CRITIPEG: Desire Change: Contemporary Feminist Art in Canada

Edited by Heather Davis, 316 pages, McGill-Queen’s University Press and Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art, June 2017

Desire Change: Contemporary Feminist Art in Canada, the new anthology by Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art (MAWA), is the first book on feminist art across all media ever published in Canada.

One senses the burden that editor Heather Davis feels in trying to assemble as comprehensive a volume as possible on a topic too rich and varied to ever fit in the pages of a single book. But it all has to start somewhere, and Desire Change is about as good a jumping-off point as any reader can hope for.

From the jump, Davis wisely makes clear that to assemble a book on “feminist art” isn’t to examine a particular art movement or genre, but to convene at the intersection of art and a political movement. Wiser still, she reminds that the “movement” is an infinite confluence of many movements and ideologies.

That spirit of intersectionality is used as a framework for the book itself. The compilation of 14 essays from different authors, scholars and critics analyzes the works of various artists all operating from a multiplicity of different intersectional perspectives.

That description might make Desire Change sound like a textbook. In fairness, it could (and should) be used as one. But it’s a gorgeous book full of colourful reproductions of provocative works of art, devoid of educational stuffiness.

This type of analytical writing can easily become too dry and academic. While those qualities vary from writer to writer, the best essays in the book manage to infuse their criticism with humour and mischievousness, a fitting approach for investigating art intended to push political and social boundaries.

Writer Karin Cope’s essay “They Aren’t a Boy or a Girl, They Are Mysterious” is a prime example of this meeting between form and function. Cope begins by recalling the refrain commonly parroted by those seeking to deny queer rights: “What’s next, people sleeping with animals?”

She proceeds to pull on that thread, examining works by three genderqueer artists who blur the lines between human and animal or extraterrestrial identity to reveal the absurdity of rigid gender categories. Her writing is alive with the same campy wit as the artists she critiques.

The quality of writing has a utility beyond making the book entertaining. Since many of the works chronicled in Desire Change are performance art, photographic reproduction isn’t enough to convey a sense of the work. Visceral prose and tactile language is needed to give the reader a palpable sense of a performance’s power.

The best passages on performance, like Ellyn Walker’s account of Rebecca Belmore literally strangling herself while singing “O Canada”, provide a true sense of danger.

In addition to critical examinations, the book provides plenty of historical context for feminist art movements in Canada.

A detailed timeline by Gina Badger chronicles important events, while the opening chapter by Kristina Huneault and Janice Anderson gives nuanced insight into the political and ideological debates surrounding those events – both between feminists and broader society and within feminist movements themselves.

Published in Volume 72, Number 9 of The Uniter (November 9, 2017)

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