Go ahead, touch it

Tara
Tara Bradbury
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Jordan Bennett creates art that appeals to all your senses

Art is often interpreted as something to be experienced with the eyes only, sequestered behind velvet ropes or plates of glass, encased in plexiglass, or hung with warnings not to touch.

Those experiencing it are left to imagine the feel of the artist’s brushstrokes, the smell of an oil paint or the way metal might feel cold to the touch as their hand cups a sculpture.

Jordan Bennett makes his art to be experienced by all senses; he wants those who see it to also touch it and hear it, in an effort to better appreciate his aboriginal heritage.

The 25-year-old is a multi-disciplinary artist who does painting, sculpture, performances, installation and digital media, among others. While his art forms are varied, his themes are constant, based on his Mi’kmaq heritage. He challenges stereotypes about native issues and explores aboriginal matters in contemporary culture while relating them to history.

“I started going to youth conferences and talking about aboriginal heritage and issues at a young age, and I’ve been really involved in it for years, even before I started making art,” Bennett says.

“When I went to art school I was making stuff, and into photography, but it just didn’t feel right. Then I started doing small projects around trying to find out more about my heritage and everything started falling into place; my artwork started having meaning to me. After that point, I couldn’t think of anything else besides things relating to aboriginal issues or finding my identity in that way.”

Bennett, who grew up in Stephenville Crossing and now lives in Corner Brook, won the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council’s CBC Emerging Artist of the Year award April 28, having made the shortlist two years in a row.

His work is included in the provincial art bank in St. John’s and the art gallery collection at MUN’s Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook, and his pieces have been shown in France, Italy, and across Canada. He was one of four artists selected for an aboriginal performance art series at Modern Fuel, an artist-run centre in Kingston, Ont., last year, and was part of a group exhibition called “Problem Child” at The Rooms.

Bennett’s contribution to that exhibition included “Turning Tables,” a set of working turntables carved from walnut, spruce and oak. Instead of playing records, the turntables play the rings of trees, picking up the bumps and grooves, and playing back the sound. Right now the piece is at the Vancouver Art Gallery as part of the “Beat Nation” exhibit, dealing with aboriginal issues in hip-hop and urban culture.

“The idea came from the lifelong question of if a tree falls in the forest, does anybody hear it,” Bennett says.

“Any one of our ancestors could have passed by that tree or leaned up against that tree, having a lunch while cutting wood or hunting, so those trees, if they had a way of telling us what went on over the year, what could we get from it? I was taking this question and thought of everything having its own life and spirit, and trying to translate that.

“The record player was a pinnacle of music for so long and it died off and 8-track came in, then tapes, then CDs, and now that’s dying and MP3s are taking over. Hip-hop culture and popular culture grabbed hold of the record player and brought it back into the contemporary limelight. Something that died was brought back, the same way these (aboriginal) stories died off and are being brought back through different types of artwork and performance and stuff like that.”

Bennett often fuses the old and the new in his pieces.

“Jilaqami’gno’shoe” consists of two skateboards carved in the style of snowshoes; “The Mic-Mac” is a Mac computer, covered in patchworked leather with the Apple logo hand-beaded in an aboriginal style. “Mi’kmaq Artifact” is a stunning pair of Vans slip-on skateboard shoes, embellished with moose hide and beadwork, as a comment on what authentic aboriginal artwork entails.

2012 is proving to be a busy year for Bennett. He’ll have his first solo exhibition at Alternator Gallery in Kelowna, B.C. — curated by Inuit artist/curator Heather Igloliorte, a Goose Bay native — and in June, he’ll take part in “Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation,” an exhibit of contemporary Native American, First Nations and Inuit art from the northeast and southeast, at New York City’s Museum of Art and Design. Bennett’s piece for that show is called “Reappropriating the Wheel,” a piece based on sculptor Marcel Duchamp’s 1913 piece, “Bicycle Wheel. A simple bicycle wheel mounted on a stool, Duchamp’s piece was the first of what’s called readymade art.

For his piece, Bennett has mounted a bike wheel on a fold-out plastic stool; the kind of stool on which elders might sit during a powwow, he explains.

Within the wheel, he has woven a dreamcatcher, complete with cheap, made-in-China dyed feathers, as a reflection of contemporary culture’s tendency to take iconic cultural artifacts and turn them into a commodity. Underneath the sculpture is a pop can.

Stand near the piece and you’ll hear the bubbles of children’s laughter and the “vroom vroom” dirt bike sound made when a bike runs over an aluminum can.

“Two years ago, I was working at an aboriginal drop-in centre in Winnipeg, and I was working with troubled youth who didn’t have access to a lot of things, like good food or a place to hang out and just be kids,” Bennett explains.

“When we were kids, we used to run over pop cans to make our bikes sound like a motorcycle. The kids were outside doing that one day, and I was like, ‘Oh man, this reminds me of when I was a kid.’

“To the right of the sculpture is a parabolic speaker, and when you stand directly beneath it, you’ll hear those kids and the sound of that pop can. It’s a comment on no matter how hard a situation is, parents will always send their kids off to have fun while they deal with the problems that are going on. That’s what the youth centre was about to me, kids being kids and not having to worry about are we going to be able to have supper tonight.”

Pop cans, skateboards, computers, shoes — Bennett says his concepts come first; he chooses the medium later. It’s always about getting his idea across while using as many senses as possible.

“You can look at something and walk around it but then when you can hear it, it bridges the gap and brings you much closer to the meaning of the work,” he says. “For me, I find it’s the mixing of those mediums that makes the work that much stronger.”

tbradbury@thetelegram.com

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Organizations: Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council, Vancouver Art Gallery, Mac Apple First Nations Museum of Art and Design

Geographic location: Corner Brook, Stephenville Crossing, France Italy Canada Kingston Kelowna Goose Bay New York City China Winnipeg

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  • Linda
    May 04, 2012 - 22:08

    Congrats Jordan! The rest of the island is just learning what we already know. This young man is awesome and a role model to other Aboriginal youth. His understanding of what it means to be native in the modern world is apparent in all his work. His committment to giving back to his community by working with Aboriginal youth, Elders, and women across the island has marked him as a leader.

  • Linda
    May 04, 2012 - 22:05

    Congrats Jordan! The rest of the island is just learning what we already know. This young man is awesome and a role model to other Aboriginal youth. His understanding of what it means to be native in the modern world is apparent in all his work. His committment to giving back to his community by working with Aboriginal youth, Elders, and women across the island has marked him as a leader.