Haida culture meets modern art

🕔Dec 04, 2006

The cedar chips are flying in Skidegate. But the 30-foot pole Ben Davidson is carving won’t be raised in front of his own home, or even in the Haida Gwaii village where he lives.

The pole, commissioned by a fabulously wealthy bad boy of British modern art, will go wherever his whim dictates. But once it’s there it may well help raise the stakes for Haida art.

The pole is one of five 30-footers commissioned by the infamous young British artist Damien Hirst. If his name doesn’t ring a bell, some of his pieces might. Hirst gained notoriety in the 1990s for pickling animals in formaldehyde and displaying them in glass cases. Known as his Natural History series, the dead shark, sheep and cow works didn’t cause half the uproar that another Hirst piece did: the rotting carcasses of a cow and bull, arranged to simulate copulation. Public health officials in New York banned the piece for fear people might throw up at the sight of it.

At once a conceptual artist, a painter and a restaurateur, Hirst’s recent highly publicized adventure saw him diving into toxic preservative to replace the disintegrating shark in his 1992 piece (entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living)—a work that changed hands in 2004 at a price of $8 million.

From curio to mainstream

For 30-year-old Ben Davidson, a patron of Hirst’s stature provides a rare opportunity to jump-start his own global reputation. But what may be even more exciting is the new heights this risk-taking collector might take the entire genre of Haida art.

“Several people have been working very hard to move the art out of the curio and into the mainstream art arena,” says Robert Davidson, Ben’s dad, and one of the five other artists working on the Hirst commissions.

The elder Davidson, who along with artist Bill Reid helped bring about a renaissance in Haida art over the last 30 years, finds that some people like to keep the form in a tightly closed box. Although there have been several exhibits in recent years highlighting the broad spectrum of work being done by native people, one prominent curator was reluctant to include Northwest coast art in his show, deeming it too traditional, says Robert. But, he adds with a chuckle, the same curator didn’t want to show Robert’s newest pieces because these were too modern.

Robert, who has lately been pushing the boundaries of Haida art into the abstract, had never heard of the provocative British artist before this commission came along. But a job like this doesn’t turn up very often, and he was impressed by the man’s request. Hirst asked for a burial pole, which in Haida tradition is made with an inverted log. The thick end of the tree becomes the cavity where the body is laid. A memorial box carved with a crest rests on top. Robert has carved on an inverted log twice before, but never a memorial pole.

Hirst also asked Robert and his brother Reg to carve two dead warrior masks. “It’s interesting as it’s in keeping with what he does,” says Robert, referring to Hirst’s penchant for themes of death.
Reg, who had the artist over to his Old Massett house for a seafood dinner in spring 2005, was impressed with Hirst’s knowledge of Haida art. Hirst may not have liked the trip up on the noisy Dash-8, says Reg, but he knew what he was looking for. “He’d done his homework before he came.”

Douglas Reynolds, owner of the gallery in Vancouver with the same name, believes this is the largest single commission of poles by a private collector.

More and more people are buying totem poles—he sold 10 last year alone. But these were, on average, six feet tall and intended for interior decoration.

The whole story

Ben says most people who commission Haida art want to know the story of the carving. They often ask for a crest figure like, raven or killer whale, because it has some meaning to them.

“People usually want to know the story. They want the whole spiel. That’s what you tell your friends when you show it off,” he says. But Hirst simply asked for proposals and accepted the drawings each artist presented.
What is Hirst planning to do with his vast collection of poles?

Reg, who is working on a separate commission, first proposed building the skeleton of a Haida long-house for an abode Hirst was planning in Mexico. The 40-foot pole, two 10-footers and two carved five-inch-thick planks—27 feet long by 30 inches wide—were to form a gateway that visitors could drive through.
According to Hirst’s wife, some of the poles would become supports for the thatched hut the couple planned, and the others would decorate the garden. But after a rumoured row with the architect, Mexico is now out and England is in. Reg’s 40-footer was shipped in September and the others will soon follow. Hirst bought a dilapidated 300-room castle in Gloucestershire to house his art collections, and people are now speculating the poles will turn up there.

For art’s sake

But what do we make of Haida poles—monumental art that used to identify the wealth and status of ancient lineages of chiefs—propping up a Mexican palapa or standing among the roses in an English garden?
“I think its great. Why not?” says Ben. He continues, saying that people build castles and Japanese-style villas to live in all over the world. If someone really likes what another culture is doing, why shouldn’t he buy himself five 30-foot totem poles?

“And it puts food on my table,” he adds.

Michael Nicoll Yahgulaanas, an artist whose medium is drawing Haida comics in the Japanese manga style, likewise sees no issue with people purchasing art for art’s sake.
Someone like Damien Hirst is not buying spirituality or culture or Haida authority, he argues.
“When Canada puts a Haida symbol on a $20 bill, are they buying every thought and nuance Bill [Reid] put into it?” he asks.
He says that throughout the centuries images have been interpreted in so many different ways, by so many different people. Beethoven’s Ode to Joy became a Nazi anthem, Egyptian burial treasures became a colonizer’s booty. Perhaps the Government of Canada is looking for a lineage, an ancient pedigree, when it uses Haida symbols as its own, he suggests. Others may be buying an example of good technique.
In the end, if the commissions raise the profile of Haida art, that’s the important thing, because that in turn supports Haida culture.

“There is a magnificence to the design that an observer cannot help but be struck by. And there is always room for the mystery that is Haida,” he says.