Technology and history may change across cultures and generations, but the human journey remains the same: we’re born, we age, we have relationships, we die. Yet along the way, we are all shaped by the objects which help us navigate life’s stages, passages and rituals—a favourite toy, say, or a wedding dress. This shared experience is at the heart of the new Legacy Gallery exhibit Life Stories, curated by art history & visual studies (AHVS) professor Erin Campbell.
“I like to use the present to interrogate the past,” says Campbell. “This was an extraordinary experiment for me to prove my historical contention that objects and artworks really do shape our life passages. I’ve published a lot of articles about that, and this exhibit gave me the chance to bring that thesis to the wider public.”
AHVS professor & Life Stories curator Erin Campbell at her Legacy Gallery exhibition (photo: John Threlfall)
A learning experience
A fixture in the AHVS department for nearly 20 years, Campbell’s research and teaching typically focuses on early modern European art and material culture, including cross-cultural connections and the domestic interior—yet she admits mounting a full gallery exhibit was a learning experience for her.
“Some would say it’s a bit of a risk, because this isn’t about deeply delving into a historical period and bringing forward objects with new research—it’s more about developing a theme and capturing the imagination,” she explains.
An ambitious undertaking
Featuring nearly 100 paintings, drawings, photographs, textiles, ceramics and furnishings from UVic’s extension art collection—plus a virtual exhibition, a range of public events (including a special alumni tour on January 27) and one commissioned art piece (“Related Repose” by recent visual arts MFA Elly Heise)—Life Stories is an ambitious undertaking, supported by Campbell’s latest SSHRC grant.
“Because art has the capacity to both fix and layer time—project the past into the present and the future, or the future into the past—we wanted to explore similarities across cultures, across time and across geographies, but we also wanted to avoid sentimentality,” she says.
Indeed, while art and objects may inspire memories and reflection, such imagery can also be a source of cultural stereotypes and result in marginalization, emotional pain and feelings of loss. “It’s important to me that we’re not presenting a monolithic, prescriptive approach to life stages that ‘everyone’ goes through.”
Planning for Life Stories actually began back in 2017, but Campbell and the Legacy team were dealt a surprise plot twist when the exhibit collided with COVID-19. “We had to modify not only when it would open but also the level of visitor engagement with the gallery,” says Campbell.
Canadian documentary filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal (left) with a scene from her latest film, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, which is screening for free as part of her Feb 3 event
A range of online events
The exhibit includes a number of online events—including a public conversation between acclaimed Canadian documentary filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal (Anthropocene: The Human Epoch) and local director/producer Barbara Todd Hager (February 3), as well as a series of interpretive performances (February 13, 20, 27) and an artist talk (March 17) with Connie Morey, and a poetry workshop (March 6) with Carla Funk, both UVic alumni.
There’s also a fascinating set of interdisciplinary thematic films featuring a range of campus voices—including Maureen Bradley (writing), Neena Chappell (Centre on Aging), Aaron Devor (transgender studies), Ulrich Mueller (psychology), Leah Tidey (theatre), Lorilee Wastasecoot (Legacy) and Victoria Wyatt (AHVS)—and a series of soundscapes responding to the exhibit, created by students in Anthropology professor Alexandrine Boudreault-Fournier’s “Anthropology of Sound” class.
“Related Reposed”, a piece created by recent Visual Arts MFA Elly Heise using this antique bed from the UVic Art Collection as inspiration
A team effort
While she coordinated the AHVS 50th anniversary exhibit at the McPherson Library’s Legacy Maltwood Gallery in 2017, this is Campbell’s first time curating an exhibit at downtown’s Legacy Gallery and she laughs at the misperception that all art historians are also, by default, curators. “I am not a professional curator,” she says with a gentle laugh. “It’s a totally different skill-set . . . you need to acquire those skills, you can’t just do it.”
Campbell gives ample credit to the work of her Life Stories co-curators, Holly Cecil and current PhD candidate Jaiya Anka—both AHVS MA alumni. “We worked as a team, the three of us—it came out of my research and I funded it out of my grant, but we brainstormed every aspect of this exhibit together,” she notes. “And the support from the Legacy team has been just fantastic. I give full credit to their staff: to have their help and guidance was invaluable—they’re a really great UVic resource.”
Life Stories continues until April 3 at downtown’s Legacy Gallery.