Skip to content
Contemporary Art Gallery

555 Nelson Street
Vancouver, Canada
Open from Tuesday to
Sunday 12 pm → 6 pm

Admission always free
16 Feb 90until17 Mar 90

Terry Atkinson: Tourism I & II and Don Gill: Perils of Leisure

Terry Atkinson, Don Gill

555 Hamilton St

Two stacked black and white images of blurred boats. Intersecting the middle of the image is a swath of black and white text that reads “Theory is good, but it doesn’t prevent things from happening.”

Don Gill, Theory is good but it doesn’t prevent things from existing (detail), 1990. Photographer unknown.

This exhibition of recent work by Terry Atkinson and Don Gill presents several distinct themes relating to the subject of each of their titles. Tourism — or the history of unnecessary motion — is the title of Terry Atkinson’s work, but it is also an important component in Don Gill’s Perils of Leisure. Leisure, and the history of the “use of leisure time,” sometimes implying contemplation and rest, is nevertheless an integral part of “the tour,” as travel cannot be without the time to undertake it. So, if leisure does have its perils, tourism will also, and any introduction to these works must acknowledge there interrelations, and many others that these artists introduced to these twin subjects; subjects that are demonstrably vital to any history of ruling classes and the critique of the ways that we experience the extension of that domination at the end of the 20th century. The rhetorical position taken by these works could be summarized by saying that they both raise questions about the ways that institutions neglect responsibility, and query how it is that citizens then become the paying customers (in all three senses) of the museums of historical mistakes and the National Parks of unpleasant truths. The institutions referred to are the nation-state on the one hand, and its affine, the corporation, on the other.

Terry Atkinson’s Tourism I & II consists of two sets of ten pictures, each of which is captioned. In part of one, the family of Robert Oppenheimer as a child is gathered for a snapshot, in the era of pre-nuclear harmony that would be lost to us after some physicists took a holiday of sorts at Los Alamos. Atkinson also depicts a coral atoll in the South Pacific, but it happens to be Eniwetok at the time of the explosion of the first hydrogen bomb. Tourism II contains several images of Atkinson’s family inhabiting one of the key public spaces of 20th-century history: the cemetery and battlefield at Verdun, which has become, in its own way, a tourist destination, the strangeness of which is only ameliorated by the educative and contemplative value it offers visitors. Here, Verdun is not only part of the frame of European history, it’s a great place for roller-skating, if not for sloshing in mud, and either case it is a landscape that seems readily able to absorb visitors with their identification numbers, whether they are marching “in parenthesis,” or parking a car with UK plates in the visitors lot.

If Atkinson’s integration of his family into history and art history mirrors his experience of living in the world, it also affirms the project in art of revealing extant meanings in the ordinary events of everyday life. It asks, how is it possible that one modest picture is able to incorporate military carnage, the beauty of children at play, the folly of advertising and the integration of the individual into a kind of touristic space-time continuum? In fact they don’t ask, these pictures simply say “Yes,” this, and more too; regardless of where you look, the tentacles of history are inescapable.

Don Gill’s Perils of Leisure consists of large silver prints that have been laminated in elastic and fitted with grommets so they may be easily unrolled and tacked up. Each image is self-titled with one of two kinds of proverbial comment. In the first type, a known proverb is ironically positioned in the image plane, in an area that serves the text by way of formal reinforcement of the meaning carried by the text. In the second type, similarly positioned, a pre-proverbial text/ quote/utterance with latent ironic potential serves as a critical caption to the image. An example of this is Gill’s use of Charcot’s Theory is good but it doesn’t prevent things from existing as the title for work depicting his grandmother and father flying over the Yukon in a small plane in 1930. These juxtapositions remind me of the good counsel offered in Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, not only owing to the tonal similarity of Gill’s appropriate texts, but also due to the way the troubles of melancholia have migrated, if we may so personify them, from the soul of the individual, to the soul of the planet, both politically and environmentally.

This transfer of suffering resulting form “improving” industrial capability, its referred to in several of Don Gill’s pieces here: History repeats itself, in which a photograph of a photograph of a hand holding a skull serves as a reminder of the unimaginable stupidity of violent death, as well as the truth that violence simply accelerates the inevitable. In Corporations Have Neither Bodies To Be Punished Nor Souls To Be Dawned, Gill’s proverb sits in a landscape that has been dawned by the presence of a pulp mill and punished by effluvial material emitted by the mill. Beyond these relations, which are evident in the reproductions here. Gill’s work, as well as Atkinson’s, raises interesting questions regarding the ongoing philosophical/critical discussion of the connection between objects and texts—Wittgensteinian problems, as well as our own. The contingency of captions, and the ontological implausibility of image description and the object described, permeate the work in this exhibition, and I would propose that the query of these relations in one thesis operates in these works. Also, I would propose that these works are anatomies of the linkage between modernity, leisure, history and tourism, and that the subject they dissect is paradise lost, lost as it recedes by successive approximations, just now unattainable, but its demise just now available for documentation.

-Bill Jeffries, excerpt from “Introduction: The Question of Travellers,” in Perils of Leisure: Don Gill; Tourism I & II: Terry Atkinson, 1990