Pain never leaves us. It ebbs and flows throughout our lives in different forms and intensities, consistently operating somewhere in our consciousness. For all its stifling and destructive qualities, pain can enliven us and often drives us to create. Cathy Busby knows this well: pain has been a fundamental theme of her work for over twenty years.
“Everybody has their ways of coping in this funny old world and I really think about the difficulties and how people surpass them,” she tells me. “It’s part of my backbone, even through dealing with my personal pain. How do you negotiate all the contradictions we have to live with?”
Although Cathy has dealt more obviously with personal pain in her past work, her current installation in Vancouver comes from an interest in public representations of pain. Part of the Morris & Helen Belkin Gallery’s “Witnesses” exhibition, We Are Sorry is a massive text-based installation composed of fragments of public apologies made in 2008 by Prime Ministers Stephen Harper and Australia’s Kevin Rudd for their respective nations’ treatments of Aboriginal Peoples. It was first exhibited in Australia and has since made its rounds in Canada.
“I was originally interested in the public apology because of emotional pain and its representation in media,” Cathy explains. “I’m interested in the transformative narratives in the media—going from emotional rags to emotional riches. It’s the spectacle of the survivor.”
In We Are Sorry, the spectacle of the survivor is conveyed through the sheer scale of the piece. The vinyl installation towers over the viewer and forces one to strain to read the words, and the authority and control implied by the curtness of the font (Helvetica) leaves one feeling more insignificant than usual and in awe. Cathy purposely crafts this kind of relationship between installation and viewer to emphasize the weight of the words and what they promise. “I like pushing what the scale of my limit is,” she says. “To be effective, I have to rise to the scale of whatever I’m talking about in the first place.” The work resulting from this attitude is especially poignant at this crucial time of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada—a time that brings awareness to the generations of abuse First Nations peoples experienced through the residential school system and offers hope for healing and rebuilding. In tune with this spirit, We Are Sorry isn’t coming from a cynical place but from a hopeful one.
“I still have hope. I have hope for citizenry, and the citizen versus the consumer. I have hope for democracy and the political capacity of our nation states. In that spirit, I have hope for the public apology being genuine and authentic. It’s about the sate acknowledging what happened in the public record. A public apology sets the bar for action.”
Cathy commits to holding the public apology accountable not just in We Are Sorry, but also in Budget Cuts—another large-scale text installation that lists the Aboriginal organizations that have faced severe budget cuts since Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology. For Cathy, text is often what makes her work worthwhile to her.
“With text-based installations, I like the idea of making temporary memorials. It’s semi-permanent. I think that over time, public artwork loses its relevance. I would prefer my work remain relevant for the whole time it was present and then just disappear.” Text installations like We Are Sorry and Budget Cuts have a mobility to them that holds Cathy’s ideals true: they exists for a certain time in a certain place, make their impact, and then vanish, leaving a changed space in place of where they once were. “As an artist, why do we have to make new things?” she elaborates. “Why are we always putting new things into the world? Maybe sometimes our work can be editing. I see my work as an editing process.”
In the near future, Cathy will be working on a collaborative installation in Los Angeles called Debt & Hope, based around the $120,000 price tag that came with one woman’s MFA and the dialogue between her and Cathy that resulted from it. She’s also about to launch an artist book called Steve’s Vinyl. The book is an ode to her brother Steve passing away and his passion for music, and documents an evening she organized a few years ago during which she gave away all of his vinyl records to attendees. For now, the public apology work is on hold. “Doing the apology work is part of my art vocabulary,” Cathy explains. “I will return to it sometime if something happens in the world that connects with my message.”
Yet in a way, the book straddles both public and private pain: although clearly a product of her own process of experiencing her brother’s passing, it also offers the pain a chance to transform into remembering, celebrating a life, and passing Steve’s passion for music to others. Be it public or private, Cathy’s pain is necessary: ebbing and flowing just like it does in our lives, Cathy is teaching us more about ourselves and guiding us through the human experience.
We Are Sorry is on view at Walter Koerner Library at 1958 Main Mall on UBC Campus.
By Polina Bachlakova, presented by The Cheaper Show. The Cheaper Show is an annual art show showcasing affordable art by emerging artists.