Marriage of law and art
gives new gallery an edge

Connie Higginson Murray

Friday, March 08, 2002

The Ottawa Citizen



Curator c.j. fleury amid her work entitled Hearing at the Rape Maze, part of an exhibit at a new gallery in Ottawa's City Hall.

Given the apparent conflict at hand -- feminist law and art -- you can't help but marvel at C.J. Fleury's excitement.

But there she is -- passionate and bursting with conviction as she talks about her latest project --
Template #2: Bridging Visions, an exhibition that fits the disparate world of performance and art installation into the landscape of a law conference on women's rights.

Developed with Elizabeth Sheehy, a feminist lawyer and University of Ottawa professor, the exhibition opened yesterday in the new art gallery at City Hall to coincide with a national meeting on women, the family and the state.

OK, so how do you marry the rigid, complex written language of the law to the imaginative and highly personal expression of art?

"I was looking for a project just like this," says fleury, who for the past decade has been involved with community (sometimes called public) art, a marriage between artists and non-artists. "We share the creative process entirely."

To achieve that, the artist and non-artist -- a lawyer in this case -- work to find a common language, a search that goes on in society as a whole all the time.

"We often get stuck on the words and we're blocked from working together because we can't understand each other."

Words, the way we listen and what we think we hear, is at the centre of Hearing at the Rape Maze, fleury's own contribution to the exhibition.

Massive ears on pedestals, a cryptic wooden crossword of emotions and legal phrases, and a web of white sticks covered with hand-printed quotes from women, illustrate the wrenching and highly charged atmosphere of the rape trial. Out of this intriguing interplay comes the authoritative language of the court system, the power of the jury, the transformation of a woman as a private and as a public figure, and the harsh intermingling of intimacy and justice.

As with the work of the seven other artists in Template #2, fleury's work is based on research and connections with the law community. Here Sheehy provided a common turf, the resource reading material and the opportunity for both communities to come together, talk and explore ideas.

"What's been really rich for me," says fleury, "is to watch how the artists took the threads to the law community, and then pushed and pulled at their ideas, my ideas, and our fears and perceptions. It was a wonderfully organic process."

Template #2 brings together eight quite different forms of installation in a small space.

For instance, three bubblegum-pink phones on small matching pink tables connect you with Audrey Churgin's work Generational Echoes. Voices on the other end of the telephone line dramatize the complex relationships of mothers and daughters.

"Each of the characters speaks to a different perspective," says Churgin. "I wanted to look at how roles are fixed, and how we carry our mothers within ourselves and pass that along to our daughters."

Dawn Dale also focuses on nurturing, but through a quite different medium. Dale's piece Cosmic Dust features a massive grizzly bear holding a small female child dressed in white. The bear gazes upwards at a constellation of stars and a raised hand representing the law. The bear "is regarded as a symbol of both the masculine and the feminine," explains Dale. "I'm exploring the trepidation we feel about handing our growing children over to society."

When entering the gallery, you immediately see Kathy Gillis' delicate paper bag figures. Lit from within, the circling human images made out of grocery bags seem caught up in an eerie dance.

"I'm a practitioner of Falun Gong," says Gillis, "and I've seen first hand how human rights, even in Canada, can be challenged, especially if these rights have an international connection."

Panels with quotes from legal text punctuate each of the eight works and help place them within a specific context.

Template #2: Bridging Visions runs until April 26 in the art gallery at Ottawa City Hall, Laurier and Elgin streets. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. The exhibition is free. Call 244.4433.

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