[Published in Icon, February 1996.]


Joanne Bristol


If one were to ask what Saskatoon artist Joanne Bristol's new performance piece Centre of the Universe is about, the artist could supply any number of intriguing jumping-off points. It could be described as "challenging official western histories of science and religion, through a presentation of feminist, revisionist utopian narratives." Or, more directly, "It's a sci-fi tale about three generations of prairie lesbian nomads who determine their futures through genetic engineering, contemporary alchemy and dirt farming."

The opening monologue of Centre of the Universe is spoken by a tv weatherwoman/witch, who begins the dizzying half hour performance with the assertion, "I am the progeny of female mud-wrestlers who reproduce asexually by writing erotica for women."

The last I had heard, Bristol was working with the persona of The Hillbillies' Elly Mae Clampitt, who was devoted to her critters above all else. In Bristol's slightly revisionist light, Elly Mae becomes an important lesbian role model in her rejection of capitalism and the patriarchy. Could it be that the whacked-out sitcoms we grew up with have given us the tools to devise our own stories fuelled by same-sex desire and socialist tendencies? Well, maybe. But if not, they've at least given us a common set of figures that artists as skilled as Bristol can fool around with.

Bristol has also been at work — though not very recently — on a series of videos that re-edit the films of Jodie Foster to make the lesbian content more explicit. Taxi Driver boils down to about a minute, Silence of the Lambs not much longer. I'd love to see her version of the complete films of Jodie Foster, but that project isn't likely to be completed in the near future, if ever. (Perhaps some other avid Foster fan should take the endeavour over.) In the mean time, Bristol's on to even more projects. The most recent version of her exhibition Flower Theory closes late February at A Space in Toronto. The exhibition consists of three wall pieces, three videos and a small book called Silage.

The smallest of the wall works is called For Every Insect I Have Killed. In it, Bristol uses about fifty very tiny flowers to commemorate each and every one of the bug deaths she has ever caused. The medium-sized work, I Try to be In Love with Something Every Day, is a six foot square blanket of peony petals, each petal individually pinned to the wall. And the third wall piece, Contemporary Meanings for Cut Flowers, is the largest, taking up as much wall space — floor-to-ceiling — as is available. About 300 flowers are pinned to the walls with straight dressmaker pins. Every third flower or so has a tiny card with a different phrase — "Let's go for coffee," "Lick my legs, I'm on fire," "Thankyou for bringing out the anti-capitalist tendencies in me," or, my favourite, "You owe me ten bucks."

The videos for the exhibition, Collecting Theory, Flower Theory and Segue, are on a single tape that plays continuously. These videos demonstrate that Bristol is just as good at turning the history of science and critical theory to her own purposes as she is with pop culture. In Collecting Theory Bristol revises the botanical classification system devised by Linnaeus. She then goes on to demonstrate how leaf-cutter bees are a matriarchal, lesbian society.

Bristol says, "I don't want to be seen as the Laura Ashley of contemporary art, although I'd rather be the Laura Ashley than the Damien Hirst." (Damien Hirst is the British guy who pickles sheep and sharks.) Well, I don't think there's much chance she'll be mistaken for either of them. Bristol's work in performance, installation, video and writing constitutes an important — and growing — body of Canadian art.