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SLEEPING UNDER STARS
SHEILA BUTLER'S ROOM AT THE ST. NORBERT CULTURAL CENTRE

[First published in 2002 in the book The Language Hotel, ed. Marie Bouchard, Snacpress, 71-75.]

I like the tall, still trees, the view across the river, and the ruins near the St. Norbert Arts Centre. I have a typical Canadian's hatred of nature, but the grounds of St. Norbert are like a park, not wild at all. Too: the edge of a city is as remote a place as I'd ever like to be, and that makes for a pleasant visit, because St. Norbert is at Winnipeg's edge.

Part art hotel and part country estate -- like Chatsworth in England where Turner painted or Coole Park in Ireland where Yeats wrote -- St. Norbert Arts Centre is like a stately home in which artists are encouraged to do whatever they like: to wander, to read, and as I relate below, to dream.

Over the years the Centre itself has become an evolving work of installation art. Louise May, the artistic director, once asked me if I would like to have some of my file card drawings poke out of the books in her library, and so my art is also part of the place. In 1999, in an exhibition called "Le Miracle de Saint Norbert" I put photographic images in nooks and crannies throughout the building, and many of these works remain exactly where I placed them. (I showed that work with art by Claire Marchand, who has temporarily left visual art for dance). Once the artist Diane Whitehouse and I, with St. Norbert staff, organized a couple of paint weekends at there, and recently I participated in a "collage weekend" at St. Norbert organized by Winnipeg artist Paul Butler.

Maybe it is this former monastery's monk-like atmosphere that encourages devilish Dionysian fantasies in some visitors. Nakedness has been a recurring theme of my St. Norbert work. A few years ago we had a sleep over in which a group of artists took photographs of each other naked and tipsy. Another time I took photographs of the Japanese dancer Mari Osani as she danced naked on the third floor. Many of my drawings in Louise's books also depict naked figures, sometimes in erotic poses.

Most recently the (fully clothed) curator named Marie Bouchard asked me and others to sleep in St. Norbert's rooms overnight, not to make their own art but instead to respond to someone else's. After a large supper that included Jamaican "doubles" and wine, I talked shop with curator James Patten, artist Colleen Cutschall and the other guests, and then went to bed in the room that Sheila Butler had made over for the show she curated called "The Language Hotel."

Butler drew heads and stars high in one corner of the room and a large sprawling figure with its boot-clad feet on the wall, its legs across the floor and its torso and head face down on the duvet.

At first the positioning of Butler's drawn figure made me think of oral sex because one's crotch rests in the vicinity of the head as one sleeps. But it also looks as if the figure could be falling or grasping at a star with its gloved hand, or perhaps signaling an air craft.

As I fell asleep on Butler's bed I thought about my father, who maintained aircraft for the Canadian Air Force; about my vision of brightly decorated beater art cars that St. Norbert guests could use and abuse; about the historic Eaton's Centre in downtown Winnipeg, which Louise's Dad Bill is as I write trying, with others, to save from demolition; about how I last saw Sheila Butler and her husband Jack in Venice on the way to a St. Norbert sponsored Wanda Koop installation there...

I fell asleep and had a dream.

(You will not finish Proust either, but I recommend his description of falling asleep in the opening pages of Swann's Way. If you have ever had a fitful night, a waking dream or an out-of-body experience, then Proust's languid description of sleep and sleeplessness will interest you.)
In my dream Janet Cardiff, George Bures Miller and I were in an old blue van, Janet with her hand twisted behind her on the steering wheel and all of us careening backward at top speed down a busy highway. Next morning I realized that Butler's work -- the story of how Canadian Native soldiers used to guiding themselves up trap lines by the stars guided aircraft by the same methods during World War II -- had been transposed in my dream into an allegory about the world of contemporary art. Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller are Canadian 'art stars' who showed a prize-winning work at the 2001 Venice biennial. As vice-president of Plug In Gallery, I helped out with the project: in my dream George and I were being guided somewhat erratically down an Italian expressway by the art star Janet Cardiff.

I wonder how much more accurately could stars guide an aircraft? Where did Sheila get the trap line, star and war stories? Butler, who among other things is an expert on Inuit art, has a special interest in Native things, but also I'd venture, an interest in the subject of Native dreaming. I wonder if she was also thinking of the Australian aboriginal idea of "dreaming" a walk as she painted.

Later, though: I am getting drowsy again...

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