Critical Distance

Not What We Are: Susan Turner
April 18 – May 10, 1997

a response to the exhibition by Robert Sauvey

entry #1

I was down at Ace Art today meeting with Jennifer. Susan Turner was there. I told her that I was writing the Critical Distance for her upcoming show at Ace Art. She was really pleased when I told her that I was looking forward to writing it. We made plans to meet at her studio for a pre-exhibition visit. Susan offered to serve lunch – a bonus. She phoned later to set a date.

How you picture me is not how I picture myself.
How you picture me is not who I am.

entry #2

Went to Susan’s studio. Great space. An incredible amount of light pouring in from noon until late afternoon. First, my host led me through the components of the exhibition and explained how they they would fit together physically and psychologically.

Eight large black and white photographs in total – four men and four women. The subjects are all in their mid forties and fifties. These will be accompanied by eight photographed objects, chosen by Susan, with their dictionary meanings displayed beside them. Each object has been chosen because of itÍs being a homonym in the dictionary. There will be a text by each subject, derived from a question asked by Susan pertaining to identity created through past memories and identity as it relates to language. Susan is purposely vague, leaving room for her collaborators to freely interpret her question.

Beside each grouping there will be a small shelf, mounted on the wall, containing personal objects donated by each subject and a bookwork by Susan including photographs from each person, that in some way chronicle their personal histories. The grouping of objects, definitions and large portraits is to be the focal point of the exhibition.

This exploration feels intensely personal, if only because of the closeness in age between the subjects and the artist. The relationships she has with each person vary – some are almost strangers, some are friends. These people were chosen because they convey something unique to Susan in their facial appearances. I’m unclear as to what this is, though I’m quite intrigued by this selection process.

These photographic installations, made up of personal identities and memories, are to be laid out alphabetically from left to right in the exhibition and are meant to give a false sense of control and order. The objects will be matched to follow suit – i.e.: the first portrait will be of “Coutanche, John” (C) matched with “Base” (B). This is a cataloguing of identities accompanied by an assortment of memorial objects which hint at stories we can only guess at.

We sat down, continuing our conversation. Lunch was amazing, with an extra special prize of chocolates for dessert. I felt so happy sitting in the warm sunlight, chatting and eating. We pored over the mementos she had been given. I was giddy and thrilled looking through intimate, beautiful keepsakes which have such resonance for the lives being portrayed. It’s hard to believe people will willingly expose these bits of their intimate histories publicly. I’m not sure if I would have responded as openly as her collaborators had. I told Susan she was a pipe in this project, with people funnelling their memories through her.

The exhibition will cloud her collaborators’ identities, keeping the viewer at a distance. These archives we keep in the form of photographs and mementos are our constructed histories and they are inscribed with a personal language only a few have access to. We carry these little museums with us throughout our lives; wherever we go. Moments we photograph and things we collect help define our identity in the present via the past. These totemic items we keep until the end of memory. These personal museums are kept in a shoe box at the back of a closet, an attic or a garage until we need to (re)establish our identity. Then we dig them out, open them up and secretly finger their contents.

entry #3

Went to Susan’s bookmaking team effort at Ace Art today. The bookmaker Susan is working with had a display of books that she had made set up beside the table where construction was taking place. This display was a hands-on exploration as soon as I saw it. I had never realized there were so many ways to bind a book.

Susan’s books are smaller than I thought they’d be – very delicate. Their construction is labour intensive, but everyone employed seemed pretty enthusiastic about making them. They’re really tactile and textural and I can see Susan’s affinity for detail in their construction. These hand made books will house the donated pictures and each of the partners in this project will get a copy. Susan was happy and animated. Didn’t stay long as there was a looming deadline at work, but I’m glad I stopped by. It was exciting, and I definitely caught Susan’s enthusiasm.

entry #4

Went to the opening of Susan’s show. Susan was near the door saying hello to guests when I arrived – this seemed perfectly in character. The catalogue wasn’t ready until the last minute – apparently, there had been a lot of last minute stuffing. Proceeds from the sale of the catalogues went to the Alzheimer Society of Manitoba. Found out that Susan’s Dad has Alzheimer disease and this triggered a hidden connection between artist and work that I hadn’t been aware of. This had a strong impact on me and I wondered if it would colour the way I viewed the works. Started making my way around the gallery, looking at the installation of the pieces, trying to collate the information I remembered from our visit with what I was seeing presently. By the time I was halfway through the show I was immersed in conversation and suddenly heading to the bar with friends for smart cocktails. Ahhh, openings – they really aren’t the best time to look at art.

entry #5

Riding the bus on the way to the exhibition, I was reading a series of essays by Annie Dillard called “An American Childhood”. The more I read the closer I got to a portrait of the author’s childhood. A series of written memories creating a portrait of a writer. Coincidentally, this was the perfect book to be reading before engaging an exhibition of photographic memories seeking to archive identities. Started at the beginning, on the left…

Coutanche. His portrait stares at me. On the shelf is an ear piece for listening to a radio and a hearing device. Pictures, carefully reproduced and mounted inside the book, depict moments in a life from babe through youth to man. His statement reflects his present position, his understanding of where he is now and where he’s been. Base, a photo of an ornate candle base together with its three meanings: musical, moral and chemical.

Feld. A face with a history. A life lived fully. This is my interpretation. The book is empty except for a small eye chart at the beginning and a signature at the end. The emptiness of the book confounds me. A photograph of an eye chart is placed adjacent to the word Capital and four of it’s definitions. The text is comprised of a pun on a quote from a philosophical tract (in German) and a direct quote by Hume (in English). Two objects lie at the end of the shelf closest to the portrait: an acrylic magnifier for reading and a button with a picture of Bertrand Russell.

Jones. The text is about dreaming, night, day, aging, and memories of her mother. Her book is full of photographs centred around childhood. On the shelf are eight plastic babies, a wedding cake couple figurine and a framed portrait of Gordie Howe in his Chicago Braves uniform with a golden halo painted around his head. The face in her portrait is happy and contented. Clip, a photograph of a metal paper clip is accompanied by its homonyms. The meaning that strikes the loudest chord is 4. anything clipped off; an excerpt.

Kinnear. A portrait unlike any of the others stares off to one side. I’m drawn to a bit of text which reads “I’m still learning what I am.” The book is full of chronological pictures, while the object in this case is a letter describing the loss of a friend and memories of this friendship. I cannot understand the relationship between this woman and the image of dried flowers.

Madill. The portrait looks out and I begin to create a story about the subject. The book contains repeated images of a young girl and a boy in a military uniform. On the shelf is a pendant in silver with a Haida etching across its surface. The text is well written and ends with “How you picture me is not how I picture myself. How you picture me is not who I am”. This is applicable to the whole exhibition.

McMillan. The photographs in the book stretch from boyhood to present day. A deformed, cancerous-looking chestnut is on the shelf. His text is about a significant move during childhood, marking a change in his identity and in the sound of his language. Pear is photographed with its product label. The label is the pear’s identity, pointing to an origin which is somewhere other than here. It bears marks from handling and travelling, but it is intact.

Rosner. On the shelf is a braided lock of hair tied with a red ribbon. Her book highlights moments in her childhood. The first photograph shows a halo around her head. I imagine all sorts of reasons for the application of the halo. In the photographic portrait there is something in her eyes that gives her an unreadable quality. Her object is Scale.

Sbrocca. There are two letters written to Susan. They’re humorous and speak to me about the collaboration between them. The book is comprised of repeated childhood birthday imagery and two photographs of the subject facing left and right towards the centre of the book, one placed at the beginning and the other placed at the end. For a while I stare at the portrait and begin to work out the different stories I have constructed with each portrait I have faced.

Photography is a public archiving of memory. Each photograph we take serves as a record and reminder of the past. Photography is the public memory for most news worthy events. Photography is also the tangible representation of what we feel is significant in our lives. These recorded moments become the official history of our lives and culture. Photographic histories are the tangible representations of what we use to keep our identities and memories in stasis. They are stabilizing anchors for a shifting identity.

What is always missing from photographs is what is not photographed. What happens before or after the photograph is taken? What is on the photographers and subjects minds? What happens between the photographic memories captured for all time? After the photograph is taken and processed will we smudge and smear the details surrounding the moment being captured? Why is it we never consciously record painful and tragic moments on purpose in our personal photographs? If you couldn’t remember your past due to amnesia or Alzheimer disease would you be able to use your photographic archive as a trigger for significant events in your life?

There is a tension between the collected personal objects, the public faces portrayed in the large portraits and the little maroon books of personal photographs. It is the empty spaces between photographs and collections in exhibition archives that I am unsettled by, because it is in this space that I begin to fabricate the lives I perceive. When constructing our identities each of us collects moments, either photographs or mementos, that add validity and tangible truth to our remembered experiences. These collections or archives map our individual identities. But, when assembled and publicly presented, Not What We Are: An Archive of Identities reveals more about us collectively and culturally than about us as individuals.


1. Coutanche, John / base (ear-phones)
2. Feld, Michael/capital letters eye-chart (plexiglas br magnifier, photo button of Bertrand Russell)
3. Jones, Donna / clip (eight miniature plastic baby dolls, framed magazine image of 1960Ís hockey player bobby Hull, plastic wedding-cake bride and groom
4. Kinnear, Mary / flower (letter thanking a friend for a sympathy note)
5. Madill, Shirley / mail (necklace with West Coast aboriginal pewter pendant)
6. McMillan, David / pear (acorn from Chernobyl)
7. Rosner, Susan / scale (braid of hair from childhood)
8. Sbrocca, Vittorio / sensor (rubber-stamp of stylized man)

Robert Sauvey is an artist and independent curator, presently residing in Winnipeg.