Too often these days the international art scene seems to be about spectacle—a succession of easily digestible events and objects that require little from their audiences except awe or outrage.

Entertainment is fine but art museums should also present serious and challenging work that pushes audiences rather than coddling them. The State of the Situation, a survey exhibition of Vancouver artist Althea Thauberger, is just that sort of project.

It’s an engaging, thoughtful and, yes, challenging, group of work that rewards your engagement by pushing you to think both more and differently. But it’s no easy-breezy trip to the gallery. Thauberger is presenting five works, three of which are videos that each run around a half-hour in length.

Thauberger first showed in Halifax in 2004 when she was a nominee for the Sobey Art Award. The work she presented then, A Memory Lasts Forever, was a collaboration with a group of young women who worked with the artist to develop the script and wrote the songs for what became a charming and evocative music video.

Collaboration, often with quite large groups, has been a hallmark of Thauberger’s practice since she was in graduate school. Three of the five works in this current exhibition highlight her generous and open process. But before I talk about those works, I’m going to talk about the other two, works created for an exhibition in Montreal examining the legacy of Expo ’67.

The two works (a suite of three large photographs and a related two-screen video installation) start with Thauberger’s research into the still photography department of the National Film Board, a department run by Lorraine Althea Monk from 1960 to 1980.

Those photographs are now part of the collection of the National Gallery of Canada’s Canadian Photographic Institute. Thauberger chose to focus on Monk (who curated an exhibition at Expo called the People Tree and authored the 1968 book Call The Canadians, both using images of Canadians from the stills division of the NFB) and on the labelling she found on the backs of the photos.

Those labels, descriptions of what the photograph depicted, betrayed prevalent ideas of the day towards gender and race that, while well-meaning at the time, have unmistakable overtones of white privilege that are quite disconcerting today. Thauberger, adopting the persona of Monk, tries to navigate this difficult position in the photographs and in the video, The Tree is in its Leaves.

In 2009 Thauberger travelled to Afghanistan as an official war artist. The project she had proposed was to address the role of women in the Canadian Forces contingent in Afghanistan. One of those works, Kandahar International Airport, is on view at AGNS.

In this large digital C print (about 7 metres wide) we see 12 Canadian servicewomen arrayed in the foreground of the image, seemingly running towards the viewer. Each of these soldiers is carrying the weapon that they would be obligated to carry while working at the Kandahar air base, the sprawling terminal of which forms the background of this arresting image.

The women are looking at the camera, many of them smiling, creating an odd disjunction with the potentially dangerous setting. As has long been part of her practice, Thauberger spent time on the base and became acquainted with the women she photographed, each of whom determined how she would present herself in the resulting work.

The exhibition is rounded out by two more video works, one in the main gallery and one screened hourly in the gallery’s theatre. Zivildienst ≠ Kunstprojekt (Social Service ≠ Art Project), a black and white video project in the main gallery, features a narrative developed with a group of young German men who were fulfilling their national obligations through providing social service labour (as opposed to military service).

Pagal Pagal Pagal Pagal Filmy Duniya (Mad Mad Mad Mad Filmy World) is presented in the theatre. This work, developed as part of the Karachi Biennale in 2017, features an iconic Karachi movie house, the Capri Cinema, and the workers, patrons and neighbours who animate it. The film is a mixture of documentary and disjointed narratives developed in concert with the amateur actors through acting workshops.

The State of the Situation will take a few hours to really experience, but the work will repay the investment in time. Think of it as going to a movie and the time spent won’t seem so out of proportion to our usual gallery-going habits. The work is demanding, but also rewarding emotionally and intellectually satisfying. Just what an art museum should provide.

See it at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia until April 5, 2020.

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