Primal Work

An Interview with Rebecca Belmore

In the following conversation Rebecca Belmore talks about her interest in watching people work and she admits that observing 10 men standing around a hole they’ve dug in the ground can hold her attention. “I think it’s fascinating when people do something,” she says, and then shifts from her watching others to our watching her. “When I make a performance I just hope that people are interested enough in what I am doing to pay attention.”

She needn’t worry. Rebecca Belmore is among the most compelling and mesmerizing performance artists working anywhere in contemporary art. But “performance” is too limited and maybe even misleading a term. What she does when she performs is to embody a state of mind. She resists words like “ritual” and “ceremony” to describe her actions. What engages her is the time it takes to work through an idea, and nothing mediates the concentration necessary to achieve that purpose.

Rebecca Belmore, Biinjiya’iing Onji (From Inside), 2017, hand–carved marble, 143 x 209 x 209 centimetres. National Gallery of Canada, purchased 2018, 48373. © Rebecca Belmore. Reproduced from Facing the Monumental: Rebecca Belmore, by Goose Lane Editions and the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Watching Belmore inhabit one of her pieces is to witness the transformation of trauma into healing. The intensity of her performances is the stuff of legend, whether she is dancing to the point of collapse in Indian Factory, 2000; drawing individual roses through her mouth in memory of the lost women in The Named and Unnamed, 2002; or painting the floor of the Walker Court at the Art Gallery of Ontario with clay for 12 hours, writing the words “land,” “water” and “breathe” and then covering them over in Clay on Stone, 2016. She describes the change she goes through in these presentations as “becoming some other part of myself.” It is a self to be reckoned with visually and viscerally.

There is a discriminating and subtle sense about the choices she makes in her performances. For The Named and Unnamed she wrote the names of the missing and murdered girls and women on her arms; it was a way of honouring them by taking on their identities and it was also a way of recognizing the larger dispossessed community that lives in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. In order to read the names she was obliged to move her arms in ways that were sometimes contorted; the movement duplicated the gestures she would see when area residents “were tripping out and dancing crazily.” Her insistent choreography enacted a danse macabre in more than one register.

Similarly, at the end of her emotionally and physically exhausting performance, she leaned back against a pickup truck that she had arranged to have parked on the street. The song coming from its interior is “It’s a Man’s World” with the perfectly gruesome lyrics “It’s a man’s world/But it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl.” The truck addresses the grim history of Robert Pickton’s method of picking up his victims, and Belmore could easily have ended her performance by getting into the truck and driving away. But she resisted that act as both didactic and too dramatic. The truck’s being there is enough; its leaving would be too much. What makes Belmore’s performances so effective is her unerring sense of passionate restraint; she always knows exactly how far to go and, more importantly, how far not to go. She is an artist who exercises impeccable judgment in everything she does and finds ways to articulate that judgment in images and acts that are intense and primal.

The following interview took place at the Remai Modern in Saskatoon on February 2, 2019, where “Rebecca Belmore: Facing the Monumental” was on exhibition from February 1 to May 5 of 2019. The exhibition, which was curated by Wanda Nanibush, originated at the Art Gallery of Ontario and will travel to the Musée d’art contemporain in Montreal from June 20 to October 6 of this year.

Fringe, 2008, inkjet print transparency in fluorescent light box, 81.5 x 244.8 x 16.7 centimetres. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, purchased 2011. Installation view, “Rebecca Belmore: Facing the Monumental,” Remai Modern, Saskatoon, 2019. Photo: Blaine Campbell. Image courtesy the Remai Modern, Saskatoon.

BORDER CROSSINGS: This exhibition at the Remai Modern, and earlier at the AGO, is an opportunity for you to look back over 30 years of work. Is that a strange position to be in?

REBECCA BELMORE: It is a very strange place because when you first start making art, you don’t ever think that you’ll be looking back. But when you get to 30 years, you’re forced to do that. What I can draw from that backward look is that I’ve had a pretty good life and that I’ve been working pretty hard. I also see that things haven’t changed very much. So I think about how my work fits into this span of time.

You have a statement in the catalogue that says “the world will be a different place in twenty years, and I have no idea what that looks like.”

I mean that we should be concerned about the not-so-distant future. What will this planet look like then? I try not to worry, but, like so many people, I still do. In 20 years—and if I can be there that would be lovely—I would have 50 years to look back on. I’ll continue to work as I always have, which is just to keep going forward. I am fortunate enough that the conditions are there for me to do the work, to do my job. I don’t know how to be analytical about myself, but the way I operate is I just keep going forward. That work is done and it no longer belongs to me: it’s not in my space, it’s not in my making world, it’s separated from me. One work is done; you go to the next. That’s done; you go to the next.

Is there a necessary trajectory, so that one work necessarily leads you to the next?

No. But I think there is a thread running through all of it. For example, in the work that I did in 1991 in Cuba, I was bound with a thin red rope, and then in the Sudbury piece from 2012, there is a thin line of red flagging tape. The funny thing is that I notice the smaller details only when I see them together.

You said the Cuba piece, Creation or Death: We Will Win, was like taking sand and drawing a line with it all the way to the sky. That metaphor of the line really has moved through your work. Were you conscious in using it that it might become the thread that could make connections among the various works?

I used it and then I just kept using it. The same goes for the presence of water in the performance works and the way washing myself is preparation before I get to work. There are other obvious things, like the hammer and the nail, that turn up in many of the works.

Why has the hammer and nail been so frequently used?

I remember my mother having a beautiful hammer, which I admired as a child. The hammer and the nail are really about the potential to make and create things, as well as to destroy them. Then they’re about the potential to work; when you’re hammering the nail you are making something. It also incorporates this idea of labour and the physical energy I put out. I can hammer aggressively, violently or gently. I like the fact that there are so many things you can do with just a hammer and a nail.

In The Named and Unnamed (2002), you hammer the fabric into the pole in a number of different ways. The same thing happens in Making Always War (2008) and 1181 (2014). You perform different actions, which makes me ask, what determines the intensity of your actions within a performance? What is that thing that happens to you?

When I come into the room, that’s when the performance starts, or when I’m ready I’ll take off my shoes. But I don’t know how I’m going to hammer in the various works until I’m there. How am I going to make this work? When I’m inside the work itself, I make decisions about how to handle or hammer this nail in that particular time.

So it’s not orchestrated or carefully scored.

Absolutely not. I have a shape. I occupy the space and I think I’m going to do it for this amount of time. I know what I have to do; I know where I want to go; I know how I want it to look in my head, so I just go about making it. Like the piece I did called Indian Factory (2000). I was pounding nails into a photograph of the same buffalo rubbing stone that I use in a much later piece, and, for me, the idea of piercing a stone that is much older than we are, and knowing that when the buffalo were here they would use these stones, that they were part of their life, was really attractive. In the piercing of the stone and the pounding and the sound and the nail is this idea of trying to let out some of the history that is stored in the stone.

You seem to enter into a state of mind when you perform the work. It’s as if you go into some kind of trance, or a Zen state.

I do. You have to go in front of people and create something in front of them that they will witness, and in the making you take up time and space. You’re the artist, you’re the maker and you have to be strong enough, be present enough to hold their attention. I think that’s where I become some other part of myself.

Actors get to play off two things: other actors and the audience. When you’re doing your solo performances, you have no one else to play against. Are you aware of the audience’s reaction to what you’re doing, or is the zone so hermetic that the audience doesn’t much matter?

That’s correct. The audience doesn’t much matter because my intent is to do this work, to make this artwork. What I love about it is that I am so focused on what I am doing.

You set unusual endurance tests for yourself. Your performances look as if they’re physically demanding. Why do you do that?

I don’t know. I think the body that is present and that is working is something that everyone can relate to. I like to watch people working; I like to watch construction workers. If there are 10 men standing around a big hole they’ve dug in the street, I’ll watch them. I think it is fascinating when people do something. So when I make a performance I just hope that people are interested enough in what I am doing to pay attention.

But 10 city workers standing around a hole in the ground isn’t you in Bury My Heart (2000), where you’re in the mud and burying that chair. One of the things that make your performances so compelling is your engaged presence. Is that what allows you to push yourself to the edges of physical endurance?

When I did Clay on Stone for Nuit Blanche in 2016, it was supposed to be 12 hours long and I hadn’t practised. At the seventh hour I had a moment where I didn’t think I could finish. I had five more hours to go, so I paced around the piece a bit to gather myself and I talked to myself and I was able to finish. That had never happened before. I think it’s age.

When you did Indian Factory here in Saskatoon, you danced yourself to exhaustion, to a Merle Haggard song.

Yes, the purpose was to exhaust myself and it was the same with Clay on Stone. In order to have people feel something, you have to push yourself; you have to be strong and present and you have to get it done.

Do you also do it out of respect for the subjects to whom you are paying homage? To do anything less intense would be to dishonour the subjects?

Absolutely. If you go back to Indian Factory, what I was addressing was very serious: people losing their lives in a horrible way. How could you make a performance that doesn’t affect people out of those circumstances?

You’re back in Saskatoon, a city where you have done significant pieces, including Freeze, your tribute piece to Neil Stonechild first made in 2006. Is it different to come back here to mount this exhibition?

I’m very happy that the three pieces are here together, especially having Freeze outside in the freezing winter. I was out there earlier this afternoon, touching the ice, and a young Indigenous man came along and he stopped for a moment and said, “I knew him.” I tried to talk with him and I was with broadcaster Paul Kennedy, who also tried to talk with him, but he said, “I’m not going to engage, but it’s here,” and he gestured to his heart and then he took off. I’m hoping that through word of mouth the Native community will come by and see it, even if they don’t want to come into the museum.

Last night in talking about Fringe (2008), you said the woman doesn’t have to see the scar because the scar is always there and then you added, “That’s the way we are as Indigenous people.”

We all know what happened to us and all Canadians should know what happened here on this land that they came to. It’s really about being able to carry the scar and still move forward and have a good life.

Your reading of Fringe is much more positive than mine. The brutality and disrespect of that medical act are so inconceivable that I wonder how anything about it could be positive.

Imagine that this woman had these beads sewn into her incision, then how did she deal with it? How did she go forward? If she saw this work, what would she think about it? I’m hoping that it is a positive thing. How you see it depends on who you are because it is brutal but it’s also beautiful.

You have never shied away from using your material in an aesthetic way. Is that a strategy so that the work won’t be ignored?

I do use beauty to address trauma and violence and history. I’m trying to get people to look at something and beauty is a device. Why do I want to look at something that’s ugly? It’s that simple.

What are the mechanics of the piece?

We were living in Vancouver and I told Osvaldo what I wanted to do and he said, “Go downstairs to the Korean market below our apartment and buy some pigskin.” That was a bit traumatic for me because of Robert Pickton, the pig farmer. But I went and bought a slab of skin and he said, “Make the cut and sew it up.” And then I made a clay impression and he made a rubber latex version with very thin flaps and we set Florene, my sister, up on the table and he glued it to her back and then he painted the blood, like movie blood. Then we quickly attached all the strings. She might have been laying on the table for a couple of hours.

I’m interested in this notion of paying attention. Yesterday we watched all of Perimeter, which is 22 minutes long, and there was no place to sit. Its durational sense, its pacing, is about looking at someone watching you and waiting for something to happen. You ask a lot of the viewer in that piece, don’t you?

I suppose. We didn’t think of putting in a bench. The reason is, you see this person walking through the landscape and the town and you don’t know what she is going to do. I’m basically dragging this line through all these places, and because viewers have to stand up, they have a sense of spending time and they recognize that they can do it.

Is your sense of duration instinctive? How do you measure time?

I have a sense of how long the piece needs to be before I start and then while I’m in it I have a good sense of time. Through my practice as a performance artist, I have developed a sense of timing and so I know how long even a video piece should be. Except for Perimeter, the other videos are quite short. I loop them—Fountain (2005) is looped—and it’s really about time and repetition and giving people the opportunity to watch it two or three times.

It is dramatic. Are you consciously aware of playing inside the apparatus of the theatrical?

It’s not at all about theatre. It goes back to the fact that I am the artist and I am making this work in front of you. I don’t have an exact plan, but I have all my materials and I’m going to use them.

In so many of your pieces we are looking at someone facing away. What is the logic behind not seeing the face and instead seeing the back of people’s heads?

Perimeter is a good example of why I have picked that manner of turning the body away. When I go up the road and over the hill, I want you to feel like you’re following me, and when I disappear you don’t know where I’ve gone. So you can’t have it your way, you have to look beyond to try to see what I’m seeing.

But the point of view can get confusing. In March 5, 1819 (2008) there are a number of perspectives— from behind, from each side and from the head. So we see that the husband is shot, but we don’t see who shoots him. We see his face and we see his back as well. Was that a one-camera shoot?

Yes, it was one camera. We shot it with Noam Gonick’s help in half a day on Capilano Mountain. It was a beautiful, warm, March winter day. The beginning of my wanting to make this piece goes back quite far. When I was a student in elementary school, I remember reading one paragraph in our history book about a Beothuk who had disappeared and that stuck with me for a long time. Glenn Alteen, the director of the Grunt Gallery in Vancouver, and I started to talk about this history and this story in particular. For me, March 5, 1819 is a tragic love story, which is kind of crazy because now their skeletons are coming back from Edinburgh. I’m hoping that getting them here will be the first step and then there will be a discussion, especially among the Mi’kmaq, about how to arrange some kind of proper burial. I never thought this would happen.

Does telling the incident from so many angles complicate the story? You see her and her anguish, and then it cuts to a pure, white landscape, and then you cut to the fear in his face. It’s a twochannel video installation and you see four images because of the rear-screen material that was used in the Remai Modern configuration.

At the Remai we didn’t have the space to put them up high like we did at the AGO. I quite like it here because you’re on the ground and you’re really in it. At the AGO you could stand back, but here you’re forced to be in the middle. It has occurred to me that this may be the best way to do it. The show is more compressed here and maybe it is more intense.

You have an interesting sense of sound: the intensity of the sound when rock hits rock in one section of Perimeter, or the footsteps in another, or the sound of rain hitting the sidewalk. Sound seems like an important tool for you.

It is. I think it’s because I have very bad eyesight. I’ve worn glasses since I was six, and sound was always very strong for me. When I take out my contact lenses, I’m pretty good in the dark if I had to find something by touch. I’m not blind. I listen. I’m interested in listening to things.

Was there anything in your growing up that would have determined you were going to move in the direction you did?

I think it was being in nature and not having TV. We listened to the radio at night, and to have that gift of not having all this information come into your home when you are a child is really wonderful. We were really creative and built elaborate forts, all of us. We were very busy children.

What is interesting is that in your work the question of homelessness has often come up. You did Tent City (2003), and Biinjiya’iing Onji (From Inside), your 2017 sculpture in Greece, is about that. What is it about that subject that has made you realize it in three pieces?

We grew up in the summers camping and fishing, and those are good memories for me. The tent and sleeping outside were very much a part of that time. Now that I’ve gone out into the world with this idea of making art, I’ve had to think about what the tent means outside of my experience.

From Inside is an inspired piece. When you came up with the idea, did you have any idea how well it was going to work?

No, I just hoped that it would. What was amazing about that whole project was having the opportunity to situate the work in such an incredible site, knowing that people could go into the tent and have this view of the Acropolis and the Parthenon. It was a crazy idea to come up with. I had gone to Athens and when I came home, I began thinking about the tents that I had seen at the port where the Syrian refugees were camped. I think it is really tragic that people are being forced to leave their homelands.

Last night you said that a lot of times, ideas for art just sneak up on you. In a way the Tower is like that—you actually put the clay in the shopping cart to store it. But when you make a tower in the way that you did, you’re moving into pre-existing art territory; the stacked thing is an accepted form in modernist sculpture. How much are you aware of operating inside the tradition of contemporary artmaking when you do a piece like that?

I’m vaguely aware of art history. Osvaldo is probably the person who says that I might be interested in looking at this or that. He makes me look at things in my practice. But I went to art school for a while and I do get around and go to museums and look at other people’s work.

When I look at tarpaulin I think of Janine Antoni, and your red line makes me think of Francis Alys; when you tear your dress, Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece comes to mind, as does Giuseppe Penone in your Wave Sound objects.

I’m aware of them, but they’re not a point of departure. There are so many people on this planet that there have to be alignments and connections. I think because artists are different, we’re doing something else. I think it was Jimmie Durham who said something like, “Whatever you do, I’m going to do something else.” I really like that line.

Wave Sound, Banff National Park, Alberta, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist. © Rebecca Belmore. Reproduced from Facing the Monumental: Rebecca Belmore, by Goose Lane Editions and the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Did you choose the material—aluminum and copper—for the sound pieces?

It was really a practical thing to make them lighter and easier to carry into the bush. It would take three people to move the large ones; you could probably carry the small one out if you wanted to. But the sites were incredibly beautiful. I really struggled with that “Landmarks” project because how do you place an artwork in such a beautiful location and not have it violate the place? I wanted them to blend in so I chose to use the rock where they were situated to become part of them, like taking a mould and pulling it off and rolling it up, and having the ear at the end so that people would be clued in that they were listening devices. They are all facing water.

Tell me about the chair and why it plays so important a role in your work.

One reason is memory. When we were kids my mother with the beautiful hammer one day painted her wooden chair fire-engine red and really shiny. I loved it. It was an unusual thing for her to do because she was not the sort of person who is overly proud or conceited. So that was my first chair experience. In blood in the snow (2002), the chair is symbolic of the chairs the settlers brought. They represent colonization and that’s why the chair gets buried. That was why I had bare feet in Bury My Heart. It was a grounding and a case of living on the ground. But the work where I was burying the chairs was made at the Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art in Montana. They have a permanent pioneer settler installation of furniture and products of that time. I thought if the museum was exhibiting their history that I would bury something similar.

It’s another example of your physical endurance because that piece looks difficult to do. Then in The Named and Unnamed it looks as if drawing the rose stems through your mouth is painful.

I had little marks like you would get from a cat. I didn’t notice that it was painful at the time.

Having their names written on your body does two things: it allows you to remember them and, through the inscription, you become them.

Yes, I did it for both those reasons. I could have memorized their names, but when I was forced to look for their names on my body, I would have to do odd gestures. When you are in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, you see people who are tripping out and they also might dance crazily. At the end of the performance, you step back and you lean against a pickup truck and nobody knows what’s going to happen. Then you bow and that signals the end. What’s happening in that interval? Well, the truck is playing “It’s a Man’s World,” and when I’m resting against the truck, I’m just thinking about what happened to the women and allowing the audience to rest before it’s over. I could have gotten into the truck and driven away, but that would have gone too far and would have been too didactic. I’m very careful about not wanting to beat people over the head because I don’t operate that way. At the same time I do know that people perceive the work as being aggressive and some would call it violent. What interests me is deciding how far to go and how to sneak in something that will get to people later.

tarpaulin, 2018, clay, 140 x 158 x 75.5 centimetres. © Rebecca Belmore. Image courtesy the Remai Modern, Saskatoon.

The other thing that you resist is sentimentality. One of the ways that sentimentality can enter is through physical victims and you avoid that. You don’t provide that opportunity.

Absolutely. If you look at the boy in At Pelican Falls (2017), he splashes himself and then he submerges himself, and shooting that was so easy because he was so present and so willing to go there. I barely had to give him any directions, and watching him do it as he performed was a beautiful thing. It was beautiful but it was not sentimental.

That piece raises an inescapable question about certain rituals that come out of Christianity. The open-armed gesture of the husband at the end of the 1819 piece is the gesture of the crucifixion; the water into blood is the transformative centre of the Catholic Mass; all the cleansings are baptisms. Are you meaning to use those symbolic gestures against themselves? Are they a reconnection to the origin of those things in Indigenous culture?

With the boy, what looks like some form of ritual is just his being in the water and being a boy. But at the same time I know all those things are there, but in using them I’m trying to work against them.

Water is probably the most significant of the four elements that play into your work and cleansing goes on so often in the performances. How do you use water in those instances?

If I wash my hands or my face, I am preparing myself, and it is an act that connects to something before all of this happened. In my own way I’m trying to make a connection to something much deeper and something that goes further back.

So is “ritual” the right word?

No, I hate that word.


No. Maybe it’s primal; maybe it’s human and something that connects all of us. We all wash our face every day, if we have water. For me as an artist, it is a way of connecting with people, so when someone washes their face in front of you in the formal context of a performance, then you watch them and you know what that feels like. Those are ways that I operate in performance mode.

You walk with a noticeable sense of purposefulness.

I think it comes from growing up and having a great childhood. It was only when I had to leave home for the city to stay with strangers that I experienced racism for the first time. So having to learn how to carry myself became a way of surviving and figuring things out.

Fifteen years ago when we first talked, I asked you the question about how art functions and whether or not it works. You said, “Sometimes I think it is good and sometimes it seems to be totally useless.” Is there a different answer today?

I struggle and that’s a good thing because if I didn’t, then my art wouldn’t be what it is.

The name of your piece in Cuba carried the declaration “We will win.” Was that just youthful exuberance and would the title today be the question “Will we win?”

Part of it was youthful exuberance, but I am still hopeful that art has a place in the world. There are lots of young Indigenous artists and good curators out there and communities now have a way of expressing themselves through contemporary art. It’s happening and it is exciting. As an artistic population we’re big enough to start to talk about these issues and ideas.

What has insulated you from rage and outrage? What do you think when you dwell on smallpox-infected blankets, and Wounded Knee and Neil Stonechild and the ’60s Scoop, following the residential schools?

I think it’s important to feel rage and outrage, and everyone experiences something in their lives that upsets them. But I really struggle to take that and turn it into something provocative, something that will ask questions. Maybe as I get older I’m not as crazy as I used to be. But I have accepted what I have become and that is an artist and that’s what I’ll do until it’s over for me.

You have seemed not to be a confrontational artist.

I think a good example of that would be Ayum-eeaawach oomama-mowan: Speaking to their Mother. It was the summer of 1990, the Oka crisis had taken place and we were in Thunder Bay. At the time racism was pretty evident; people would yell at us and say awful things. And it’s not that I don’t experience anger or outrage, but as an artist I have to figure out how to talk about it in a different way. So the question became: How do you take something that is out there every day and turn it into something positive and reassure people, especially your own people, that it’s okay to speak out? I did that by turning the voice, not towards government and the public, but back to the land, and I made a work where people could gather and speak.❚