UBC’s Wall Mural Makes a Statement

Recent visitors to UBC will have noticed some changes to the campus landscape. In addition to market housing and a refurbished Main Library, you’ll find a series of outdoor artworks, notably Jamelie Hassan’s Because…there was and there wasn’t a city of Baghdad (1991) billboard mounted outside the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, home to a group show entitled Exponential Future.

Exponential Future features the work of eight Vancouver artists, including an off-site work by Althea Thauberger. Originally from Saskatchewan, Thauberger has, for the past few years, been collaborating with spouses of American soldiers (a choral piece), tree planters (a dance piece), and German conscientious objectors (another dance piece), and she’s now working with reserves from the British Columbia Regiment. Her staged photomural is affixed to a wall inside the nearby Koerner Library. Although The Art of Seeing Without Being Seen (2008) is not the most popular work in the exhibition (its title refers to military reconnaissance), it is arguably the most provocative.

Facing Thauberger’s tableau is an informational link to the larger exhibition and a comment book filled with its own form of militant posturing. “These cute boys are waiting their turn to go off and kill Afghanis for imperialism.” “Get a life; read some Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, etc.” “This is a university, not an armed forces recruiting centre. Take it away.” Many of the entries argue that whether respondents care for the work or not, the library is an “inappropriate” place to display art. “Make people feel very uncomfortable,” one commentator added When asked about the largely negative response, Belkin director Scott Watson pointed out that the last few entries have praised the work—and its place in the library. “The tide has turned,” Watson said with a smile. “It’s interesting to watch.” Indeed, what is most fascinating is not that students at one of the country’s highest-rated, most expensive universities object to the image, but that they, like the current United States government, feel border controls need to be tightened. Whether these borders define countries or disciplines is irrelevant. What better place than a library to make that point? What better place than a university to allow such discussion?