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Thinking About Rita McKeough

For this week of exploring Alberta women artists represented in the University of Lethbridge collection, we’re moving to look at the experiences created by installation works, where entire rooms or gallery spaces are taken over to create environments designed from the ground up to be immersive experiences that completely engage the viewer. There is a challenge to consider with installation works, however, in asking how we keep installations alive after they come down. Documentary images are the obvious solution to this problem. Pieces of the installation itself are also a fabulous reminder of what we’ve engaged with. Equally as important as these, and perhaps the most easily overlooked, are the artist’s own words. All three keep the installation alive long after the doors are closed, and this week’s artist knows this better than perhaps anyone else. Rita McKeough provided so much more information than I could have hoped for—all in the name of keeping her ideas alive.

No, you’re not looking at the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery! This is an installation view of the work we are discussing this week. Think of what might be going on in this scene—it’s an impressive story, trust me! Image courtesy of artist Rita McKeough.

Rita McKeough is a Calgary-based artist, musician, and educator. She has carved an incredible niche for herself in Canadian art by creating immersive installations and performances that rely on aural, mechanical, and digital components. Recurring themes of displacement, domestic abuse, and ecological damage in her work are as complex as they are incredibly close to home for so many. McKeough completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts with the University of Calgary in 1975 and a Master of Fine Arts with the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 1979. She spent a decade as a NSCAD instructor before transitioning to teach at the Alberta University for the Arts in 2007, where she continues to engage with students throughout their programs. McKeough’s contributions to contemporary Canadian art are evident through the sheer number of shows she has been involved with. In 2009 she was a recipient of the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts in recognition of her career and contributions to the arts.

“Urban Uprising”, 1984, ink, by Rita McKeough (Canadian, 1951- ). University of Lethbridge Art Collection.

For my research project about Alberta Women artists, I decided to reach out to McKeough regarding some pieces tucked away in the University of Lethbridge’s Art Collection. The story of the pieces themselves and the installation they gave life to was far too intriguing to not share. It embodies everything I love about engaging with contemporary art and its creators. This first print, Urban Uprising, is a continuation of a narrative set up in McKeough’s 1983 installation at the Walter Phillips Gallery. “Skeletal Development” was a multimedia piece creating an interactive environment of sound elements and sculptural objects. It pointed to concerns over urban sprawl and the astonishing speed of corporate expansion. The print shows us some of these elements in action—the Urban Scroungers, embodiments of the empty high rises for new development made sentient, moving through the areas in which older homes were demolished in pursuit of progress.

One of the Urban Scroungers sifting through the destruction in search of house bones. This is the first of the Urban Scroungers in the University of Lethbridge Art Collection. Image courtesy of artist Rita McKeough.

These Urban Scroungers look for house bones as sustenance, eating what has been left behind by corporate activity. The concept is something that continues to resonate with viewers, I think, and McKeough delivers a timeless interpretation of what 1980s Calgary must have surely felt like. With this installation and the resulting documentation, the dates in which it was produced are key. The 1980s was a particularly tumultuous time given the boom and bust cycle of the oil industry. McKeough chose to use her Urban Scroungers as a critique of new construction left devoid of life when the oil market slowed. Her work responds to these real-world events, a call intended to spur change. The installation created a darkened environment littered with debris in the form of shredded paper and the house bones themselves. In the dim space, cinder block walls were erected to enclose the team of Urban Scroungers as they sought out these bones to keep themselves alive. Each scrounger had a voice box of sorts to play accompanying tracks of sounds as unique to each as their shaggy fur and their placement in the chaos.

One of the Urban Scroungers, proudly showing off the house bone he has managed to dig up. This is the second of the Urban Scroungers in the University of Lethbridge Art Collection. Image courtesy of artist Rita McKeough.

Only two of these Urban Scroungers survive from the original show, living on in the University of Lethbridge’s Art Collection. The corroded wires of their voice boxes have even been repaired despite their voices sadly being long gone. After the initial exhibition, the set was stored in the basement of a gallery McKeough was associated with. When that gallery ultimately closed, it became a task to find homes for the survivors of “Skeletal Development”. Staff here at the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery mounted a rescue to ensure these pieces will continue to live on. Their show tackled a vital piece of Alberta’s history and the province’s enduring identity. Losing that connection to a piece of the 1980s would be an absolute shame given their role in a story McKeough brought to the world.

Kelsey Black

Collections and Outreach Assistant

Acknowledgements and Sources

Many thanks to Rita McKeough for allowing the inclusion of her artworks and their story. She graciously provided the images used in this post.

Check out this link for more of Rita McKeough’s work in the University of Lethbridge Art Collection:

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