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Wilson Duff: Survivor

If I know
Labret (as I do know)
that I have received, in this life,
a message
sent long ago during a different life;
a secret message,
sent only once,
known only to the sender:

then I know
that the message I have received
must be from my

Wilson Duff

I first discovered the work of Wilson Duff when I was reviewing books about the West Coast for an Eastern journal called Brick in the late 1970's. I had recently arrived in British Columbia and was fascinated by the landscape--mountains, trees, water and clouds--and by the art and culture of the First Nations people. It all seemed so exotic to me: rich with spirit and promise. At the same time, the new Museum of Anthropology at UBC, while providing an impressive record of First Nations' artistic achievement, also told, almost in spite of itself, a disturbing and sad story of cultural betrayal and disintegration. One of the maps I used in my early cultural explorations was a book written by anthropologist Wilson Duff called Images: Stone: B.C. (Thirty Centuries of Northwest Coast Indian Sculpture) (1975). This book, with excellent photographs and drawings by Hilary Stewart, opened my eyes to the spirit of Northwest Coast art. The word "spirit" is important here, because Wilson Duff was deeply moved by the spirit of the art and the cultures that produced it.

Duff is a significant Canadian media theorist because, like Edmund Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan, he taught those who knew his work how to "see" something original and difficult about the media. In his Introduction to Images: Stone: B.C., he writes:

Images seem to speak to the eye, but they are really addressed to the mind. They are ways of thinking, in the guise of ways of seeing. The eye can sometimes be satisfied with form alone, but the mind can only be satisfied with meaning, which can be contemplated, more consciously or less, after the eye is closed. (12)

Duff called this "anthropology with a great deal of artistic licence." Like McLuhan, Duff sought the inner logic of the medium at hand. In his own way, he was searching for the laws of media that applied to the deep structures of Northwest Coast art:

...[A] system of inner logic...resides in the style and the internal structure of individual works of art. It is as though each is an equation wrapped as a single bundle....I would say that artist-thinkers of the Northwest Coast had created a sort of "mathematics of the concrete," which by the time the white man arrived had become an "advanced mathematics." Northwest Coast art, in addition to its previously-recognized functions of representation and decoration, had come to be an arena for abstract thinking, a half-secret dialogue, a self-conscious system for diagramming logical paradoxes in myth and life. (14)

Sculptures become objects to think with. The time-biased silence of stone speaking across the centuries prompts contemplation and inner vision. They embody the riddles of life by analogy. "A stone image can be a chunk of truth" (16). Notice here how Duff begins to echo Innis in his analysis of time: "Stone is about time. If a club could be devised to kill death, it would be made of stone. If a design could be devised to thwart time, it would exist in stone" (18).

club.jpg Duff interpreted stone clubs, which often suggested a phallus, as images of power. However, he complicates this analysis by noting that the stone clubs were largely ceremonial--"they are not so much functional weapons as they are images of weapons"--they are metaphors of what a club might mean:

Think of the stone clubs as thinking about themselves. Think of them as images for the contemplation of all things associated with clubs, and man's uses of clubs, and stone. A club is a supremely ambiguous thing: a tool for life-taking as well as life-preserving. Its controlling image, from among man's stock of self-images, would seem on existing evidence to be the phallus. A phallus is also a supremely ambiguous thing: equal parts "pestle" and "dagger"; the one, in woman's hand, a life-maker; the other, in man's hand, a life waster. The stone club has two ends: think of the handle and blade as the two sides of an equation. On the handle is a very strange human head. Is it a new infant, eyes not yet open to life? Or is it an old, old man, eyes closing for death? Is this the moment of "first gasp," or of last "gasp"? Or is it somehow meant as both, and therefore all the time and all the gasps between them? On the blade is something equally ambiguous. Is it "sword" or "pestle"? Is it the sting that means death, or the touch that means life? ....The element that activates the whole equation is a living hand on the handle. That particular handle, clenched in a male hand, would be an expression of the opposite of love: those eyes would be choked closed rather than coaxed open. The image is in stone, a message for all time, and open eyes.

He similarly complicates a reading of a series of tobacco mortars: "The unifying concept is that of female sexual symbolism. Its metaphors are woman, rattlesnake, monster, seal, and Frog. Its logic is that of the paradox of the part that contains its whole." He goes on to suggest that a particularly powerful sculpture of a Haida Frog evolved over centuries to become "the very image of ambiguity: that which is in every respect neither and both at the same time" (147). To read the Wilson Duff of Images:Stone:B.C. is to experience how a medium becomes a tool, a technology, to think with. For Duff, the destination was the realm of the spirit and a contemplation of life's paradoxes.

bowl.gif The speculative and mystical style of Images:Stone:B.C. must have come as a revelation to anyone familiar with Duff's previous work. He was known to be a conscientious and scholarly anthropologist instrumental in the promotion of Northwest Coast culture and art (not just craft). The clearest demonstration in print of his earlier academic style can be found in Volume 1 of the series The Indian History of British Columbia, titled The Impact of the White Man, written by Duff in 1965. This systematic and rather clinical study provides few insights into this anthropologist's later artistic licence, though clearly it laid the foundations for a deepening appreciation of the culture:

The material goods made and used by the Indians have changed so completely since the arrival of the Europeans that most aboriginal forms may now be seen only in museums (which incidentally is one good reason for the existence of museums)....[O]n the whole the technology of the Indians was rendered obsolete and replaced by the technology of the white men. And as a general rule the degree to which the Indians have adapted themselves to modern North American material culture is the degree to which they have been successful in finding their way in today's world. (76)

Duff's appreciation of irony went through a radical transformation in the decade from 1965 to 1975, the time of the Images:Stone:B.C. exhibit.

In 1976, Wilson Duff took his own life. It appears in retrospect that his spiritual imagination flared vividly in the final year or so. The World is as Sharp as a Knife (1981) is a remarkable collection of essays, reminiscences, art work, and poetry in honour of Wilson Duff. The mystery of his transformation is certainly not dispelled by this tribute; quite the contrary, one comes away with many questions concerning the history of the West Coast, the relationship of art to the paradoxes of life, and the power of media to communicate meaningful abstractions. The anthology includes a collection of Duff's poetry, in whose lines we discover a person obsessed by mirrors:

There are no laws,
which you can trust to work.
There are just rules,
which you must make to work.

In the one hand,
you are holding the mirror.

On the other hand,
you are the mask.

Put on the mask and look in the mirror.
What you see
(the mirror does not lie)
is that which is common to both,
the truth you can believe.

("The World is as Sharp as a Knife," 309)

Wilson Duff became haunted by the media he studied so intently. The media became a mirror which reflected not the truth, but "the truth you can believe." In comparing himself to the relative permanance of stone, Duff may have felt his humanity too keenly. On the other hand--and this is a strange thought when it comes to the study of media in our current cultural climate--he may have sent us a message with his spirit, something he learned from the study of artfully shaped stone.

Haida carver Bill Reid tells the following anecdote about Wilson:

A couple of years ago for his 50th birthday, partly as a joke, but with some serious intent, I made Wilson a silver medallion with a Haida design on the front, and some inscription on the back giving his name and the date and describing him as a "survivor, first class." I'm glad that he wore his survivor's medal quite proudly from then on. I suppose it's ironic if he were wearing it when he died [he was: ed.], but in a larger sense, as long as people study, enjoy, enthuse about, and come to love Northwest coast art, at least some part of him will survive. (World as Sharp as a Knife, 14)

Media give us reflections of ourselves that we may not wish to see. As Wilson Duff discovered, and taught us, media--whether in stone or bits of data--are technologies to think with.

[All images taken from Wilson Duff, Images: Stone: B.C (Saanichton, BC: Hancock House Publishers, 1975). Fair Use provisions apply.]