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How Lucky We Are To Have Disappeared So Completely
by Matt O'Grady

Around 7 p.m. on a Saturday in late May, Arthur Erickson—one of Canada’s most famous and acclaimed architects—gingerly mounts the stage at the UBC Theatre in Robson Square. The 82-year-old icon has come to discuss, with curator Nicholas Olsberg, a retrospective of his career called "Arthur Erickson: Critical Works", now showing at the adjacent Vancouver Art Gallery. About 200 people have gathered to hear the men talk about Erickson’s buildings, the general state of architecture, as well as to watch some old home movies Erickson had shot on trips to Asia in the early-’50s.

At the end of the talk, there is a question and answer session. Amongst queries about Erickson’s architectural style and the political obstacles faced in executing his vision (the underfunded, underutilized Robson Square and the Reagan Administration-manipulated Canadian Embassy in Washington being two bones of contention) emerges the standard “whither Canada” question: How has being from Canada affected your work? Erickson, who’s broached the topic several times before, offers his stock response: Canada is a country that has no culture. And he’s lucky for it, he says, as it has allowed him to stand in our cultural void and look out objectively at the greater world.

The Canada-as-blank-slate trope is one that greatly bothers nationalists. We stand for a kinder, gentler world, they argue—just look at our socialized medicine! Our open-door immigration policy! Our noble peacekeepers! We’re a shining city on the hill for less enlightened nations—except, of course, that most nations can hardly place us on a map. If we’re thought of at all, we’re thought of as nice but ineffectual, pretty but pretty bland. When people look for a model of social equality, they look to Scandinavia; when they look for a model of democracy, they look to the United States. Canada has long existed as a kind of international no-man’s land; much like one of Arthur Erickson’s creations, we blend (or, if you like, disappear) into the global landscape.

And yet it would be a mistake to view this as a failure—either of national character or public policy. Building a nation is not the same as building a brand, despite the hard work of the imaginators at the Canadian Tourism Commission. It’s about creating an environment where excellence can breed; whether or not our collective output is stamped “Canada” and is recognized as such is beside the point. The reality is that most Canadians who have achieved “excellence” in their respective fields have done so without the aid of some maple-leaf branding iron. Perhaps only in the world of publishing—with writers like Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro—has a certain Canuck sensibility permeated the 49th parallel; even there, our two most acclaimed magazine writers, Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnick, have never worked a day of their lives at a Canadian publication, and rarely write about their home and native land.

Surveying the rest of the cultural landscape, most international high-achievers fall into the same category as Gladwell and Gopnick: accomplished but not distinctly Canadian. Indeed, we’ve developed something of a reputation in broadcast journalism as the farm-team for American networks—top-tier stars like the late Peter Jennings, Kevin Newman and John Roberts were all trained in Canada and speak/spoke with the objective distance of an outside observer. Of someone raised in a cultural void. Visual artists such as Saskatchewan-born minimalist Agnes Martin and Vancouver-born photoconceptualist Jeff Wall also fall into this category, as do the raft of big-name comedians who’ve achieved their success stateside: Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Martin Short.

To cultural nationalists, this is all a huge policy failure: we’re not supporting our own. We need more CanCon, more Canada Council—we need to foster a defined “Canadian identity.” But perhaps what’s given birth to so much talent is our entire lack of definition—the fact that we’re not a country marinating in our own mythology. Look at Sweden: you can’t be a band coming out of there without being compared to ABBA (“the next ABBA”). Or Italy: it’s a country with a wealth of great and important art, but can you think of anything noteworthy that’s been produced there in, say, the past 50 years? 100 years? The imprint of a dominant narrative can’t be anything but intimidating for creative types in these countries; in blank-slate-Canada, where we don’t know who we are, our lack of a narrative sets us free. Arthur Erickson has lived all but 10 of his 82 years in Vancouver, leaving only to go to architecture school in Montreal and travel Europe and Asia. He learned a great deal about his craft from what he saw in Greece, Italy and especially Japan, but he ultimately chose to live and work in Canada.

In many ways, our country represents the ideal kind of parents. While not considered cool or cutting-edge by our offspring, we are respected and loved. We’ve raised the kids well—taught them to be inquisitive, independent, caring and mannered. We’ve encouraged them to explore the world, to learn and to grow, and when they figure themselves out, we welcome them back with open arms. Some, like Erickson, do come home; many other bright lights (like Erickson’s contemporary, Frank Gehry) do not. But stay or go, the quiet influence of Canada’s “uncultured” superstars is undeniably being felt around the world, now more than ever.


Matt O'Grady is in the magazine bidness.

 


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