For a few acres of snow / Pour quelques arpents de neige
November 4 - December 11, 2021
In November 1981, the repatriation of the Canadian Constitution was negotiated in the nation's capital. Pierre Elliott Trudeau tried to get the provinces to agree to change the content of the constitution, the founding text of the federation, without the permission of the British Parliament, in the hope of gaining more independence from the latter. Eight of the ten provinces, including Quebec, joined together to present a counterproposal. Initially a source of disagreement over the method for repatriating Canada's political heritage, the event was perceived by Quebec as a betrayal when, on the night of November 4 to 5, the presumed federal-provincial alliance left Quebec out of the discussions for ratification of the Constitution. After a day of negotiations, all the ministers retired to their respective hotel rooms. However, Jean Chrétien, Canada's Minister of Justice, stealthily spoke with some of his counterparts in a back kitchen of the Government Conference Centre in Ottawa. A new proposal was written on two lined sheets and presented to the provinces overnight, except for Quebec. The next day, René Lévesque, premier of the excluded province, heard the news from the hotel where he was staying in Hull (Gatineau). In English Canada, the event was called the Kitchen Accord (or Kitchen Meeting), referring to the place of the final decision. In Quebec, this same episode is called Nuit des longs couteaux (Night of the Long Knives).
The narrative duality of this geo-historical-political episode serves as a backdrop for Simon Belleau's exhibition Pour quelques arpents de neige / For a few acres of snow. In between the staging and the historical research, the artist takes a decisive look at the event and the places in which it took place without, however, taking a stance. He foregrounds the dramatic character of this night of surreptitious dealings that he describes as Shakespearean, pushing the theatrical analogy further to the point of using a quote from Voltaire's Candide (1759) as the exhibition title. Politics borrows its precepts from theatre. Through his positioning as an observer-investigator, Belleau sneaks in a critique of the ubuesque conflicts of this country's politicians, going from the little story to History writ large.
Belleau's current exhibition identifies factual and spatiotemporal parallels in a middle ground between backstage and the show: the two titles given to the 1981 event; the two stately hotels in the border cities of Ottawa and Gatineau in which the provincial Premiers were lodged; the Ottawa River flowing between the two riverbanks as if to divide the protagonists; the night as a space for speculation and betrayal; the Saskatchewan Premier Allan Blakeney, who quotes Shakespeare's King Lear (1606) in a speech the day after the agreement: “All Hands Leave Hold When The Great Wheel Runs Down The Hill.”
Belleau borrows tropes from cinema that he mobilizes in this latent scenography: huge paintings acts as representations of the Kitchen Accord scribbled by Jean Chrétien, Roy McMurtry and Roy Romanow on the night of November 4 in a kitchen in the Conference Center; sculptures, including a model of the kitchen laid on top of a hotel furniture, a dilapidated projector on which dust has accumulated over the years, as well as a neon sign placed outside the La Filature building to recall the vintage signage of the Château Laurier.
A film made by Belleau during his research residency at AXENÉO7, tensely shows — facing one other, on each side of the river, but behind closed doors — the facades of the hotels. For the editing, Belleau makes use of the most fundamental of all staged productions: stage directions. The artist's notes serve a staging purpose by giving directions in the form of annotations that permeate the entire film. Without necessarily going hand in hand with the images, the stage directions refer to these documents that are elsewhere, out of the viewers' sight, making Belleau an omniscient narrator. In the film, the hotels play a role: they become places of political prevarications, testifying to the possibility that they may even infiltrate our minds as we sleep.
The time-shifted plot line that the artist proposes investigates the dramatic-romantic machinations of a theatre whose mechanisms are initially not visible to viewers. The workings of Pour quelques arpents de neige / For a few acres of snow mobilizes a work of historical de-re-construction that is positioned in opposition to an overestimation of the critical discourse of such an agreement. The formal and material evocations, which are indeed highly interpretative, as well as Simon Belleau's film, act as powerful chronological links inviting one to redefine this nocturnal negotiation, just on the eve of its fortieth anniversary.
With exhibition support from the Canada Council for the Arts.
Special thanks to the Crowne-Plaza Hotel in Gatineau for agreeing to lend hotel furniture for the film viewing benches.
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Montage & camera by Simon Belleau
Music (voice) by Mykalle Bienlinski