HARRY SYMONS' THE CONSTITUTIONAL DEBATE HEAD ON
When I first became concerned with the constitutional issue, I lived and had my studio in St-Henri in Montreal. Feeling somewhat like an outside observer in the community that I lived in, and sensitive to the differences between individual and collective perceptions, experiences and rights, I tried to approach this abstract debate in a more concrete manner. What got me going in the beginning was the presentation by one side of Quebec's independence as inevitable. Questioning this notion led me to many avenues of thought. As a visual artist, I believed that I could do something with some material in such a way as to make it meaningful first for myself and then perhaps to Montrealers. As well, of course, self-interest was central to it, in particular using the experience of creating whatever as a means to educate myself on the issue. I was always trying to relate it back to myself and my daily experience, which I knew and to my perceptions of daily life in St-Henri which I more imagined. Did it matter? It wasn't a sociological study. It was a work of art.
With so much at stake, Canadians often ask themselves, why do eyes glaze over and roll back into the head when the latest constitutional proposal -- the Calgary Declaration -- is announced? This debate is more exciting than a line of political suits and a five pound press release, but perhaps because it has little concrete effect on the daily lives of most Canadians it feels like a Phoney War, a stand-off which may blow up at any second or fade into what Symons' calls "a big nothing."
As citizens, Canadian artists do the usual civil things about this issue: they vote, they write letters, they make their opinions known. In Quebec, francophone artists have long been activist bulwarks of the independence movement, but in the Rest of Canada, artists rarely speak directly in their art to complex political issues of any sort. Canadian artists, like other contemporary artists, usually work issue by issue, narrowing their focus in order to give their work a coherent wholeness.
The sheer complexity of the Canadian Constitutional debate, within which issues of identity are only one question, demands a complex visual form, and Harry Symons is the only contemporary Canadian artist I know of who has the obsessive will and energy to tackle it as the major theme of his art. Symons: "I have been concerned not only with sorting and putting in order the barrage of information but also in sorting out my thoughts and feelings on where I stand on the issue myself. My use of salvaged material and my efforts to focus on the everyday reflect the concern of trying to bring the lofty constitutional debate down to an every day kind of reality, something that we all know. This assemblage can be seen as a map of this exploration."
For local artistic parallels one thinks of the fictional Larry, the maze-making hero of fellow Winnipegger Carol Shield's new book Larry's Party or perhaps the complex theme-park fantasies of Winnipeg artist Alison Norlen, but Symons deserves to be described by an over-used term: he is a unique artist. Symons is a unique artist because of his subject matter. Most ROC (Rest Of Canadian) artists rarely address any "Canadian" political issues directly in their art. Gender, ethnic, and environmentalist issues are hot, but are usually seen as international problems with local portent. Unlike many Quebecers (and excepting First Nations) ROC identities are often conceived within the international politics of some sort of diaspora in which a culture and mythical homeland originates somewhere else and ends in Canada. Contemporary art about identity is common, but Canadian identity, ironically enough, only seems to be an important issue for Quebec artists.
Symons: "For some an argument is a battle, for others it is a dance. In developing different studies, I am exploring the possibilities between these and other poles. The work evolves, keeping some things while others are dropped and left to collect dust. The project has been described as a field constantly being plowed as ongoing concerns are turned over. It is an assemblage about accumulation in which it is hard to make out particular details because everything is crammed so close together. The process of establishing the visual structure requires a number of studies, as can be seen in different areas of an assemblage."
The present exhibition--Symons first major show--could either be the culmination of the artist's "Constitutional" work or yet another stage in its growing complexity.