Wanda Koop: In Your Eyes

By Williams, Megan | Herizons, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Wanda Koop: In Your Eyes


Williams, Megan, Herizons


WANDA KOOP: in your eyes

Koop sits in the shaded edge of the front lawn of a disused military building on the tip of the Venice harbour. As an independent artist at the Venice Biennale, the oldest and most prestigious showcase of modern art in the world, she's received the nod of acceptance into the upper echelons of international artists. One of Canada's most mature and visually eloquent artists, Koop was invited to exhibit at the Thetis Foundation in the Arsenale area, where some of the more innovative pieces are found, with her absorbing installation called "In Your Eyes."

But the excitement of the event has hardly had time to sink in. Instead, she's been grappling with logistical challenges to setting up her work -- from blockages of her installation at Italian customs to the organizers cutting back space that had been promised for Koop's exhibit. Yet despite the hassles and her exhaustion from dealing with them, Koop is in amazingly good spirits.

The daughter of Russian Mennonites who immigrated to Manitoba in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, Wanda Koop takes the story of her family's plight -- both real and emotional -- and puts it at the core of "In Your Eyes." In the span of one night, Koop's family went from being wealthy landowners and industrialists to having to flee empty-handed for their lives. The narrative of this loss and fear of more loss is the theme of Koop's installation, as well as one that has guided her approach as an artist.

"I was brought up always thinking about how you can have all the wealth in the world and you can lose it in one night," explains Koop. "I've lived my whole life and entire art-making process with the notion that it's more important to investigate your inner spirit than the pursuit or monetary security."

Koop, who began to be serious about her art at the ripe old age of 8, says her outlook on the world and art was also heavily influenced by the experience of her family in Canada, which she describes as "economically tough." Furthermore, Mennonites are pacifists and Koop's father, who had seen his own father shot during the Revolution, refused to go to war for Canada during the Second World War. As a result, he was interned for five years in a prisoner of war camp in the interior of British Columbia, another experience which left its mark on her family and her work as an artist.

While themes of human struggle run throughout Koop's work "In Your Eyes," the project explores Koop's matrilineal connections and was born out of a trip she took with her mother and sister back to her family's former estates and communities, which are now within the Ukraine.

During the trip, Koop shot 20 hours of video tape. She was struck, not by how much the wealth her family had lost had been amplified in the telling, but rather by how much her family had downplayed what had been taken from them. Koop was amazed to discover the extent of the riches of her Mennonite ancestors, as well as the extent to which they shared their utopian values by building schools for girls, hospitals, libraries, agricultural research centres and churches for their workers. The artistic result of her pilgrimage to the Ukraine is a poignant and eerily timeless exploration of loss and the dignity in persevering in the face of loss.

"In Your Eyes" consists of five startling paintings: four huge, intense yellow teardrops and balls rising like suns on iridescent silver, and one brilliant red slash on a bronze background. The paintings provide a visual landscape that reflects the intensity of the emotion elicited from her video images. They are projected onto the existing architecture beside the paintings -- hauntingly beautiful video loops of a man riding a black bicycle, a girl standing in a garden, a boy walking up an arbour and a young woman with a long, chestnut braid struggling to row a boat up a river. The paintings appear to be frozen videos and the video images appear to be moving paintings. …

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