Bringing famed filmmaker to Regina a six-year odyssey

By Costa Maragos Posted: November 1, 2016 6:00 a.m.

Atom Egoyan, Steenbecket 2002: The Artangel  Collection will be on display at the MacKenzie Art Gallery starting on Nov. 5.
Atom Egoyan, Steenbecket 2002: The Artangel Collection will be on display at the MacKenzie Art Gallery starting on Nov. 5. Photo courtesy of Ego Film Arts.

It’s a visit that’s more than six years in the making – and Dr. Christine Ramsay, professor in the Department of Film, couldn’t be happier.

Atom Egoyan, renowned Canadian-Armenian filmmaker, is coming to Regina. He will be in the city for the North American premiere, November 5, of his exhibition at the MacKenzie Art Gallery - “Atom Egoyan: Steenbeckett,” widely considered his installation masterpiece. The event features a live conversation between Egoyan and notable writer and critic Noah Richler.

And that’s not all.

Egoyan is making himself available at other events, including a master class that he will deliver for U of R film students and film practitioners; the introduction of Sergei Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates at the RPL Film Theater; and a panel on Steenbeckett with the catalogue contributors.

We spoke with Dr. Ramsay about the Egoyan visit.

How do you feel about Atom Egoyan coming to Regina for this?

It's obviously a great opportunity and a great honour for our community, especially our graduate and undergraduate students across the Faculty of Media, Art, and Performance and our emerging artists across the city, to come into the orbit of an artist of Egoyan's talent and stature.

Take us back to 2010 when you approached Atom about coming to Regina.

In 2010, Elizabeth Matheson (President and Curator, Strandline Curatorial Collective) and I approached Atom to discuss his interest in participating in a Saskatchewan-based curatorial project investigating the relationship between art and film, linked to contemporary global interests in questions of migration, memory and trauma. Egoyan's reputation as an internationally-renowned filmmaker and lens-based installation artist working on themes of the Armenian Genocide made him a person of great interest in terms of the project's concerns, which also included contextualizing Saskatchewan nationally and internationally on the curatorial theme - especially as recent immigration patterns change the face of our province.

Atom Egoyan
Atom Egoyan with Mkrtich Tonoyan, Artist in Residence, Visual Arts (2015-2016).
  Tonoyan will be presenting “Roll Call” – at the MacKenzie Art Gallery Nov. 4-5. It’s an “audio monument” by an Armenian brother-in-arms to commemorate fallen Saskatchewan soldiers from international wars, conflicts and peacekeeping missions. Photo courtesy of Garry Wasyliw

The original idea that emerged was that Atom would come to Regina to make a short experimental film linked to an image that had been sitting with him for some years, since 1993 and the making of the film Calendar, having to do with women in traditional dress dancing against the Armenian landscape - for which, if you've been to Armenia, you would immediately agree the Saskatchewan prairie could be a very convincing cinematic substitute. He would have worked out of the Saskatchewan Soundstage and taken advantage of local crews and local knowledge, but in 2011 the cuts to the film tax credit system rendered that idea impossible.

But you did not give up on the idea. What happened after that?
Egoyan remained interested enough in our burgeoning curatorial concept to let us take time for further brainstorming and research. The idea of Saskatchewan standing in for Armenia on the superficial level of the vagaries of location shooting led us to see deeper and very distinct parallels between Armenia and Saskatchewan - two similarly isolated geographic regions with shared histories of genocidal trauma. The flame of our idea had caught fire.

How did you turn that idea into reality?

We applied for research funds, and received a SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) Insight Development Grant, which enabled us to travel to investigate art/film exhibitions at international institutes, festivals and biennales in Germany, Belgium and Italy. We also solicited the collaboration of Timothy Long (Head Curator, MacKenzie Art Gallery) for his expertise in lens-based installation art, and Rachelle Viader Knowles (then Department Chair of Visual Arts, University of Regina; now Senior Lecturer at the School of Art and Design, Coventry University), for her expertise in cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural media practices. She proceeded to make an important connection for us with the contemporary art/film scene in Armenia, securing a stage as Artist-in-Residence associated with the Akos Cultural NGO and the Armenian Art Centre of Social Studies in Yerevan and Gyumri, Armenia, under the direction of Mkrtich Tonoyan. From there we worked up ideas together, and presented panels on our preliminary thinking on Egoyan and contemporary Armenian art/film at conferences and workshops in Oxford and Cambridge, UK, and New York City, followed by a curatorial research trip to Armenia in 2015.

Christine Ramsey
Dr. Christine Ramsay says the Egoyan visit to Regina is a great opportunity for graduate and undergraduate students across the Faculty of Media, Arts, and Performance. Photo courtesy of Don Hall

How did Atom feel about these efforts?

He was amazingly supportive. At this point we followed with a meeting with Atom at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester to catch up and compare notes on progress, and to see his installation Steenbeckett, based in his film version of the Samuel Beckett play Krapp's Last Tape.

Clearly at this point the scope of the project shifted.

At this point, our vision for the project began to gel. We clearly saw memory and trauma at work in Egoyan's films and installations at two levels:
-the political, around the Armenian Genocide
-the personal, around the kinds of anxieties and issues explored through characters such as Krapp
It became our plan to work toward staging a retrospective of Egoyan's installations on both these axes at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in 2015, the centenary of the Armenian Genocide. While schedules did not co-operate, the team and Atom did, and our focus became to bring the premiere of Steenbeckett to North America in 2016, along with an international symposium on art/film/expanded cinema.

Thus, the project morphed from an initial invitation to Egoyan to produce a short art film in Saskatchewan, to a retrospective of his film installation work, to the North American premiere and critical catalogue of his masterpiece, Steenbeckett, situated among contemporary Saskatchewan, Canadian, and Armenian works addressing common concerns.

How do you feel about this now that the show has become a reality six years later?

Exhausted, but in a good way. With creative collaboration among colleagues, and top-notch research assistants and institutions, you really can achieve projects with depth and breadth that would not be possible - and that you couldn't even imagine - if you were working in isolation. And thankful for the funding support that we've been able to gather, not only from SSHRC, our major funder, along with our key creative partners Strandline, the MacKenzie Art Gallery, and the University of Regina, but from local, provincial and national arts organizations as well.

Egoyan at The MacKenzie is co-organized by the MacKenzie Art Gallery, Strandline Curatorial Collective and the University of Regina.

The exhibition, Atom Egoyan: Steenbeckett, takes place November 5, 2016 to January 1, 2017.

It is part of the larger series of exhibitions, screenings and events titled Meet in the Middle: Stations of Migration and Memory Between Art and Film (Regina 2014-2017).