Estate of Wendy Coburn

Fable for Tomorrow: A Survey of Works by Wendy Coburn

Onsite Gallery, OCAD U, a feature exhibition of the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival
February 16 - May 14, 2022

Fable for Tomorrow
Fable for Tomorrow
Fable for Tomorrow
Fable for Tomorrow
Subscribe  (detail)
Fable for Tomorrow
Fable for Tomorrow
Fable for Tomorrow
Fable for Tomorrow
Fable for Tomorrow
UHAUL Suite
Fable for Tomorrow
Fable for Tomorrow
Fable for Tomorrow
Fable for Tomorrow
Fable for Tomorrow
Fable for Tomorrow
Fable for Tomorrow
Fable for Tomorrow
The Divers
Fable for Tomorrow
Fable for Tomorrow
Fable for Tomorrow
Still Life (After Fabritius)

Fable for Tomorrow

Fable for Tomorrow, 2022
installation view
Onsite Gallery, Toronto
Photos by: Polina Teif

Onsite Gallery
199 Richmond Street West, Ground Floor
Toronto, ON M5V 0H4

Hours:
Wednesday - Friday: 12-7pm
Saturday: 12-5pm



Fable for Tomorrow: A Survey of Works by Wendy Coburn

Curated by Andrea Fatona and Caroline Seck Langill with video programming by b.h. Yael and Rebecca Garrett

Core exhibition of the CONTACT Photography Festival

Wendy Coburn had significant impact on the Canadian art community as an artist, educator and activist who has exhibited internationally. Fable for Tomorrow presents the first survey of Wendy Coburn’s artwork. The exhibition provides an opportunity to bring together four decades of sculpture, installation, photography and video that reveals her ability to sense the pulse of a deep present while asking us to pay attention to other futures. Coburn’s work explores representations of gender, sexualities, everyday objects, material culture, and human/animal relations.


The exhibition brochure is available online here.


Fable for Tomorrow is a survey exhibition of the late Wendy Coburn’s (1963—2015) multi-disciplinary artwork that includes video, sculpture, and photography. The name of the exhibition is borrowed from the title of one of Coburn’s haunting sculptural works and originates from a chapter in environmentalist Rachel Carson’s germinal book Silent Spring, published in 1962. Carson’s book serves as a warning to humans of their overuse of pesticides and the harmful effects of the practice on the environment. Much like Carson, Coburn’s work and her past pedagogical engagement in the classroom unpack practices of control or power relations that circumscribe human-animal engagement with both human-animal beings and other non-human entities. Primatologist Donna Haraway has stressed the need for humans to “…live well together with a host of species with whom human beings emerge on this planet at every scale of time, body and space,”(1) also noting that “[c]o-constitutive companion species and co-evolution are the rule, not the exception.”(2) Coburn worked to reveal our dependence and love for our companion species by blurring, and sometimes dissolving, the boundaries between us and them. In this exhibition, these and other power relationships are parsed out at the macro and micro levels through the artist’s exploration of performances of gender, queerness, nations, environmentalism, and public protest. These concerns have shaped the organization of Fable for Tomorrow, hence the works are grouped around the following themes: institutional critique, nature/ecologies, alchemy/science, queer relationships, and surveillance to allow Coburn’s astute observations, warning calls, and expert making skills to reverberate across her various bodies of work.

In 1990, the exhibition Supposing It Was Your Sister, presented at Artspeak Gallery, Vancouver, featured two works by the artist— Supposing It Was Your Sister and Subscribe—that underscore her profound commitment to dipping deep beyond what appears on the surface of any event or thing and foregrounds her process of meticulously sifting through and reshaping materials to allow objects to convey new meaning. In both works, Coburn draws the viewer into questioning reality, its construction, and the urgent need to problematize taken-for-granted truths in order to see past the surface. Subscribe consists of 240 popular magazines transformed into solid blocks with human silhouette cut-outs that penetrate the thickness of each publication. Coburn wrote, “this work takes on every subject from pornography, health, sports, cuisine, travel, current events, business, art, music, socialism, war, ecology, and fashion etc…and examines the flattening effects of photographic representation on the body… .”(3) She went on to state, “As hundreds of expressive human silhouettes are forced into new contexts an irritating subtext appears to reveal the contradictions and complexities in the ideologies we are asked to subscribe to.”(4) The video installation, Supposing It Was Your Sister, based on official documents of a lynching in Duluth, Minnesota sees the artist deconstructing ideologies of gender and race, posing questions about which bodies are “precarious and grievable.”(5) These two early works, mark Coburn’s life-long engagement with deconstructing presumed realities to cleverly highlight the ideologies that underpin them. The breadth of works in the exhibition Fable for Tomorrow, asks us to radically think and act upon the type of world/ecology we desire in the now and to re-imagine possible futures.

Turning again to Haraway, “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.”(6) Wendy Coburn was an acute observer of her surroundings and adeptly used both form and imagery to provide different dimensions to the viewer through practices of reframing and denaturalizing as a way to nudge us to question what we see and how we perform our humanness in the spaces and stories we have constructed. The technique of calling the frame into question and re-framing is at the core of Coburn’s practice. This type of re-contextualizing demands that a double-take is required to apprehend the reality Coburn makes visible. Drawing on scholar Judith Butler’s discussion of how we come to apprehend the world around us, Coburn reminds us that there is always something in excess of what is presented as truth or reality.(7)

Through her use of recognizable forms, realism, narratives and images, and shrewdly employed sleight of hand, Coburn demands that we do a double take of the art object in front of us. The sculptural works’ (Fable for Tomorrow (2008) and Silent Spring (2008))—a pair of porcelain dolls with silhouettes of insects crawling across their bodies and a DDT sprayer cast in bronze with the names of family and friends etched into it as substitutes for insect species that have become extinct—hail us to look closer, to think again, to implicate ourselves. Similarly, Idea Object (2011) and The Alchemist (2013), present a puzzling proposal regarding alternate use of turkey basters as a means of procreation, with the assistance of the toaster oven as a DIY autoclave.

The wry humour of these pieces is transcribed across many of the works, nowhere more evident than in her germinal sculptures, Spirit of Canada Eating Beaver (2000) and Leda and the Beaver (2000). Riffing off of Joyce Weiland’s canny commentary on the two solitudes of Canada in which the artist depicted herself as a miniature bronze mother suckling two beavers, Coburn eschews the imperial narrative of French and English Canada to suggest a queer “non-productive” sexuality in order to “…parody the legitimating discourses of respectability, modesty and heteronormativity that have served to authenticate the imperial project, ”(8) portraying herself being pleasured by, and then pleasuring a beaver. Once again, Coburn co-mingles human-non-human relations to speak to disciplinary norms that limit what is possible.

Despite the wit and humour often employed by the artist, melancholy and grief permeate much of the work. The “911” Suite (2007), composed of The End, Untitled (Buck) , and Sack, is an admixture of sculptures that address loss, bridging the global event of 9/11 with the death of the artist’s father. Coburn reconciles these events and their affect accordingly, “…[P]erhaps being one with a state of melancholia and in memory of the other might be a preferable political alternative….”(9) These words, published in the year of the artist’s death, suggest that mourning and melancholia are ethical activities that allow us to hold the past and loss in dynamic tension with the present, as a way to permit events and objects to take on different sets of political and social meanings.

Wendy Coburn was an erudite thinker and artist who was fiercely committed to taking up the big issues plaguing humanity through small gestures—often literally small in scale—that produce grand ripples across many spaces. As an arts educator who developed queerness as a methodology for studio practice in the classroom, Coburn’s contributions to the arts and art pedagogy are undeniably important for future generations of artists. She understood the way discourses circulated and found their way into different formations and how to distill and translate them into art. This was her gift to her students, and this is her gift to us all.

Andrea Fatona and Caroline Seck Langill

1. Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People and Significant
Otherness
. Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003. 25.
2. Ibid, 32.
3. Brief project descriptions by the artist for the exhibition, Supposing it Was Your Sister, Artspeak Gallery, Vancouver, BC, 1994.
4. Ibid.
5. Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?, Verso Books, 2009.
6. Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016. 12.
7. Wendy Coburn, “The End,” in The Event, the Subject, and the Artwork: Into the Twenty-First Century. Eds. Ann McCulloch and R.A. Goodrich. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015.
8. Margot Francis, Creative Subversions: Whiteness, Indigeneity, and the National Imaginary. UBC Press, 2011. 50.
9. Wendy Coburn, “The End.” 212.