As a society obsessed with youth, aging can be a taboo subject. This is true in all fields, but particularly so in the arts, where the focus on the new and the innovative often seems to be expressed in terms of youth. Youth is beautiful, of course, and fleeting, and therein lies so much of its fascination. And despite the old saying, I don’t believe that youth is wasted on the young, so much as it is taken for granted. When young, one doesn’t really have time to think abut being young—simply being takes enough energy. Youth is a fixation of the no-longer young; perceived as lost, desired, even mourned. But always, as past.
What is ahead for all of us is aging. And that prospect makes many fearful. It’s much easier to look back than it is to face forward. Often, nostalgia is easier to live with than honesty, because, after all, aging ends.
In a new exhibition at MSVU Art Gallery, seven artists from the Maritimes present works that address the changes and insights that aging brings. Continuing through November 12, Bodies in Translation: Age and Creativity is a joint project between the gallery and the Nova Scotia Centre on Aging. The artists, described by the curators as “aging,” present their personal responses to growing older.
As befits a project centred around the effects of aging, the organizers have made the exhibition as accessible as possible. That begins with the information desk inside the door to the gallery, staffed by student volunteers who are available to answer questions. The audience guide is printed in regular type, large font type, and even braille. What’s more, the guide has also been produced in an audio version. Most of the artists works in the exhibition can be touched, the sole exception being Port Maitland artist Cecil Day’s remarkable framed prints, which are behind glass. However, the plates from which her prints were pulled are also in the exhibition, and viewers are free to touch them.
The works in this exhibition are varied, as are the experience levels of the artists involved. AMost of the artists have had long careers, but a few are more properly viewed as emerging artists, ones who took up art, or returned to it, after other careers and retiring to Nova Scotia.
Halifax photographer George Steeves’ series of portraits of elderly people are selected from a vast archive of photographic work. He has never specifically sought out the elderly as subject matter, but instead has focussed on making pictures, each with critical intent, of what he comes across in his life. “I see and view aging as a process of subtraction,” he writes in his statement. “One by one abilities and capabilities are taken away, but paradoxically, I am consoled by an expanded scope of emotional awareness.”
Michael Fernandes is another artist with a long and storied career, and his contribution to this project (several small sculptures, a sound work, and performance) are marked by his trademark insouciance and wry humour, masking, as always with his work, a keen critical edge. Humour and openness remains his main tools: “Day by day, life finds me more playful, less critical,” he writes. “I like the work to be open, exploratory, with no desire to resolve.”
All of the artists in. Bodies in Translation: Age and Creativity look at aging, and specifically at their own aging, with clear eyes. Their works question, challenge and defy the inevitable, some celebrating, some pushing against the dark to come. None of them make excuses, and none avoid the self-questioning sparked by any thinking about our mortality. As Cape Breton artist Onni Nordman asks in his statement, “Has one grown old, without growing up?”