The prairie is a vast metaphor, open-ended and ambiguous. It can symbolize freedom, fertility, tradition, exploration; also cruelty, isolation, loneliness, repression, despair. It is ripe for interpretation and this ripeness is what undoes Deanna Bowen’s new video installation, Shadow on the Prairie, on display at the Women’s Art Resource Centre Gallery, copresented by the Images Festival.
Bowen’s video is expertly crafted and technically accomplished. The six-minute loop opens with a view of passing trees from the highway. The trees are barren and stunted, and the colours have been reversed, so what might have been lush and picturesque is ominous; the sky is brown, the trees are pale grey, outlined in rusty yellows and oranges. Layers of text — bits of a playbill, loopy formal handwriting, typewritten official documents, fragments of tarot cards — fade in and out in dense layers. A woman, shot in black and white, appears; a ballet dancer going through choreography. She paces to and fro anxiously, looks out of an exaggeratedly large window and finally climbs into a chest. The video then fades into a deep midnight blue, then into wan grey and finally to black.
This is evocative but vague. The text is of, variously, a fan letter to a radio singer and racist turn-of-the-20th-century Canadian immigration policy. The appropriated ballet footage comes from the NFB’s film adaptation of Gweneth Lloyd’s Shadow on the Prairie, in which a new prairie bride goes mad from loneliness and isolation. Generally one gets a feeling of anxiety and solitude. The video never makes any conclusive metaphorical lunges.
The artist’s statement, however, lunges like its life depends on it. The video is meant to take Lloyd’s ballet and have it stand in for Bowen’s closeted gay uncle, a Vancouver nightclub singer from the 1930s to ’50s. Her uncle was rejected by his family, and this echoes in Bowen’s own familial estrangement. The video is about this continuing familial saga, Lloyd’s ballet loosely representing the situations of Bowen and her uncle.
If you say so — none of this was apparent in the video. I can understand not wanting to be didactic, but there are ways to avoid didacticism other than plunging headlong into total obscurity. Bowen’s uncle wrote the fan letter, according to the statement. This is a fascinating bit of information, especially as the author of the letter refers to himself as female, but a few lines flickering on a screen can’t possibly symbolize someone’s entire biography. And loading two lifetimes’ worth of estrangement and deeply personal strife onto choreography that already has its own metaphorical language is a perilous misstep. Rewatching the video after reading the statement doesn’t help either. Previously the layers of text were visually evocative. Now they’re just addled and confusing, references so far removed from what they signify they’ve stopped referencing.
Sometimes artists get so deep into their own projects they can’t see the forest for the trees. Certainly that’s what the video evokes most: Bowen’s own overly internalized world and the lack of third-party input.
I’m not fond of propagandism, but neither do I have any patience for art so abstruse that it can’t exist without a press statement. Bowen is clearly lost here in her prairie landscape and she hasn’t left behind any kind of discernible path for us to follow.