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Casualties of Modernity  2015

Casualties of Modernity, 2015

Kent Monkman, Casualties of Modernity (installation view), 2015
Mixed media installation with HD video, 14:45 minutes, (no fixed height) x 272 x 525 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Casualties of Modernity is a seminal work that encapsulates the depth of Kent Monkman’s practice and his investigations of modernism. Initially created as a performance, it then became an installation and a film. In the installation, in a simulated hospital room high above a city, a mannequin of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, dressed as a nurse, tends to a prone and flattened Cubist construction of a female patient, who bears a remarkable resemblance to one of the women in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, by Pablo Picasso (1881–1973). Next to the patient, an electrocardiogram machine monitors her heartbeat, while intravenous lines feed her twisted arms. There is the faint sound of wheezing as her chest rises and falls with each laboured breath. In addition to a red and white uniform, Miss Chief, in customary fashionista style, is wearing seven-inch red patent platform heels and diamond accessories, modelled after a fetishized “sexy nurse” persona.


Kent Monkman, Casualties of Modernity (film still), 2015, mixed media installation with HD video, 14:45 minutes, (no fixed height) x 272 x 525 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. This scene shows Miss Chief with the Doctor of Fine Arts.

Opposite the bed, a television airs an episode from Miss Chief’s popular syndicated TV show, Casualties of Modernity, in which she stars with the erudite Doctor of Fine Arts and a cast of vulnerable or forgotten art traditions that include abstract art, performance art, Conceptual art, and Romanticism. The video recalls daytime hospital soap operas like General Hospital, as well as the evening dramas Dallas and Dynasty. In this instance, the patients in the hospital are ailing art movements.


The project had originated with a performance on October 18, 2013, when Miss Chief made an official visit to the modern wing of the Denver Art Museum. Led on a tour by the institution’s Doctor of Fine Arts, in her first speaking role on video, Miss Chief’s words were inspired by Princess Diana as a philanthropist and a compassionate, sympathetic, and caring soul, who comforts the crushed, lifeless “casualties of modernity.” (Monkman felt that Miss Chief and Princess Diana shared a special bond, as they both experienced a contentious relationship with the Crown.)


With Casualties of Modernity, Monkman employs a variety of media and continues his research into the dynamics of the European gaze—in this instance, focusing critical eyes on the modernist era. Revolutionary developments in figuration by Picasso, Henri Matisse (1869–1954), Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966), and others drew upon and perverted the traditions of Oceanic and African art, reducing and reassembling living things and inanimate objects into two-dimensional planes and geometries. Monkman sees the reductive character of their art as metaphor for modernity’s compression of Indigenous cultures.


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