Artist talks anarchy and activism

A hospital for speared hot-dogs and a giggling chicken are only a few highlights of Rita McKeough’s career.

McKeough, who is an artist, musician and educator, gave a spirited artist’s talk at the Owen’s Art Gallery last Tuesday. McKeough creates art with the main purpose of sparking conversations about social issues, finding her “inspiration often comes out of a concern in [her] life.”

Upon entering the gallery, McKeough’s energy was immediately apparent. “Am I playing this music too loud?” she asked, tongue-in-cheek, as she turned the music louder. She fist-bumped the air while greeting incoming guests.

McKeough’s whimsical demeanour is also evident in her work. Although many of her pieces address serious subject matter, her approach in responding to these concerns demonstrates her characteristic playfulness.

“I was interested in making a piece about violence against women and the way that memory embeds itself in your body,” she said of Taking it to the Teeth (1993). “So in the gallery I made a fictional body, the institution [stood] in for the body.”

squirrel performs cell-phone cpr. illustrator/andreas fobes
squirrel performs cell-phone cpr. illustrator/andreas fobes

The layout of the installation referenced the digestive system and the performance portrayed the process of ingestion to excretion. McKeough tore off chunks of the gallery wall, chewing pieces and spitting them out as part of her performance.

“For me, taking it in your mouth and spitting it out was where empowerment could come from. You can taste it with its complexities,” McKeough said.

As an educator, McKeough wants her outspokenness to inspire others to voice their opinions. During her time as a drummer in a punk band, she learned to embrace the nature of anarchy and to push forward, even when her voice felt unimportant.

“[It’s] the idea of speaking for the things that you care about. Speaking up against things you don’t agree with. Letting your voice be heard,” McKeough said.

Her piece Wave Over Wave (2000) is a memorial to immigrants who lost their lives overseas. The piece consists of 36 synchronized electronic drum sticks that tap the floor to depict the sounds of the sea. McKeough’s work commonly combines electronics and sound to convey meaning.

“I have a fascination with technology. I am still learning,” McKeough said.

McKeough expressed her concern with industrialized farming in her piece The Lion’s Share (2012). The piece combined kinetics and performance to create a restaurant in a gallery space. Animated carrots, milk glasses with tongue casts, a feces-covered hot-dog pen and a giggling chicken named Betsy decorated the scene.

The Lion’s Share demonstrates McKeough’s implementation of the multiple, as it includes hundreds of rubber fried eggs and hot dogs. In classic McKeough style, the piece uses humour to reveal the absurdity of modernized farming.

In her thirty years of practice, McKeough has left a vivaciously intriguing imprint on Canada’s installation and performance art history. She challenges and answers questions concerning issues of social injustice, feminist theory, environmental practice and personal anxieties.

“The juxtaposition of love and social activism is really important to me,” McKeough said. “[It’s] something that reoccurs in my work.”

As the talk drew to a close and the music began, she gestured to the audience once more.

“Is it time to dance now?”

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