MARCH 30 – APRIL 24, 1990



Comprised on large numbers of photographic, painted and printed images and texts, MOTHER becomes a direct function of the labour undertaken within, and on behalf of, the specific site of the gallery. The reordered passages of text and the images of “inadequate” or “actual misrepresentations” contained in the installation are quite clearly untenable as any realistic or credible portrayal of the world. Rather, they provide a tone for analysis and comprehension and paint away from a retrieval of substantive meaning towards the labour that has initiated and sustained them; the relationship between the expressed but unintended and the intended but unexpressed.

“The call here is to correctly value labour, not to romanticize it, and to comprehend its place in an increasingly fragile and interdependent world. Labour (is) presented as valuable, not ennobling. The trails of text and images speak, directly, of the labour that has allowed them to take voice and, obliquely, of the fragility of the bonds of an interconnected and interdependent geopolitical world.” (Alan Dunning)


ALAN DUNNING has been an instructor at the Alberta College of Art since 1980 and is currently a member of the Board of Directors of The New Gallery. A multi-faceted artist, his work ranges from conventional object-making to performance and installation art. His work has been widely exhibited across Canada.


By combining heterogeneous sources with a near absence of self-reflexive gesture, Alan Dunning has extended the parameters of the plural text in his recent installations. (1) “Commonwealth” (at YYZ, Toronto) and “Greenhouse” (at Neutral Ground, Regina) both included numerous commonplace images. In “Greenhouse”, these were combined with a considerable text component. The focus of this essay, MOTHER, differentiates itself from these earlier works in that no images have been incorporated. Dunning has gathered some thirty texts and subjected them to a radical dismemberment and reordering. These fragments, which have been drawn from global sources, range from the chillingly documentary to the poetic and fictional, and they compromise the conceptual matrix to the work. (2) If he has consistently declined the role of either Impresario or Interpretant (3), Dunning’s finely honed sensibility to material, language, and the mercurial aesthetics of installation art are everywhere present in this rich and resonant work.

It is tempting to cast the work within the confines of its inception –that of contemporary linguistic, political, or feminist theory. But these various theoretical positions finally represent a distraction that Dunning strives to avoid. Instead, his project seeks to make present the repressed or marginalized voices of women, diverse ethnic groups, and economically disadvantaged and disenfranchised classes—the “other” co-named in his title (m/other). MOTHER enters one’s awareness on a somatic level: its sheer beauty and complexity resist the constraints of theoretical closure.

An initial response to the work is conditioned by the title—MOTHER—a word at once evocative and all-embracing, yet riven with out deepest anxieties and mythological fantasies. It is a word both comforting and socially-confining: a name, a relationship, and a metaphor for our organic connectedness to the world. Several variations come quickly to mind: Mother Nature, Mother Earth, Mother Tongue, Mother Country, Alma Mater—phrases that suggest both the promise of sustenance, growth, and life, and the inevitability of pain, difference, stricture, and death. To be born is to suffer death, and the double edge of this gift/debt of life is reflected in the vocabulary of the texts. The wisdom of the mother is that of original myth. The “maternal education” (Alma Mater) of life is a body of knowledge that has always been possessed by the Mother, who has been reduced to silence by science and rational thought. (4)

This “silent mother” is represented by six carbon sheets from which a pattern of letters has been excised. Reminiscent of mimeograph stencils from early school days, the sheets recall the sampler or the paradigm (the letter shifts with each sheet). They embody the commonplace made precious: a record, an index, a receptive surface to be imprinted, a mimic, a mirror, a code to be replicated, reproduced –in short, a mother. Fragile and starkly beautiful, they clamour to be cherished and protected as they ironically allude to the (supposedly) female proclivity towards replication, as opposed to the (supposedly) male prerogative of creation.

As foils to the emotional overdetermination of the title, a number of blank panel configurations articulate the walls of the interior gallery. The panels—mute, “no colour,” and neutral—reverse the expectations of the viewer: the action takes place outside the frame. Alternately suggesting architectural elements, windows, paintings, enclosure, or literally scars upon the body of the text, the peculiar greenish color of the panels makes them difficult to locate spatially, and impossible to fix schematically.

The remaining wallspace is covered with some 7,500 printed words spread evenly to within 18” of the floor. The words are erratically connected by copper strips, which suggest an organic grid, a web, or a network of meaning. The resulting structure is as airy as a garden trellis of a star map.

The taxonomy of gender in aesthetics has been firmly established by centuries of classical tradition. The masculine has been identified with the abstract, the general, the distant, and the ideal –al values legitimized within Modernism. The feminine, by contrast, is identified with the familiar, the close-at-hand, the detailed, the personal, and the socially dispossessed. (5) So mapped, the feminine aesthetic can take the form of either excess or deficiency.

Dunning’s installation literally embraces the feminization of aesthetic values and renders them positivities—of vision, of ideology, of action. The installation radiates excess: a distinctly uneconomic excess of labour, an excess of detail (Where does the eye find “repose” –the mythical point outside the work, which offers the transcendent view?); the copper tape recalls the excessive splendor of Islamic architecture or Rococo interiors. Conversely, lack also prevails: the lack of images, of objects, of focus, of coherent syntax or reading of the text. The installation further dignifies those feminine virtues decried by neo-classical aesthetics in that texts themselves invoke the affective, the immediate and the personal.

The various elements of the installation are stitched together –fused –by the underlying drone, the insistent rhythm or pattern of labour. The endless hours of searching, selecting, printing, cutting, assembling, and eventually disassembling, seem at first pointless, absurd, excessive. Dunning insists, however, that the role of labour is central to the work—labour correctly valued, as opposed to romanticized. The constituent parts have literally passed through the body of labour—Dunning’s body—and this deeply personalizing act has transformed them. The viewer becomes involved in the “labour of language”: by entering into the text, passing the shifting signifiers through the mind, and gleaning the scant shreds of shared meaning, the reader/viewer similarly participates in the production of the text. (6)

If Dunning’s ambition is to “make present” within the space of the gallery a host of global, oppositional constructs—the subjectivity of others—then a perverse irony lodges itself within the very strategy of reordering that has been imposed upon the texts. Idiosyncrasy and catachresis often characterize non-literate speech. This personal speech has ben erased—leveled—to exactly the same degree as the more academic writings. All of the voices have been transcribed into English—Dunning’s mother tongue. The text, itself, has been electronically generated as italic script, which parodies its origin in hand writing yet denies it the status of print. Clearly, these words of others are present in some form other than the representational (denotational, syntactical) a circumstance that dictates the absence of images within this piece.

In “Greenhouse”, some 50, 000 xeroxed words blanketed the walls with an all-over pattern that approximated the density of a flock of starlings or stars in a photograph of a galaxy. The familiar, pleasant chatter f words formed a similitude with the half-tone dots of the cibachromes, as well as with the images (of seated monks, of galaxies) themselves, which lined the gallery walls beneath the text. The aesthetic enhancement of the words, which were stained and rhoplexed, drew viewers close and suggested narrative connections between the words and the images.

In MOTHER, not only images but also logical syntax are precluded by the thorny problematics of “speaking for others”—representing marginalized voices with speech has been subjected to the authoritarian rules of correct grammar (along side of which it is perceived as deficient) and of an appropriating, imperialist language. When all voices are rendered equal—all differences effaced—authoritarian, patriarchal language has the most to lose. Possibly the “powerless” speech of women, of oppressed minorities and classes, will prove itself more buoyant, more resistant, and ultimately more recoverable within the new paradigm.

If textual plentitude change or disorder in “Greenhouse”, the more deliberate spacing and connecting grid in MOTHER insinuate order. Chaos is tenuous and difficult to sustain; the mind insists on discovering or imposing order. MOTHER points most clearly to this irresistible urge: the reader gropes for syntactical limits, sifts through words and mentally catalogues them: noun, verb, adjective, conjunction. She or he strains to recover the unseen text—to provide the missing semantic units that will magically convert the unordered lists into meaningful codes. Does a totality of meaning exist to be order, quantified? Or, if this is an archeological site, are the words so many broken shards that can never be satisfactorily reconstituted?

The preparatory electronic dismembering and rearranging of the text in a computer and the time-consuming installation process insure the random placement of the words. But does randomness imply complete chaos or nonsense? Can meaningful connections not exist outside the grammatical, the syntactical? This begs the question of the very nature and working of the unconscious mind—the mind most closely identified with the body, with nature, and with the feminine. Dunning states that his process allows both objective and subjective psychological states to surface, and that they construct their own grammar. In order to discover such other connections—to divine the new grammar—the participant must develop an ear for the phatic element in the speech of the dispossessed and engaged more subjectively with the lapses in the text, which are so eloquently summoned up by the blind panels on the walls.

The cathartic effect of theater and art makes difficult and painful reconciliations possible. Freud writes: “It is inevitable…that we should seen in the world of fiction, in literature, and in the theatre, compensation for all that has been lost in life…” (7) The blazing whiteness of the gallery, set off so brilliantly by the copper tape, reminds us that white is the colour of mourning in the Orient. MOTHER can be read as a nostalgic elegy for the comforting integrity and uniformity of print-based language. The same authoritarian rules that managed the semantic elements of speech also seemed to guarantee the truth in language. On one level, MOTHER can be perceived as a theatrical gesture that reconciles use o the death of the old order of language, as we simultaneously welcome the demise of its concomitant privileging of masculine gender, Western culture, and authoritarian political orders.

But if MOTHER is a theatre of death, it is also a hopeful projection of the social imaginary. If the non-linear, mythological knowledge of the Mother—of the body, of the senses—is to flourish, it must do more than simply replace the old order. MOTHER engages the viewer in a solitary, internal performance—a moral exercise—in which he or she is encouraged to accept the contradictions, to allow the fragments to co-exist, and to be nourished by the openness, interdependence, and fluctuating vibrations of meaning, In this sense, MOTHER can be considered utopian.

(1) A list of these recent installations and venues included “Billy Budd’s Stammer: The Structure of the New Defence (Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff, June 2 – July 3, 1988); “Commonwealth” (YYZ, Toronto, March 4 – March 25, 1989); “Greenhouse”(Neutral Ground, Regina, September 9 – September 30, 1989) and the present consideration, “Mother”(Stride Gallery, Calgary, March 30 – April 21, 1990).

(2) A partial list of these texts include William Bunge, “Nuclear War Atlas”; Marina Warner, “Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism”; Chinua Achebe, “In The Heart of the Country” and “Waiting for the Barbarians”; as well as works by Unberto Eco, Ayi Kwei Armah, Driss Chraibi, Gu Hua, Alaain Robbe-Grillet et al.

(3) Naomi Schor, “Reading in Detail: Aestheticis and The Feminine,” (New York and London: Methuen, 1987), p. 122. Schor distinguishes between the interpreter—the external critic, and the interpretant—the character in the text who subjectively interprets the events around him or her. As maker, Dunning is literally “in” the work; his refusal to interpret the work for the viewer relates, I believe, to his admiration for persons such as the women of Greenham Common, who gain in power precisely by refusing to claim or exercise power.

(4) Sarah Kofman, “The Enigma of Woman: Woman in Freud’s Writings,” (Ithica and London: Cornell University Press, 1980, trans. By Catherine Porter), p. 76.

(5) Schor, “Reading In Detail,” p. 16.

(6) Roland Barthes, “S/Z: An Essay,” (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974, trans. By Richard Miller), p. 11.

(7) Kofman, “The Enigma of Woman,” p. 74-75, quoting Sigmund Freud, “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death.”