was born in the U.S., but came here when I was 24. I’m in so many cultures and translation is part of that, so I get interested in seeing how flexible I can be.”
From the late 1970s into the ’80s she experimented on Europe’s cutting edge, and it was during a stint starting in 1979, at her company Gruppo, which studied with Italian theatre icon Dario Fo, that she began pushing improvisation beyond its usual bounds. In the mid-’80s she began looking more toward music, and especially its concepts of spontaneity within time frames, for her inspiration than toward dance or theatre.
“I was working with improvisation toward a set piece. I was working with my own soundtracks—and because it was the ’80s, it was reel-toreel then,” says the artist, who’s influenced several generations of dancers. “And I realized I don’t like taking a piece and packaging it and moving it around the world. By ’85, I was getting interested in mixing this music. And I really looked at [composer John] Cage quite severely…and saying ‘I’m going to make a composition that’s played improvised.’
“I decided it was more interesting for my public relationship for something to be chosen right in that moment.”
In fact, the title of the work here refers to one of her art’s huge influences, Cage, and the way he offered similar choices to his musicians. But the deeply feminist artist also refers to the cages that imprison us in society, from sexism to violence.
Musicians Ben Brown, James Meger, and Roxanne Nesbitt help bring the piece to life here. Joining them on-stage, Duck bares her body and soul, giving herself to the moment—something three decades of practice, and meticulous research into subjects including neuroscience, have made her comfortable doing. She says being able to make choices on the spur of the moment takes rigorous study.
“And I would say for myself, personally, it’s been having 30 years to get out in front of the public with these odd situations and fail a lot,” she says, adding that her world-view also fuels her particularly bold practice: “Because I see things in a feminist way, I say you’re not a victim of the situation; you’re a
ANNA WONG: TRAVELLER ON TWO ROADS At the Burnaby Art Gallery until November 3
OCCURRING FIVE YEARS after her death, the Burnaby Art Gallery’s Anna Wong retrospective spans the career of one of our most accomplished and yet underappreciated printmakers. Composed of some 70 artworks, including ink drawings, etchings, serigraphs, lithographs, block prints, and textiles, and complemented by a major catalogue, the show reveals significant aspects of her life, times, travels, and creative aspirations.
Born in Vancouver in 1930, into one of the city’s most distinguished Chinese-canadian families, Wong was the fifth of 10 children of Wong Kung Lai and Chu Man Ming. She greatly benefited from her parents’ desire to give their offspring a comprehensive education, ensuring that their western schooling was supplemented with teachings in Chinese language, history, culture, and, significantly in Anna Wong’s case, calligraphy. Early on, she also worked in the family business, Modernize Tailors, and gained experience in cutting and sewing that, many years later, would inform her largescale, screen-printed and quilted textile works.
Wong’s art education took place over a long period, arguably beginning with those calligraphy lessons in her childhood and enriched, when she was in her late 20s, by Chinese brush painting studies in Hong Kong. The show features four of Wong’s untitled ink works on paper from 1957, their depiction of traditional, nature-based subjects revealing her quick fluency in the medium.
Hung next to these is a grid of 16 small pen-and-ink drawings—again untitled—that Wong produced while attending the Vancouver School of Art in the early to mid-1960s. Characterized by either densely layered networks of crosshatched lines or swirls of jots, dashes, and squiggles, they demonstrate her deft shift from brush to nib, her developing interest in markmaking and overall abstraction, and the influence of a few important instructors, particularly Ann Kipling.
At the VSA, Wong encountered the printmaking that would seize her imagination and define her career. Her subsequent works are executed with amazing technical skills through many different processes, techniques, and motifs, from geometric abstraction to Chinese symbology. The resulting images,
Praying Wheel Pi, such as and are extended experiments with colour, texture, layered imagery—and transcendence.
On graduating from the VSA, Wong travelled to New York to further her studies at the famed Pratt Graphic Art Centre, and stayed on there for nearly 20 years as an instructor. During this time, she established a pattern of teaching in New York through the fall and winter and returning to the West Coast each summer to spend time with her family, teach again, and work in her Vancouver and Quadra Island studios. Among notable prints
Pine II Weeds #10, she created during this period are and from a series of lithographs based on humble and overlooked natural forms such as leaves, grasses, and, yes, weeds.
Significantly, Wong made seven trips to China following its opening to the West in 1978, and a large body of her prints and mixed-media works is based on photographs she shot on her extensive travels there. Subjects range from humble village architecture to Buddhist sculptures, and from tea thermoses to
The Great Wall #6, snowy mountain landscapes. Often, as in
Wong incorporated images of family members, reinforcing her deep commitment to her personal and cultural origins.
Anna Wong: Traveller on Two Roads is both visually and emotionally arresting. Kudos to the BAG’S Ellen van Eijnsbergen and Jennifer Cane, and to the Wong family, for bringing together a comprehensive show and catalogue that honour an artist whose modesty and indifference to self-promotion might otherwise have allowed her work to slip into obscurity.