Consisting of two video tapes and fourteen colour photographs, PASSION(S) looks at the Passion of Christ – The fourteen stations of the cross – as a starting point. Instead of dealing literally with the fourteen stations, metaphoric layering is presented. On one hand the work could simply be viewed as a presentation of ‘pedestrian’ images – from getting dressed in the morning to going to bed at night. On the other hand, the work could be viewed in a much larger context. Alluding to poems by Emily Dickinson and Anne Sexton, as well as the take of the Red Shoes by Hans Christian Anderson, the sequence of photographs and the accompanying videos depict an evolution of another kind. Historically, the installation recalls the Death Dance of the Medieval Ages, although death is not necessarily of the physical kind. It could simply mean change.


COLLEEN O’NEILL was born in New Brunswick, educated in Montreal and Calgary, and was one of the original co-founders of the Stride Gallery. She has worked in a variety of media from printmaking to installation pieces.


Colleen O’Neill’s exploration into photo/video installation marks a deepening of the artist’s fascination with patterns of context, ritual, and suppression. Ostensibly a feminist extrapolation of the Passion of Christ with its ritually attendant fourteen Stations of the Cross, O’Neill has woven a skein of symbol, allusion and metaphor that draws the viewer into deeper and more complex contemplations on the individual’s relationship to tradition, unthinking convention, and habitual action.

Designed with the particular gallery configuration at Stride in mind, O’Neill has divided the work into two discrete yet connected sections. The smaller, red-painted introductory space features two television sets, each playing a video of O’Neill exhausted, dancing in a fancy white dress, wearing red shoes. One video was shot against a red background, the other against a white one. There is no music. The only sound is that of the incessant, repetitive, ritualistic beat of the shoes on a wooden floor.

The ever-present, repeating sound of the dancer carries into the white-walled second gallery, acting as an aural and a thematic link between the videos and the fourteen pristine color photographs, staged and directed by O’Neill. The backgrounds in the photographs repeat the symbolic interplays, and introduce a subliminal connection between physical/emotional (red) and spiritual/intellectual (white) introduced in the videos.

The first photographs are a ritualized documentation of O’Neill’s preparation for the latter photographs. In the first photograph she is cutting the fabric, in the next she is sewing the dress she wears in the video, in another she is putting on the shoes. But by the fifth or sixth photograph there is a shift to a more obviously conceptual meaning, moving closer to the “condemnation” and “Crucifixion”’ ending with O’Neill first wrapped, corpse-like, in what would appear to be a shroud, and then finally laid to rest on her white dress and red shoes on a bed of flowers.

O’Neill provides the broadest meaning and intentions of her work by presenting the viewer with a series of referents that set out the provisional theme of the installation: alienation, regimentation, ritualized action and reaction. She then introduces elements juxtaposing references to poems by Emily Dickinson and Anne Sexton, and to Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Red Shoes”, with the religious narrative of the Passion.

Her choices are generally astute and generative. Not only does she make the obvious substitution of a seamstress (feminine) for the carpenter (masculine), but by using a seamstress she also alludes to the Three Fates of Greek mythology who spin, measure and cut the thread of human destiny – thereby pointing to predestination, powerlessness, and subjugation of will. This notion of the potentially autonomous individual, subsumed by the pressures of social tradition or exterior necessity, who relinquishes control to some other authority, has direct meaning for women and other suppressed groups in contemporary society.

O’Neill’s choice of a narrative, which most viewers will recognize, while being unfamiliar with specific details, allows her the possibility of including peripheral and parallel notions. Her approach allows for, and in fact demands, enlistment of elements and knowledge exterior to the provisional boundaries she ahs set for the work.

Having set the stage, she withdraws to become a prompter rather than director and urges the viewer to complete or translate the elements and their varying shades and depths of meaning and significance. Acting Virgil to our Dante, she occasionally explains, occasionally hints, but ultimately leaves us to our own choices and decisions.

O’Neill prods us with reminders of context and routine. Words, dissected and reissued with new emphasis – Be-friend, Re-member, At-one-ment –highlight, emphasize and draw attention to context and meaning, forcing us to reconsider meaning and significance.

The inherent flexibility in her approach offers a rich potential. Though some of the pieces can be read as a series of pedestrian images, O’Neill’s intentions are much more ambitious for both the work and the viewer. Her written statement directs the viewer to Dickinson, to Sexton, and to Andersen and, subsequently, to these are added complexities associated with the medieval Dance of Death, the Danse Macabre, and St. Virtus’ Dance –the image of the dance as perverted and wrenched out of context, as opposed to something joyous and celebratory.

This dialectical interaction between the artist’s own passion and compulsion to create and communicate, and the very different position of the viewer who must reassemble the work’s substance and direction within a personal context, runs throughout O’Neill’s presentation and conception. One is constantly expected to take an intuitive stand, to assimilate competing images and references, to interpret and reinterpret. Metaphor and symbol play off each other, proposal against counter-proposal, literary off visual.

Are flowers in a vase a symbol of profane, physical love? Does the pricked finger symbolize loss of virginity, or does it refer to the blood of Christ and transubstantiation? Maybe it’s a reference to Sleeping Beauty and a metaphor for loss of will, or is that a cross-reference to the entombment and notion of physical death, but hope of spiritual transcendence?

O’Neill presents persistently evolving concepts which invite interpretations requiring that each new step and image encountered be viewed in the context of what has come before, and in the context of what may come after. By doing so, she is telling us that its potential for liberation, its true meaning lost. We are left with a desiccated corpse devoid of spirit and understanding. Such unthinking adherence to tradition or archaic and obsolete social structures is one of the strongest forces of oppression in our society: a force which is even more powerful because we often practice it against ourselves.

The wealth and subtlety of detail and nuance in O’Neill’s work is likely to be problematic for those not willing to invest time and thought in viewing it. The artist’s respect for her audience, however, leads away from facile representation. She makes us work, and work hard, to assimilate the myriad references and to position them for interpretation. Many will not persist in this endeavor, but for those who do, it is worth the effort.