/MALBEUF considers dreamcatchers a cultural enigma as they exist simultaneously as both powerful objects and kitschy gifts. She aims to explore their pertinence to our relations of the past by examining their contemporary cultural position and prophesying their future significance. This installation is an act of remembering a history; though what this history is remains unclear. Perhaps it is a history that never even existed.
/AMY MALBEUF holds a BFA from Alberta College of Art + Design. She seeks truth, thunder, and decolonization.
In a fractured age, when cynicism is god, here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted – knowingly or unknowingly – in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.
Ben Okri quoted in King, pg. 153
A story-teller. A story-alterer. A story-destroyer. A story-teller.
Amy Malbeuf's installation, Beyond…, finds its genesis in the fraught, contested narratives surrounding the appropriation and contemporary status of dream catchers. Originating as powerful objects with specific cultural meaning, the significance of dream catchers expanded over time and was adopted by many Aboriginal people as a symbol of solidarity in response to the shattering devastation wreaked by the colonial project sweeping across the Americas. In the recent past, the dream catcher has been even more widely appropriated, and today exists in a complex and disputed liminal state: on one hand as a pertinent and important cultural object, on the other, as a fetishized iconographic tchotchke, mass-produced for touristy craft stores and trading posts throughout North America. Now purchased by many as souvenirs of spiritual or cultural authenticity — buyers enticed by the seductive draw of an “Authentic Indian Craft” — the history and meaning of these objects are obscured through a popular co-opted master narrative.
In light of this, Malbeuf’s project is a deeply personal one; it is an attempt to understand the past, contemporary, and future significance of the dream catcher through gestural or bodily action. As she states, it is “[her] hope that if [dream catchers] consume so much of [her] physical space, then perhaps they can fulfil an emotional, mental, and spiritual space.”
Malbeuf's work frequently involves the destruction or alteration of stories, often through the transformation or forceful diversion of the narrative of a particular place. Beyond… continues her interest in these site-based interventions. The small black basement of the Stride Project Room is overtaken by several overlapping layers of room-sized dream catchers. Attached to the gallery walls, floor, and ceiling, they engulf the space like webbing from an ambitious, madly-driven spider. Projected through the lattice is a video, played in reverse, of the artist unravelling her first (failed) attempt at building a large dream catcher. Accompanied by an otherworldly, haunting soundtrack composed of ambient noises of the deconstruction process, the video is a chronicle of Malbeuf’s frustration at her failure. However, reversed, the unravelling is reframed as a gesture of creation and becomes an acknowledgement that each iteration of the dream catcher is the culmination of the knowledge accumulated through past action.
The concerns Malbeuf addresses through this project are personal and fundamentally epistemological. How do I/we know? How do I/we acquire knowledge? She asks, if we cannot trust or do not know the truths of the narratives that surround and influence us, how do we discover or uncover concealed or forgotten knowledge? If contemporary stories do not properly serve us, how might we access alternatives? Malbeuf’s project is one of self-emancipation; it is a subversion of hierarchical systems of education — that is, those that assume knowledge must be transmitted through explication — and an autodidactic exploration of ways of knowing and learning. The action of building these dream catchers is a postmemorial act, an effort to access cultural memory in support of acquiring and spreading an alternative knowledge. As the artist herself says, “I, we all, hold all of our ancestors' memory both physically in our bodies and in our hearts and minds,” and “all people are related so, in making this project, I [am] trying to gather the knowledge and skills to make this dream catcher from an ancestor.”
Malbeuf creates dream catchers to resist and subvert dominant hierarchizing narratives. According to Marianne Hirsch, postmemory is a structure of transmission that communicates powerful (often traumatic) knowledge and experience inter- and trans-generationally to individuals without first-hand exposure to the originating events. Critical to the work of the postgeneration — those who received these transmissions — is the creation of aesthetic expressions, such as art objects, that communicate to others this postmemorial knowledge. Such aesthetic objects are often absent from historical archives and are not traditionally seen as legitimate ways of knowing, yet they are critical in maintaining and accessing cultural memory.
Jan Assmann also suggests that cultural memory can exist as objectivized culture; that is, as modes of communication crystallized into aesthetic objects such as texts, images and monuments. Assmann claims cultural memory maintains itself through objects which stand as “islands of time” where “mnemonic energy” is experienced. Through this retrospective contemplation, he argues, “a collective experience develops, whose meaning, when touched upon, may suddenly become accessible across millennia.” According to Assmann, access to historical meanings and cultural heritage through objects serves to stabilize and convey identity and cultural narratives.
Thomas King’s recurring assertion that “The truth about stories is that’s all we are” emblematically summarizes the power of stories to inform ideology and identity, including the potential dangers and influences in storytelling. Malbeuf’s dream catchers offer a redemptive mode of defiance: the attempt to make contact with ancestral knowledge and cultural memory is an action against forgetting. In searching for alternative narratives, and telling them, one can resist and self-define, remember marginalized histories, and reclaim the dream catcher as a significant cultural object.
Thomas King. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative
. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2003.
Email correspondence with the artist. August 10, 2011.
Jacques Rancière. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Trans. Kristin Ross. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.
Email correspondence with the artist. August 12, 2011.
Marianne Hirsch. “The Generation of Postmemory.” Poetics Today 29:1 (Spring 2008). 103.
Jan Assmann. “Collective Memory and Cultural Identity.” Trans. John Czaplicka. New German Critique, No. 65, (Spring-Summer 1995). 129.
/SHAUNA THOMPSON is a curator and writer based in Banff, Alberta. She is currently Curatorial Assistant at Walter Phillips Gallery, The Banff Centre. In June 2010 she graduated from the MVS Curatorial Studies program at the University of Toronto.