Monkeying around at the Penticton Art Gallery

Cooper Battersby and Emily Vey Duke, co-creators of Lesser Apes, kicked off their artists’ talk at the Penticton Art Gallery trying to answer some big questions.

Emily Vey Duke talks quietly with her collaborator

Emily Vey Duke talks quietly with her collaborator

Cooper Battersby and Emily Vey Duke kicked off their artists’ talk at the Penticton Art Gallery trying to answer some big questions.

“What is art?” asked Battersby. Their answer, according to Duke, is that art exists to reduce suffering. It’s a grandiose idea, she admits.

“It would be much worse to be an artist and have aims that aren’t grandiose,” said Duke. “That would just be a hobby.”

“Our work falls in between the idea of hope and despair,” said Battersby.  “We want good things to happen … we want to make the world a better place.”

Looking at their film Lesser Apes, part of their installation at the Penticton Art Gallery, it is hard to see how a film about a lesbian relationship between a human and a bonobo ape could be about making the world a better place.

At least at first.

It’s a work that, frankly, requires a lot of thought. It could perhaps been seen as an indictment of bigotry in society, mocking it by examining how the film’s characters react to a situation that would be at the extreme end of perversion. Or perhaps, it might be seen as a review of how aberrant behaviour is being normalized through mediums like the Internet.

“We try to use grandiosity to gain the attention of the viewer and to keep the attention of the view,” said Duke.

But whatever else it is, Lesser Apes isn’t an easy work to relate to. And that is all right with curator Paul Crawford, who brought the show to the gallery for a number of reasons, one of which was to create a conversation.

“I was just intrigued … they are provocative, they are intriguing. It is good for people to see what is going on in the contemporary art world. Like it or hate it, all I ask is that you come in with an open mind,” said Crawford, who admits the show is pushing the limits of his own comfort zone.

Lesser Apes offers an inter-species fairytale of forbidden love between primatologist Farrah and the female bonobo (ape) Meema. Farrah extols the virtues of language as it offers the hope of empathy, but at the same time it pushes her out of her body, which she can recover only through a series of transgressions. These are offered in an impressionist collage – misted landscapes and time lapsed animals rotting, balloons caught in a rainshower.

“Certainly, it is not an easy one for me, but I think that’s good,” he said. “I’m not here to shock people. I hope it starts a bit of a conversation, but I hope it doesn’t turn into anything salacious. Take out of it what you will, but I don’t want to turn it into a thing about a lesbian relationship with a chimp — I hope people can see beyond that.”

The fact that Battersby was born in Penticton was another major factor for Crawford.

“Here is somebody that is making waves internationally in the art world for work that isn’t maybe at my comfort level but I would like to reintroduce this person to our community,” he said. “There is a certain sense of responsibility that we need to honour those from our community that are achieving great recognition elsewhere.”

Battersby was raised in the community, attending Penticton Secondary before his family moved to Midway, where he finished high school. He started working with Duke in 1994 and in the intervening years, the pair has taken their art to the international level. After they opened the Penticton show, they headed out to accept the Ken Burns best in film award at the Ann Arbour Film Festival in Michigan.

They are also shortlisted for the Sobey, Canada’s most prestigious award for artists under 40 and later this year, their work will be profiled at the Rotterdam Film Festival.

“Certainly their work is gaining an international reputation and it is really exciting we are able to show their work here,” said Crawford. “Regardless of where they are today, his formative years were spent here and that experience has informed where he is today.”

Also on at the gallery this month is a show that represents the other end of the artistic spectrum, the annual exhibition of works from students at the area’s three high schools.

Crawford said it is always interesting to see how the students are pushing the boundaries, creating projects that cross borders they don’t even know are there.

“None of them are being told that they can’t do anything or what they do is invalid, so what they do is pure expression of their creativity and it is an honest expression of their place in society today,” said Crawford. “I’ve never been disappointed with what they bring in and I just wish that these kids would be encouraged in their lives to be creative and think creatively.”

Duke and Battersby: Lesser Apes runs until May 15 in the gallery, as does Art is… works from Penticton, Princess Margaret Secondary and Summerland Secondary School Students.