May 13 to June 4, 2005
Linda Duvall's "Lament" asks us to consider a number of complex questions. How does an artist translate trauma into art? Where is the boundary between private and public? What is the function of sharing, through public lament, the grief of loss? What is the role of the media in translating private loss to vast numbers of people unknown to and by the sufferer? How does a secular society take on the role traditionally played by religion in ritualizing and releasing private and public pain?
In the roughly edited video that forms the shocking core of the exhibition, we see the artist being handcuffed, thrown to the ground and dragged off. We hear an officer shouting "Don't move!" and "Shut your mouth!". And we hear a gunshot. This terrifying and humiliating event is made bearable by the ritual repetition of the clip, by the context of the safe confines of an art gallery, and by the artist's extraordinary courage in translating her experience into art.
Linda Duvall is a "meth mother" (the phrase itself a media construction). Like the Latin American madres who bear witness to the political assassination of their children, parents of children addicted to crystal meth suffer an agony of anticipatory dread. The risks of overdose, suicide, and getting shot by the police are a daily reality. As the child's illness progresses, so do the helplessness and panic of the parents. In this pitiable state of mind, Duvall, who was doing research in the CBC archives for another project, began to collect laments - public expressions of grief.
Her 120 laments range from being diagnosed with a terminal illness, having a friend killed by a sniper, crop failure, a missing child, being a victim of a home invasion, outmigration from the province of Saskatchewan, a sports hero charged with a banned substance. There are laments for natural disasters, such as the flood in Peterborough. The lamenters are anonymous and famous, contemporary and historical. Duvall was particularly struck by the original radio broadcast of Mackenzie King's lament for his dog, how what is now largely a historical joke was at the time a particularly moving tribute to a genuine love for an animal. Svend Robinson's display of deep emotion when he resigned from office after stealing an expensive ring was reacted to with equally deep embarrassment by the public. Unseemly for a Canadian, a politician and especially a man, to show so much feeling! Duvall began to explore the nature of lamenting in a particularly Canadian way, how it is muted, how uncomfortable we are when it is not, how difficult and awkward is the direct expression of emotion. She asked herself about the struggle for language, whether the lament is for the Montreal Massacre or for the lack of rain. How are pain and loss expressed, how are they borne?
When the police raided her house, and shot and wounded her son, CTV cameras were on site and the story headed the local news. At the time of writing, over a year later, CTV in Saskatoon is still using the clip five times a day to advertise their news programming. Duvall is surprisingly not bitter about this. The standard view of the media's role in tragedy, that it is invasive to the point of abusiveness, trivializes peoples' experiences, and sensationalizes pain, all in the service of bigger ratings and advertising revenues-is only part of the picture. The media also mediates-it provides for a shared expiation of grief, for a public acknowledgement of suffering. It is the village green, the town crier.
Life is all loss all the time, and the only certainty is constant change. In the face of her own loss and the laments she collected, Duvall has created a secular liturgy. As the lamenting words crawl across the screen, at times banal, at times piercingly sad, the audience is invited to join in the lament by speaking the same words as the actors whose voices come from six speakers. We become the chorus, and we become one with the lamenters, adding our voices to theirs. Just as the ritual repetition of the video enables us to incorporate the trauma into our own psyches, so the ritual distancing from the original voice of the lamenter (first by the actors, then by the audience participants) both separates us from and joins us to the experience. Liturgy is a shared, public form of worship; its purpose is to use ritual to take the participants out of normal time into a state divine timelessness. In this secular liturgy, there is nothing to worship. There is only the hesitant, tentative speculation that we are not alone. Just as Duvall found consolation collecting laments, we too may be consoled by the possibility that our private losses are
Essay written by Robin Pacific