23 January 2022

Wanda Koop in Venice

by Herizons

(Venice, Italy) Wanda Koop makes very big art.

Huge, bold canvasses with projections of expansive video images alongside them. While it's exhilarating to witness a woman take up so much space with such extraordinary art, the size of Koop's work hasn't made her life easier-especially today.

(Venice, Italy) Wanda Koop makes very big art.

Huge, bold canvasses with projections of expansive video images alongside them. While it's exhilarating to witness a woman take up so much space with such extraordinary art, the size of Koop's work hasn't made her life easier-especially today.

Koop sits in the shaded edge of the front lawn of a disused military building on the tip of the Venice harbour. As an independent artist at the Venice Biennale, the oldest and most prestigious showcase of modern art in the world, she's received the nod of acceptance into the upper echelons of international artists. One of Canada's most mature and visually eloquent artists, Koop was invited to exhibit at the Thetis Foundation in the Arsenale area, where some of the more innovative pieces are found, with her absorbing installation called "In Your Eyes."

But the excitement of the event has hardly had time to sink in. Instead, she's been grappling with logistical challenges to setting up her work-from blockages of her installation at Italian customs to the organizers cutting back space that had been promised for Koop's exhibit.

Yet despite the hassles and her exhaustion from dealing with them, Koop is in amazingly good spirits. The daughter of Russian Mennonites who immigrated to Manitoba in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, Wanda Koop takes the story of her family's plight-both real and emotional-and puts it at the core of "In Your Eyes." In the span of one night, Koop's family went from being wealthy landowners and industrialists to having to flee empty-handed for their lives. The narrative of this loss and fear of more loss is the theme of Koop's installation, as well as one that has guided her approach as an artist.

"I was brought up always thinking about how you can have all the wealth in the world and you can lose it in one night," explains Koop. "I've lived my whole life and entire art-making process with the notion that it's more important to investigate your inner spirit than the pursuit of monetary security."

Koop, who began to be serious about her art at the ripe old age of 8, says her outlook on the world and art was also heavily influenced by the experience of her family in Canada, which she describes as "economically tough." Furthermore, Mennonites are pacifists and Koop's father, who had seen his own father shot during the Revolution, refused to go to war for Canada during the Second World War. As a result, he was interned for five years in a prisoner of war camp in the interior of British Columbia, another experience which left its mark on her family and her work as an artist.

While themes of human struggle run throughout Koop's work "In Your Eyes," the project explores Koop's matrilineal connections and was born out of a trip she took with her mother and sister back to her family's former estates and communities, which are now within the Ukraine. During the trip, Koop shot 20 hours of video tape. She was struck, not by how much the wealth her family had lost had been amplified in the telling, but rather by how much her family had downplayed what had been taken from them. Koop was amazed to discover the extent of the riches of her Mennonite ancestors, as well as the extent to which they shared their utopian values by building schools for girls, hospitals, libraries, agricultural research centres and churches for their workers.

The artistic result of her pilgrimage to the Ukraine is a poignant and eerily timeless exploration of loss and the dignity in persevering in the face of loss. "In Your Eyes" consists of five startling paintings: four huge, intense yellow teardrops and balls rising like suns on iridescent silver, and one brilliant red slash on a bronze background.

The paintings provide a visual landscape that reflects the intensity of the emotion elicited from her video images. They are projected onto the existing architecture beside the paintings-hauntingly beautiful video loops of a man riding a black bicycle, a girl standing in a garden, a boy walking up an arbour and a young woman with a long, chestnut braid struggling to row a boat up a river. The paintings appear to be frozen videos and the video images appear to be moving paintings. The image of the young woman in the boat is rife with personal meaning for Koop and again, provides an intimate link with her family history. Koop's maternal grandmother died during the Revolution at the age of 23. Her husband-Koop's grandfather-cut off her braid before she was buried and brought it to Canada with him, coveting the only vestige of his wife in a bureau drawer.

As a child, Koop would take the braid out and gaze at it, imagining an Ophelia-like woman with a spread of long, dark hair, floating down a river. When Koop began working on "In Your Eyes," she shared with her mother the image that had come to her as a child while holding the braid. Startled, her mother told her that shortly before Koop's grandmother had died, she had dreamt she was drowning in the Dnieper River, only to discover that an angel was rescuing her. Koop's ability to take a story so loaded with personal meaning and family legacy and transmit its emotional weight without falling into maudlin exhibitionism is what makes "In Your Eyes" so compelling. The images are disturbing and familiar, yet mysterious.

To add to the enigmatic quality of the exhibit, Koop also projects an albino gorilla, videotaped 10 years ago on a trip to the Barcelona Zoo in Spain, into a small pool found inside the Thetis site. Koop considers the gorilla the key metaphor for the piece, illustrating how something that represents the beginning of human evolution, because of its magnificence and oddness, becomes isolated and made a spectacle of, and yet survives. Koop's visual language not only crosses the borders of personal into universal, but also geographic ones.

She's travelled widely, compulsively recording with her video camera images that strike her as meaningful. And yet her travels have also reinforced her identification with the Prairies, and with Winnipeg in particular, a city that has afforded her a unique perspective on the world. "We end up thinking a little differently," she reflects.

"We're really in a sense isolated and if we want to make something with a larger vision, we have to look outside of ourselves. The world is a big place, so we get outside our particular city and become aware of the world in a much more expansive way, both in terms of travel and intellectually."

Winnipeg, says Koop, is one of the most exotic places in the world to live. "Where else could you see a group of First Nations children going off to pow wow practice, all in their beautifully beaded clothing and feathered head-dresses?"

Koop's face lights up while talking about teaching art to children. For years, she travelled to Northern and rural communities where she delivered art workshops. Later on, she held Saturday art workshops for her nieces and nephews. Three years ago, Koop founded a storefront centre for inner-city kids called Art City, where professional artists encourage young people at risk to explore their creative expression through art. Located in a formerly boarded up nightclub on Broadway, Art City has helped transform one of the roughest areas of Winnipeg into what Koop calls the "art heart of West Broadway." The centre's mission statement describes a cultural impact that includes "fostering self-expression in young artists, encouraging a sense of ownership, self-respect and pride in their work and community." Outdoor murals painted by the young artists on local buildings are a clear sign of Art City's success, while a lower crime rate is believed to be another.

"It's the power of art," Koop explains. "We're not trying to make artists, but we're giving kids the opportunity to think creatively and if you can think creatively, you can survive." Koop pauses, then laughs, "You can survive anything… even a show in Venice!"

The Venice Biennale runs from June to November 2001.