Governor General winners drawn from a broad canvas

Peter Goddard, The Toronto Star

March 26, 2008

“Very humbling,” was Tanya Mars's reaction yesterday to being named one of eight winners of the 9th annual Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts.

“I never thought in a million years the award would go to a performance artist,” said the veteran Toronto teacher, writer and multimedia artist who created the feminist character “Mz Frankenstein” in 1992. “Performance artists used to be seen as a comic, burlesque character of the art world. Now we're less marginalized,” said Mars. “We're not the crazy Darryl Hannah character (in Ivan Reitman's 1986 movie Legal Eagles) setting fire to a loft. Reality TV has people who do things way crazier than performance artists.”

Other recipients announced yesterday in Montreal are Kenojuak Ashevak, internationally recognized Inuit printmaker; Michel Goulet, veteran Montreal-based sculptor; Serge Giguère, the Quebec filmmaker given a Hot Docs retrospective in Toronto in 2006; Alex Janvier, the great Dene Nations painter from Cold Lake, Alta.; and Eric Metcalfe, the veteran Vancouver-based multimedia artist.

The Saidye Bronfman award, a $25,000 sidebar prize for excellence in crafts, went to Quebec City artisan Chantal Gilbert, who makes some of the world's most extraordinary knives.

As with earlier Bronfman winners, a number of Gilbert's pieces will be acquired by the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Que.

Shirley Thomson, director of the Canada Council for the Arts from 1998 to 2002, won for her work as a cultural administrator. Winners each receive $25,000 – up from $15,000 only two years ago – along with an original work of art from Peter Fleming, the furniture-maker, designer and winner of an earlier Bronfman prize funded by a $1.5 million endowment given to the Canada Council by the Bronfman family.

Named by Pierre Arpin, head of the Canada Council's visual arts section, and Youssef El-Jai, of the council's media area, yesterday's winners receive their prizes Friday at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. Governor General Michaëlle Jean, in praising them for “inspiring an ever increasing number of young people of all ages,” perhaps unconsciously underlined the award's increasing tendency to celebrate already established figures.

But that works for Mars, who kicked off her career while still known as Tanya Rosenberg, attracting attention in 1974 while wearing a piece of art called Codpieces: Phallic Paraphernalia.”A friend of mine said, `30 years ago, we would have turned up our noses at these kinds of honours,'” Mars said. “But you slog along long enough to see that this is really great for performance art. Performance art engenders thinking.”

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