Totally vulnerable

By Christine Clark, January 2012

Megan Dickie’s sculptures critique the status quo.

In the short video called Ready to Rumble you will see a slim young woman wearing a form-fitting black dress, tied at the waist, with black leggings and tall black boots. Her high heels clatter against the cement floor of a white room as she wrestles with a free-standing and uncooperative wall of bricks. She is wearing a flesh-coloured leather Lucha mask, a decorative full-face covering traditionally used in Mexican wrestling. After hauling the wall up from its prone position on the floor and struggling to keep it vertical and straight for a few uncertain moments, the young woman falls beneath the unwieldy weight of the bricks, only to extricate herself almost immediately. Freed, she crouches beside the fallen wall, smoothing down its tousled bricks and returning it to its benign original position. 

Meet Megan Dickie: MFA, sessional instructor at UVic, printmaker, sculptor, video-artist. 

While watching Ready to Rumble, Dickie’s first video project, completed in 2007, you might primarily be struck by the strangely beguiling visual image. It’s amusing. Not exactly in a laugh-out-loud kind of way; it’s almost too austere for guffaws and chuckles, but the incongruity of the set-up is in itself quite arresting. 

The ramifications come later, at least for this observer. The archetypal woman, the fragility and shapeliness of her body, in stark opposition to the hard brick (which it should be noted is not brick but was made by the artist from wax), the falling wall and at the end, the womanly ministrations, the smoothing and the straightening, the returning of the disturbed to a state of order. It makes one think of Haiti, and of other terrible forces, both natural and human. 

Although the work is not specifically feminist, the clothing is carefully planned and is meant to demonstrate the validity of the feminine and to highlight the artist’s own identity as a feminine creature. Her sculptural projects normally begin with a series of drawings or prints, and usually end with a video (often taking up to three years to complete the entire cycle). They all tend to illustrate the way in which the sculpture, itself can be used. And they always feature the artist dressed to kill in various interactive poses.

The presentation of the feminine is not incidental; it is a constant. Dickie says, “ the majority of sculptors are not women, and many sculptors make work that is solemn and not fun;” work that is perhaps more concerned with supposedly masculine (or shall we say serious?) trends.

As Ms Dickie says herself, “it’s good to bring humour into the work to draw people in. Then you can point out things that are more significant,” which she describes as being science, math, architecture and value systems. 

In her newest project, called “Submission,” value systems are under scrutiny. This is just one of her recent projects; she has several under way. The other piece under construction in her studio at the moment is called “The Gleamer” and is a 15-by-15 foot blanket made up of aluminum triangles and reflects her growing interest in geometry, as well as—not surprisingly—light. It is also a tongue-in-cheek response to Buckminster Fuller’s ideas.

Megan is an incredibly hard worker and says, “If I’m not making art, then I’m gardening or making pasta by hand. I like to be constantly making things.” 

“The Gleamer” will be shown at Calgary’s Stride Gallery in February, but for the moment it’s “Submission” that is centre stage and in final preparation for a group show called Throw Down with five regional artists, which opens at the end of January at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. 

“Submission” is a seven-foot-tall realization of the logo used by the Canada Council for the Arts. Like much of her sculpture work, “Submission” is intended to be a full body experience. Dickie explains that “the work is participatory—it comes alive when people interact with it.” In this case, her sculpture is made of soft tan leather and leather stitching, encases a bop bag (of Bozo the Clown fame) so that you can punch, push and grapple with the piece without ever completely knocking it down. It always comes right back at you. “Submission” is fun and beautiful too, but it’s intended as a critique of the Canada Council’s granting system. 

Every year, artists from all over Canada submit applications for grants; grants that, if received, will help cover the burdensome costs of art making. Megan Dickie received a grant in 2004; she’s also been rejected several times, so she understands the impact the Canada Council can have on an artist’s career and on an artist’s sense of self. She says, “They control what we value in arts. Receiving a grant adds enormous credibility to your practice. You feel like you are doing something significant. If you don’t get it then you feel the opposite, which isn’t necessarily true. I want to acknowledge that it’s a driving force in the Canadian art scene. And it’s ok to be critical of the driving force.” 

She goes on to say that it’s “not just critiquing granting systems, but [rather] the relationship we have with them. They are a huge organization, based in Ottawa, and not very personal. This project is about creating an intimate relationship with the Canada Council.”

This is what we all want, isn’t it? To feel that we have some control over the governing bodies in our lives, or any force larger and more powerful than ourselves, for that matter. Often times it’s much easier to concede defeat, to simply bask in the complacency of powerlessness. Questioning the status quo is not for the weak at heart; there’s such potential for ridicule and defamation. Fortunately there are a few artists and others, people like Megan Dickie, who are willing, as she says, to make themselves “totally vulnerable.”

Christine Clark is a Victoria-based artist who writes about artists in Victoria and beyond. See her blog at http://artinvictoria.com.