October 2017, by Ben Dextraze
Carol Sawyer is exhibiting a lost female artist at the Vancouver Art Gallery this fall—and this would be fine, except for the fact Natalie Brettschneider doesn’t actually exist.
“As I’m trying to research, I realize they’ve been written out of history”, Carol Sawyer says of the women who inspired her to conceive Natalie Brettschneider— the fictitious performance artist and focal point of her upcoming solo exhibition.
Sawyer’s character is based on women of the early twentieth-century avant-garde who she was researching for a festival performance back in 1998 called ‘Re-inventing the Diva’.
When Sawyer tried looking back through the early twentieth-century to find inspiration for her character, she couldn’t find records of female performance artists. In most cases, women’s names are included in history, yet their works and significance to history were marginalized—their performances and criticism omitted.
“So out of my frustration I created this character Natalie Brettschnieder and started with a performance—a little known recreation of her repertoire, “Sawyer says.
“And then I started taking photographs of her.”
Sawyer’s background in the Arts is as diverse as the early twentieth century artists she channels through her alter ego Natalie Brettschneider. Having gone to the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design directly out of high school for Photography in 1982, and then completing a MFA studying interdisciplinary arts at Simon Fraser University in 1998, Sawyer trained multiple talents.
Because of this, Sawyer’s own life in art seemingly helped compel her to create the Natalie Brettschneider Archive. Having been accused of being a dilettante because she’d undertaken classical, operatic singing alongside other artistic endeavours—she didn’t feel as though she belonged to a specific discipline.
“I was told I couldn’t—it was very different to do interdisciplinary arts then. I was feeling very disconnected from that world because it was very particular,” Sawyer says.
“I was kind of a punk.”
After discovering the interdisciplinary Masters in contemporary Arts at SFU, she began studying multiple disciplines in the Arts simultaneously. As her appreciation for the broad spectrum of artistic practice continued to grow, she also researched and studied critical theory.
“I had just finished my Masters and my final piece was a performance piece about myths and stories about the singing voice” Sawyer explains.
And when she invented her character Natalie Brettscheider for the “Re-inventing the Diva’ festival, she did so in frustration—having realized that most of the female singers of the avant-garde movements of the early twentieth-century had been written out of history—marginalized by male writers who sought to reflect their own sexist agendas in art. In one particular case Sawyer discovered that Dada co-founder Emmy Hennings was flagrantly omitted by fellow Dadaist writer, Richard Huelsenbeck.
Another artist Baroness Else von Freytag-Loringhoven is thought to have been the actual creator of the iconic Fountain—a ready-made sculpture by Marcel Duchamp. According to Duchamp’s own letter, he received the sculpture from a female artist and decided to issue the work as his own.
After her first rendition of Natalie Brettschneider’s repertoire in 1998, Sawyer allowed the project to grow and evolve over nearly twenty years. A genesis that consisted of photography, films, historical accounts, and live performances that have taken place with various collaborators from Victoria to Ottawa—and as far away as Paris, France. Yet with every collaboration and/or performance, the history of Brettschneider grows to include other collaborators and places—further deepening the myth of Natalie Brettschnieder’s life and times.
“It’s become an amazing journey for me because it’s opened up my [artistic] practice and made it much more porous and much more collaborative,” she says.
“It’s integrated all these things I love.”
In effect, the life of Natalie Brettschneider casts a light on lost artists while also helping illuminate a Canadian perspective as well. In the current exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Sawyer will feature works from local artists lost to history to shed light on those in Vancouver’s Arts community who’ve also been marginalized.
“Every art community is an echo system—you need everyone to make it happen so there’s nobody who is unimportant,” Sawyer says.
“When you read art history and something that is inspiring and crazy it gives you a context or precedence for your own crazy, off-the-wall ideas.”
But Sawyer admits there’s an inherent problem in criticizing the fluid nature of history—it’s ever-evolving and impossible to know completely without bias. And with so many people involved in how societies and cultures progress, it’s hard to tell all sides equally—or all at once. But this still doesn’t undermine the importance of championing those that have been disenfranchised in the Arts and Politics who want to make their voices heard.
“Say you’ve never seen yourself reflected in any historical accounts so you’re made to feel marginalized, and you’re this freaky person. When you realize that history is constructed by the victor—and they exclude what they don’t want—then it becomes less depressing. History becomes more porous and you discover you have all kinds of precedence for your freaky-ass self.”
The Natalie Brettschneider Archives ran at the Vancouver Art Gallery from October 28th, 2017 until February 4th, 2018
For a complete list of credits for source materials for photos and video assets included in this project, please click here.
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