Award-winning artist Diana Thorneycroft is renowned for a style which fuses craft arts, an architectural sensibility, and an emphasis on Canadian landscape imagery. Shifting between the unflinchingly raw, the ambiguous, and the blithely provocative, Thorneycroft's interest in feminism, colonialism, and injustice permeate her photographic and installation work.
In conversation with Sasha Amaya, Thorneycroft talks us through an exhibition of her work, musing on the impulses and mythologies that drive it, and reflecting on the reactions it has received.
Sasha Amaya: You have four series focused on Canadian history and the landscape. How did your work in this area begin?
Diana Thorneycroft: It started with the Martyr’s Murder series for which I took pictures of martyrdoms — not Christ’s, but others’ — and reenacted them using dolls. I was in Tokyo for an exhibition, and the person who ran the gallery told me that Japanese people often got Jesus and St Nicholas mixed up, so they would often have Santa Claus on a cross. I thought that was really funny, so the last thing I did in the martyr series was the martyr of St Nicholas, and for that one I painted this Canadian landscape as the background. The response was really quite great, and so I thought about doing a martyrdom series based just on Canadian martyrs or Canadian content: snow, hockey players, Celine Dion, Anne of Green Gables. And I needed backdrops, so I used national park posters, or some I created myself, or got from friends. It had to be a Canadian landscape, but the subject was more important than the landscape at that point.
During this series, Plug In Gallery had an exhibit called Group of Seven with a Twist. I created this set with a backdrop from a Tom Thomson painting, figurines of Doug and Bob Mackenzie, and surrounded it by a lot of wolves. An iconic landscape, subverted. From there, I began the Group of Seven Awkward Moments series, the premise of which was to get an image from the Group of Seven — or Emily Carr — and then in the foreground create some kind of awkward moment.
SA: What defines "awkward" in this series?
DT: That’s a really good question because I wanted it to have some black humour about it. A little bit of stupidity, a little bit of Canadian arrogance; we as Canadians think we’re better than Americans, better than Europeans, and so I wanted to subvert this a little. But in the middle of this I did two pieces that were not awkward — two on residential schools and two on Mount Cashel, the Christian brothers in St John’s, Newfoundland who abused those boys. So I did those four pieces and realised woah, woah, woah these are not awkward, these are atrocious. So I backed off, finished the Awkward Moments series, and then [returned to the more serious subjects matter in] A People’s History.
When I started doing A People’s History it was more important for me to focus on narrative more than landscape: my work was a critique of institutional abuse in Canada. In the work Pig Farm, about the RCMP in the Vancouver area that failed to take seriously the women who had been reported missing, I looked at photographs of the buildings, the house that [Robert Pickton] lived in, and I hired someone to construct the specific architectural spaces to make it as authentic as possible. I wanted it to look like there were mountains in the backdrop, and I found this picture — a celebration of two people in love, The Betrothal by Canadian Clarence Gagnon. But I used it here as a backdrop to one of the most horrific murder scenes in Canadian history. It fights against that for which it was originally intended.
SA: Do you see the mountains then as representing the opposite of what they did in Gagnon’s work, or is there a sense in which the landscape represents pre-colonial society and the architecture the colonial infringement in this space?
DT: That’s really interesting. People often say, that’s an idyllic farm scene! The first time I showed this it was at a fundraising auction, and people put their names down but started crossing them off when they read the piece.
SA: Your most recent series is about Americans and Canadians. Tell me about this.
DT: Well, I had wanted to do to Americans what I had done to Canadians. My first rule was that I had to use American backdrops by Americans, but it got really quite complicated and in the first piece I used a piece by a German!
Do you know Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich? It is a man facing away, a majestic man confronting nature. For me, of all the iconic actors and actresses in American film history, Marilyn Monroe is one of the most tragic. So I scanned the painting, digitally removed the guy. In the original the figure is quite dark, so I wanted Marilyn to be dark enough to imitate the painting but also be visible. As a feminist I wanted her included; it isn’t so much a critique of American pop culture, but how she was dealt with by men who married her and left her and married her and left her.
On the Beach at Gilligan’s Island is from American landscape painter Winslow Homer’s On the Beach. The oil spill from British Petroleum was happening at the time and video footage of the oil gushing, gushing, gushing, gushing, day 45, day 46… that really consumed me. I recreated Gilligan’s island with other action figures: here the boys are fawning over Farrah Fawcett and don’t realise the oil is rushing in: the birds are covered in oil, the turtle has left a track of oil…
There’s a pairing to this one: American and Canadian Bachelorette. In the Canadian version, she gives timbits instead of a rose. This backdrop is a Canadian painting. For the American version I used Barbie dressed as Liberty: this babe holding a bouquet of roses. And the guys vying for her are George Bush, Elvis Presley, Rumsfeld, Forest Gump, and Snoopy — who gets the rose!
SA: But in the Canadian version, I see the bachelorette, Anne of Green Gables, also has a female suitor.
DT: Yes, well, in Canada women can get married.
SA: But I see she is also RCMP.
DT: As was I. Summer job. Two summers in a row. But you see Captain Kirk is touching the RCMP Officer’s hand, such a womaniser! But you see here there is steam coming out of everybody’s mouths. Justin Bieber, and Bubbles, and Wayne Gretzky, and Kiefer Sutherland, and Don Cherry. And then the Canadian animals: a loon, a wolf, and Don Cherry’s dog. I have so much fun when I make this work!
SA: What is the relationship between construction and craftsmanship and collection in your work?
DT: I would rather not have to construct things in this series. I can draw anything, but I cannot sculpt anything. I would rather buy the figures; I paid someone to make Bubbles.
In my new work, Herd, I buy Gi Joes and dolls and alter them in the oven. I have altered over 75 horses who are magical, disabled, grotesque, exquisite, wonderous, fantastic. I think they are quite amazing. They’ll be exhibited on a 40 foot ramp, covered with snow, so the horses appear to be leaping through the wall.
SA: Would you cast yourself as a photographer, or is that too simple?
DT: It is too simple. I am an artist who uses photography. Because Herd is sculptural, it is an installation. I do a lot of installation, a lot of drawing, and these days I feel more a sculptor or even a craft artist. A lot of these wacky things are part of the opening paradigm of craft arts.
SA: Why are specific landscapes — say, in works like Herd — so important?
DT: When I was a kid, I lived in Germany for four years in a place called Baden-Baden in the Black Forest. We were allowed to play on the base around which was barbed wire and we were told don’t go outside the barbed wire. Well, we were ten, so we did that: we jumped the fence and played in Black Forest. There were still trenches, there were lookout towers. There was a sense of excitement, fear -- we were disobeying our parents -- it was breathtakingly beautiful. We would play there even at night. And that sense of horror and terror and beauty really made an impact on me as a kid.
SA: I am curious about your thoughts on the role of the artist in politicising, depoliticizing, or making suggestions for our communities regarding landscape and the environment.
DT: My husband and I have been talking a lot about the impetus behind a lot of my work. I know there are some exceptions. The Group of Seven Awkward moment is funnier than a lot of my work. But when you remove the humour, a lot of my work is about an injustice.
Using landscape as a background enables the viewers to enter into the subject matter of the work. I did a piece called Air India — so few people know 275 Canadians died on that bombing! And the landscape on that one is the ocean and wreckage. The landscape is there because of its importance in our culture. It acts as a conduit. It lets us feel grounded. We are so used to seeing landscapes, once people feel grounded they can enter into the narrative and find humour or discomfort — and I am happy with both — and then find some kind of closure should they need it. Or not. And I am happy with both.
To see more of Diana Thorneycroft's work, click here.