Updated: Apr 23, 2020
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica (yes, it still exists), “one might term the circus the most democratic of entertainments.” Inclusive, empowering and a celebration of humanity pushed to its metaphysical limits. But for artist ANNA JANE MCINTYRE, the circus has been a fascinating art form serving as allegory: imaginary personages, decorated menagerie and playful puppetry emerging from her childhood memories and experiences stemming from her family’s many moves across the globe.
Born in London, England and raised in Saskatchewan and Ontario by Trinidadian and British parents, McIntyre’s childhood consisted of rooms full of books, family letters and relics that sparked her curiosity of the world. Not to mention this nearby forest that equally fascinated her and frightened her. I had the opportunity to chat with Anna Jane about the making of TEN CENT HERO, currently at the McClure Gallery till December 19.
Grace Sebeh Byrne: Can you tell us about your background and how this has been an influence in your work?
Anna Jane McIntyre: Hi Grace! Thanks, so much for your interest in Ten Cent Heroes. It was great fun creating the show.
To answer your question, when I think of my background I think immediately of my family and cultural background. I am an immigrant to Canada. My father moved to England when he was 14. Trinidad & Tobago were British colonies then, so England was considered the 'motherland'. We moved from London to New York city, then to a few small farming towns in Saskatchewan. I’ve been in Canada since I was 2. We moved around a lot. I think we lived in 2 small farming towns in Saskatchewan; I only remember Kipling though. We lived in two houses in Kipling. One, a small yellow one and the other a house that we built. Behind our house we had a vegetable garden and beyond that in the distance a few motor homes, further still was a train track and then it was open prairies. The first thing I remember wanting to be was a vegetarian farmer. I still love to be in places where I can see the wild horizon at all times. From Kipling we moved to Ontario and lived in a few towns. We travelled around Canada a lot in a huge blue boat of a car with a caravan hitched to the back. We were moving around a lot, so my mum taught me to read and most of the books I read were British. I think when immigrants arrive in a different culture speaking their language of origin, social mannerisms, food, cultural stories and traditions become all the more important.
In our family I find that relics, objects, mementos from family members all trigger stories about the times they came from, the people that owned them. Ordinary objects became treasures, holding stories and relationships to people that we couldn't access easily. -Anna Jane
I don't know if I am naturally animistic or if my animism developed because of this respect for objects. At my parents' home you'll find amazing collections of things that have survived the gazillion moves, buttons from great-aunts, my grandfather's letters to his best friend all written in mathematical equations (they were mathematicians), ancient family cookbooks with past relatives' handwritten annotations, relatives' clothing, book collections, relatives' sketches, medals, awards and ancient photographs. My aunt was a hobby-genealogist, so we have a fair bit of information on our Irish, Scottish and English relatives. My mother would tell us children that we were Vikings, so we were the black Vikings of Oakville.
A few years ago, I did a genealogy test through Natural Geographic and discovered that our most recent ancient ancestors on one of the X chromozomes could be traced to Saami/Laplanders of Finland who are related to the Berbers of North Africa. My parents finally settled in a town called Oakville, just outside of Toronto. They still moved around and have lived in 3 houses in this town.
The first house was in a new suburb, so we had a forest directly behind our backyard. I explored this forest all the time. There was an owl that lived in the forest. Sometimes crows would circle above where the owl was cawing. I kept my eye on that forest! I was both fascinated and terrified of it. When I swang on the swing set I made sure I swang facing the forest. -Anna Jane
Both of my parents are avid readers and learners, very do-it-yourself. I believe that there is a book to learn about almost anything in their house. Their book collection is amazing! Want to know about tea ceremonies, chess, knitting trigger mitts, Voudou, Inuit art, London street markets, Roman history, Caribbean folktales, contemporary art, photography, mythology, the list goes on. There is so much to say, so many memories, so many stories, so many houses we lived in, so many things happened...
I needed to see a world that reflected my reality and cultural influences, which was not something that I could find easily. I mapped out a parallel universe which was heavily influenced by C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. In these illustrated and imagined stories I was a time-travelling warrior versed in magic who could talk to animals. A large part of these stories took place in and around forests.
In school I gave up art as soon as I could because it wasn't fun! I never understood the exercises so interpreted them to suit my fancy and consequently didn't do very well grade-wise (laughter). This experience strengthened my relationship to an art practice as I continued writing and drawing and making and studying at home. After high school I went to University of British Columbia to study marine biology as I love biology as much as art. However, after a lot of left turns, I destroyed my knee in a soccer match consequently lost my tree-planting gig and ended up in Ontario going to the Ontario College of Art & design, fell in love with printmaking just as I was about to graduate then ended up continuing in print with an MFA at Concordia. I would say my entire art practice is still in that imagined childhood forest. New projects are what are discovered as you explore the forest, as you turn this way and that.
I feel like art is how I touch and experience life, touch and engage with moments, people, make memories and decipher experience. -Anna Jane
GRACE: Your exploration of The Circus comes at a very interesting time in our society today, seeing that we are often confronted with questions of truths, illusions and the politics of power. Can you elaborate on the appeal of The Circus and how this theme drives you in your artistic expression?
ANNA JANE: Yes indeed, interesting times we are in! Who could have guessed in the 90's after the ending of Apartheid that we would end up where we are now, so odd and also perhaps not?
Excerpt from TEN CENT HERO text:
The concept of the circus has long fascinated me. I view it as a site of inclusion and empowerment for those socially marginalized, where perfection is the bizarre, the odd, the death defying. The circus is a world reeking of humanity that embraces all aspects: the chaotic, the ridiculous, the divine, the contrary, the sensual. I find the circus to be a celebration of life through a proximity to impermanence. In this installation I use the carnival theme to explore notions of spectacle, including its use to differentiate the ordinary from the extraordinary. In Ten Cent Heroes I am examining ideas of watching and being watched, the role of street culture, language and meaning making.
Looking at circus history through the ages we can chart societal shifts in attitudes and exposure to new ideas and technologies. Like many cultural diversions, the circus functions not only as entertainment but as allegory. The circus acts as a fun-house mirror, throwing back an exaggerated reflection of societal values. Clowns, as trickster characters, skirt across the liminal zone between good and bad behaviour, reinforcing the distinctions between the two. Trapezists perform, flying wordlessly above the audience, demonstrating that to have extraordinary physical ability can also marginalize. Roles are generally divided into speaking and non-speaking. Those demonstrating physical prowess or peculiarities are rendered mute. What does this say about language and silence in the circus? What does it say about our perceptions of power? How are relationships formed between the audience and performer? What is the quality of this relationship?
In Ten Cent Heroes there is no single circus that I am referencing. The concept is an amalgam of many sources. Childhood memories, street performers of Covent Garden in London, Alexander Calder’s Cirque Calder, Federico Fellini’s La Strada, Tod Browning’s Freaks and Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire have all blended together. What is common to all of these influences is the philosophy of making-something-from-nothing, do-it-yourself and improvisation; through a few props, costume, the careful choreography of the audience's attention and a lot of enthusiasm, a spectacle, oscillating between being both boring and mesmerizing, is created.
GRACE: In Ten Cent Hero, our senses come alive with the visual, tactile and auditory experiences you present. As a multi-disciplinary artist, is there a specific narrative you have in mind for the viewer in this case? I ask because I see underpinnings of fairy tales, fables and folk culture, subconscious or otherwise that lead me into a possible world of storytelling.
ANNA JANE: Art critic Matthew Collings once said: “I think that art is a difficult thing that people should get involved in only if they want to but if they do, they will immediately see it is something worth doing some work on.”
So basically, I don't want to make art where you don't have to think! I think of art as an opportunity for some mental exercise, to better experience aliveness and your sense of self. What I am hoping for is that people feel curious enough to start creating a context, reasons, stories, narratives for the images they see. I do have narratives, but they change all the time. The story just keeps growing and changing. That's why I don't pin it down by telling you what the story is. I don't want to cut the work off from that creative energy. Perhaps it's a process born from my practice of printmaking. I create in a series, with different versions or endings for the same work. I want people to participate rather than consume without questioning. Of course, that said the anti-establishmentarian in me also encourages an attitude of anything goes (laughter).
And yes! It's all in there. So many stories from popular culture, folktales, myths, recent past, lives lived, imagined tales, rumours, playing with stereotypes to stand them on their heads...I am deeply influenced by the scholars Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung and their thoughts on storytelling as well as their ideas about mythology as a form of ancient psychology.
These circus artworks are all displayed caught in mid-story, like a snapshot, there is a story before and the story after and you are just seeing a tiny moment. Where does the story take you? What do you imagine is happening? -Anna Jane
GRACE: Tell us a bit about the various characters you have created in this canon of work. At once, they seem likable, mysterious and mischievous, just the kind we’d like to get to know (laughter).
ANNA JANE: When I create a character, they are generally good but complex and basking beautiful in imperfections. Looking at them you never quite know if they are friendly or scary...I like to stand this idea of judging a person solely on your first impression on its head. I try not to do that myself, don't really believe in first impressions. Many cultures do not share the same body language or facial expressions. Confidently passing judgment with no room for doubt just means you stop being able to see someone and all that they are offering. I mean I get it! It's tempting to judge people and make wide and rash generalizations much less work! (laughter)
But on the whole, I find it better to try and keep a beginner's mind stance, allow yourself to be wrong, keep your mind and eyes open so you can be surprised and learn something. I remember once for a theatre class at Concordia we had an exercise that required us to approach strangers and tell them a story. We placed ourselves near a stairway and became story peddlers (laughter). There was one woman who was watching our shenanigans leaning against the wall with arms crossed, very serious-looking and she had such a scowl on her face! Practically glaring! I thought she was annoyed to the high heavens by us, but out of curiosity I decided to try to approach her and she of course was the most receptive of all the people we spoke to! A very playful soul, super fun and joined into the playing no problem, a complete opposite of what she seemed to be expressing to me from afar.
Grey. The elephant is grey.
Gris gris. *
* Gris ---> gris-gris---> gree-gree ---> good luck amulet ---> also somewhere, somewhere images of elephants with raised trunks are considered symbols of good luck.
N.B.: This piece was written from the point of view of someone who is neutrally watching the circus acts, either an audience member, perhaps an exhausted parent chaperoning a small child’s birthday party, or stagehand who has the seen the show many, many, many times. Their mind is wandering playfully, taking refuge from the furore and this is a thought that occurs to them.
It was a Monday morning. The juggler awoke lazily. Outside hisher caravan the circus was slowly waking too. The elephants were shuffling about and making elephant noises. There were breakfast sounds, radio sounds, doors opening and closing, some coughing, some mumbled cursing and people calling out cheery good mornings and cooees. What to do on your day off? Well groceries and laundry for a start.
The juggler had always juggled. In the beginning when he was small, it wasn’t objects so much as identities. Black, white, grey, male, female. He had been born female but at the age of ten had decided being female wasn’t all that and had insisted on being called George. George the juggler. He was always being mistaken for a boy anyways. He had an aversion to cooked tomatoes and the colour pink and had originally wanted a career as a detective and hobby archer. He spent his childhood days fashioning the ultimate bow and arrow and hanging out in the forest behind his suburb. He didn’t want to kill anything, but he loved shooting targets. His father had responded to his decision saying that was fine and dandy, but you have to be able to make a living as well so why not be an orthodontist? So, George duly added orthodontist to his growing list of career plans: detective, archer, orthodontist.
Outside it was sunny and the contortionist was showing off in sunglasses and not much else.
The Strongman Acrobats
The strong. The strongmen. The strongmen come to town. They flaunt lascivious lips and darling mustachios, waxed and curled, perfectly symmetrical, perfectly black. Perky buttocks and barrel chests fill strapping spandex wrestler suits. On days off: bowler hats and umbrellas, union jack underwear. Confetti optional. Clive has a healthy obsession with Rod Stewart. He once worked as a bouncer in London at the club Rod used to sing at. The song “Do you think I’m sexy” often plays in his head. He pumps iron to it, regulating his sessions with the lyrics. If you want my body (up) and you think I'm sexy (down) come on sugar (up) let me know.... (down). If you really need me (up) just reach out and touch me (down) come on honey tell me so...
By the way, those puppets by the puppet theatre are a gang of wise trickster clown figures. For me their spirit is a combination of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem below titled We Real Cool and Stanley Kubrick's film The Clockwork Orange.
The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We