Friday, September 18, 2009

From Sea to Bloody Sea

Canada, bracketed by two oceans… The maple leaf bracketed by two blood red stripes… Our national motto: From Sea to Sea… The Queen in England; the Queen with her blood red crown; her face and breasts as pale as a Canadian winter.

--Naufús Ramírez-Figueroa

It had just started to rain. The piper wore a striking kilt in the Anderson tartan which features a sky blue background. He played a traditional song called The Haunting and The Sky Boat Song in the parking lot while the Naufús Ramírez-Figueroa listened with his head slightly bowed. After a few minutes, the artist began to strip off his clothes and then cover his shoulders with a white sheet. We followed the piper and the performer in a procession up the stairs to the gallery where Ramirez-Figuera stood between two bowls. One was filled with a creamy white liquid, and one contained a thick red substance which I knew was pig's blood. (It's one of those props you have to order in advance, and so I overheard the staff having few conversations about the logistics of procuring it.) A grotesque rubber mask of the Queen Elizabeth II lay on the floor. Megan Morman handed out maple-leaf shaped cookies.

Ramirez Figueroa poured the white liquid onto the floor in a vertical line, then he donned the mask of the queen and confidently dove into the cream on his belly. He lay in one spot and rubbed the cream onto his breasts, breathing heavily into the rubber mask. At this point the white parts of the mask started to look like a skull. He stood and started a quasi-burlesque dance while the bagpiper played a version of Rod Stewart's hit song "If You Think I'm Sexy." Next the artist took the red bowl and poured it over the front of his body, so he became covered in layers of white and red--the colours of the Canadian flag. The odor of pig's blood overlaid with sickly sweet maple flavouring became overwhelming.

I have never seen the Queen in person but I have felt her stir under the bed covers… I’ve been to Buckingham and waited patiently outside its gates. I was a faithful subject. My blood red: like her royal red: like her red painted lips: like the maple left… I waited outside Buckingham but she never came out, never invited me for tea, never made me feel hers… England likes to eat, eat countries. Its eaten two male members of my family… The Queen has white milk in her breast, she is the mother to all Canadians… She has a comforting smile… One day, I’ll be happy when I can kiss her wrinkly hand.
--Naufús Ramírez-Figueroa

The artist filled the bowl again with blood and dipped one end of the sheet in it and then the other, leaving the center white. He hung the sheet from one end of the room to the other, stopping to get more rope when it turned out the end didn't quite reach. I assume he meant to dip the horizontal edges rather than the vertical edges, but the reference to the Canadian flag was still very clear. It could also have been read as a comment on how discussions on Canada evolve around north-south or east-west paradigms. Ramírez-Figueroa got down on his hands and knees, dipped his hair in a bowl of blood and began to use it to paint the white parts of the flag red. Finally, he threw the rest of the blood on the flag making it thickly soaked in blood and brilliantly scarlet. The piper played "Oh Canada" while Naufus put on the mask again and cut out the face so that his face showed through under the rubber crown--a grotesque form of royal drag.

The performance was focused, dramatic, funny, and shocking. I left feeling a bit dazed and nauseous afterwards, needing to distance myself from the scene. The bagpiper who had been hired for this gig looked a bit shell-shocked himself, so a few of us sat around the water cooler and processed how we felt about the piece. He was fairly new to this king of ritualistic performance art, and Cindy Baker widely advised him to "let the images hit you and decide what they mean to you." The artist's poetic text in the performance program illuminates the powerful imagery in his performance. "Sid Vicious would have loved it!" I told him as I talked about the history of anti-monarchy and anarchy in England itself. There were some tense moments when piper had had a few moments of doubt before the piece began. He wasn't sure if he was ready to participate in the ritual because he was trained to see the bagpipe as an honorific instrument used in patriotic ceremonies. I told him he'd been very brave to collaborate with an artist he hadn't met or rehearsed with before hand, (they'd had a telephone conversation). especially an artist who pushes the limits the way Naufus does. He's been warned about the unconventional nature of the piece and it had been described in detail over the phone. Megan Mormon later told me she thought he was unsettled when he realized the blood in the performance was real, not paint or stage blood.

As a Guatemalan refugee growing up in Vancouver, Naufus was taught to pay allegiance to our queen. However, recent events in parliament and a group of fellow immigrants made him question her authority. When Michaelle Jean held the destiny of Canada in her hands after Stephen Harper suspended parliament in December, 2008, the artist and his friends asked each other why the symbol of colonization still held so much power in a democratic country. Naufus began to feel torn about enjoying the high standard of living , the queen's milk, that a colonized first world country that has a bloody past and present.

The title of the piece, A Mari usque ad Mare ("From Sea to Sea"), is Canada's official motto. It originates from the Latin version of Psalm 72:8, "He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth." (King James version). It was not applicable until 1871 when BC joined Confederation and the Dominion of Canada reached from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. Some say the motto should be changed to reflect the third sea that boarders our country in the North, the Arctic Ocean, especially now that climate change has been affected that part of our country so dramatically and Stephen Harper has been raising issues of Arctic Sovereignty. Other people say the paternalistic motto should be scrapped altogether. Naufus pointed out to me that one point "from sea to sea" was visually depicted graphically on a suggested design for the Canadian flag which has become known as "Pearson's Pennant." It had a central image of three maple leaves and two rectangles of sea blue on the edges instead of blood red.


  1. Very fine description of a strong performance artist who thinks critically and symbolically. It's hard to write about perf art because the element most required for its experience, 'presence', is lacking for the reader. But by having this description, replete with emotional and sensate connections, the review reader can share in the experience of the physical audience. Good to see this work getting out there.

  2. naufus youre pretty crazy love the blood woo!