My Gay Toronto - 416 Scene

The Rise and Fall of Civilization: Kent Monkman's diorama with drag and buffalo transanimation


A mannequin of Miss Chief Eagle Testikle stands regally atop a cliff. Her sequins glisten while her scarves and hair undulate in the breeze. She is flanked by two taxidermied buffalo who stare blankly into space. Plunging off the cliff is a patchwork buffalo, stitched together out of multi-hued hides, its button eyes full of terror and ecstasy. Below the airborne buffalo lies a pile of shattered crockery, as broken as the buffalo above will be when the moment of time unfreezes. 

Rising out of the pile of crockery are metal frames, a mutant mixture of buffalo silhouettes and Picasso bulls. As they lurch towards the facing wall, they acquire scraps of skin and fur but never become the once-natural creatures atop the cliff. The walls are covered in pictographs of galloping buffalo who flow back around to the cliff. There is a dizzying effect of circular motion, the buffalo jumping, disintegrating, reviving as abstractions, and returning to jump again.

Kent Monkman's The Rise and Fall of Civilization is very dramatic. 

It is a twisted and surreal natural history museum diorama gone beautifully wrong. It is comical, intimidating and utterly tragic.

The Rise and Fall of Civilization was commissioned in a partnership between the Gardiner Museum and the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival. The Gardiner has been busily exploding the notion of ceramics and history as stuffy, using exhibitions like Camp Fires, with its promotional slogan of "Clay is (so) gay," as the dynamites of choice. Monkman has a history with imagineNATIVE, who have screened his films and documentations to enthusiastic response (and will be presenting, at the Gardiner, a mini-festival of the irresistible Miss Chief Eagle Testikle's film appearances on Friday, October 16. Alas, it is already sold out.). 

The Rise and Fall of Civilization packs a powerful punch all on its own but when Monkman adds some descriptions of his process, it grows in depth. His work has evolved out of his investigations into indigenous peoples' representation in art and museum dioramas. He is interested in what has been left out, how a painting or static simulation deliberately romanticizes and erases a culture. Buffalo as a metaphor have appeared in paintings like "Heaven and Earth" where the wounded animal watches the two cultures in combat, or copulation, or a combination of both. Picasso's cubist deconstruction of line as a metaphor for cultural erasure appeared explicitly in the painting "Modern Love" and in the installation (also tackling the problematics of dioramas) "BĂȘte Noire." This is Monkman's first time working with ceramics, and when explains that bone china, which the Gardiner is packed with, was actually made out of ground buffalo bones, it is chilling. And The Rise and Fall of Civilization reveals another layer.

Somewhat disingenuously, Monkman claims that he is not sure where Miss Chief Eagle Testikle, who quite easily commands centre stage, fits in. She is ambiguous. From one angle she appears to be commanding the buffalo to leap. From another she seems to be attempting to stop the cycle of carnage. There is a trickster twinkle in his eye as he asks, "Is she a protector? An instigator? Encouraging them?" The regal mannequin, a glamorous diorama diva, remains enigmatic and aloof as she stares down all who witness the buffalo jump.

imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival runs Wed, Oct 14 to Sun, Oct 18 at numerous locations.

The Rise and Fall of Civilization runs from Thurs, Oct 15 to Sun, Jan 10 at the Gardiner Museum, 111 Queen's Park.