Arts

U of O student explores the dynamics of identity with MFA graduation exhibit

Aidan Parchelo | Fulcrum Contributor

Photo by Aidan Parchelo

ART, IDENTITY, AND creation are inextricable elements of University of Ottawa student Cara Tierney’s graduation exhibition Go Forth and Multiply, currently on display at the Carleton University Art Gallery (CUAG).

Tierney’s 11 photographic works examine the discovery and assertion of identity in a society often dominated by superficiality.

“We can’t define anyone in singular terms,” says Tierney. “If we do that, we’re failing them.”

The pieces in Go Forth and Multiply are composed of many self portraits that have been framed or fused together through computer editing. In each, the result is a dynamic gathering of many separate identities, each expressing a different personality.

Truly understanding one’s identity can become a serious challenge and lifelong pursuit, as articulated through the series of dramatic tableaus. For Tierney, it was the realization about her sexuality that both challenged and inspired her.

“Identity isn’t made up of a singular element—it’s something really complex and multifaceted,” Tierney explains. “Coming out really put that into perspective for me, because all of a sudden there were parts of myself that didn’t agree with other parts of myself, so there was a sense of being very fractured and shattered in a way. And the images are trying to say you can hold multiple opinions in a balance even if they do conflict with each other at times.”

Tierney, 33, was born in a small French Canadian town called Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, on the West Island of Montreal. She obtained a bachelor of arts with a major in fine arts from Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. before moving to Ottawa in 2002 to complete a master’s in art history at Carleton University. Go Forth and Multiply is the product of a master’s of fine arts she began at the U of O in 2010, under the supervision of professors Lorraine Gilbert and Celina Jeffery.

While art has always held a place in her life, it was Tierney’s discovery of print-making at age 18 that really “fuelled the fire.”

The process of creating the pieces was nothing short of laborious. Tierney recalls piling everything she needed into a canoe and paddling for an hour to a remote location in Gatineau. She’d set up her camera on a tripod, set the timer, hit the shutter and then run into position, and repeat until she got all the shots she needed.

“It was a lot more physical than I expected it to be,” she says. “And then of course, that’s just getting the raw materials—after that there’s a whole other process that happens on the computer.”

The entire process took a year and a half, with shooting and editing taking roughly equal amounts of time.

In the title of her exhibition, Tierney juxtaposes her own contemporary stories of creation with the traditional tale from Genesis. One of her works plays on Flemish painter Jacob Jordaens’s “As the Old Sing, So the Young Pipe,” which has been part of the National Gallery of Canada’s permanent collection since 1969.

“It’s about how the young learn values by mimicking and copying the old,” Tierney explains. “I was thinking about transmission of values, and how queers don’t have access to our own sort of creation stories and our own history. That’s something we have to go off looking for on our own, because it’s not taught to us in schools and it’s not available to us. So part of my thinking when I was making this work was that I want to contribute to that growing creation story.”

Tierney’s experience with performance art prior to her MFA informs both her technical work and expressive artistic decisions within the exhibition pieces.

“When I started making performances, it was at a point where my identity was, I guess, a bit in crisis, and in performance there is a sense of urgency and immediacy that was able to respond to that need to express some of the ideas I was experiencing,” she says.

Tierney’s art is a perfect example of what she feels is a solution to the misrepresentation and alienation of individuals and groups—namely language, communication, and greater opportunities for self-expression.

“Within the queer community, language is being changed and modified every day,” she says. “What I’d like to see in society at large is people giving individuals more space to self-represent. I think it’s crucial that we only speak from our own subject position and that we don’t try and make claims for others, because we get into a whole lot of trouble. Ultimately, you just have to ask how other people want to be labeled, how they want to be identified.”

Cara Tierney’s Go Forth and Multiply runs at the CUAG from Aug. 27 to Sept. 30.