White visitors to Vancouver Art Gallery can compare their faces to infamous Nazis

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One of the feature exhibits at the Vancouver Art Gallery right now is installation framing “Whiteness” as a force of “cultural erasure,” and even includes an Aryan Recognition Tool in which visitors are invited to gauge their visual similarity to a Nazi leader.

The exhibit, called “Conceptions of White,” first opened at the gallery on Sept. 7 and, according to gallery literature, is intended to help visitors “grapple with contemporary configurations of White identity.”

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In recent weeks, it’s gotten a spot of negative attention online after it featured in a post by the U.S.-based conservative social media account EndWokeness. “The exhibit tells white people to stop talking, enjoy discomfort, check their privilege, and vocalize their ignorance,” reads a post last month that has received nearly 900,000 views.

This, in turn, prompted a critical profile of Conceptions of White by True North Centre columnist Lindsay Shepherd.

Shepherd paid particular attention to the exhibit’s opening piece, entitled “When you’re the problem, we’re the solution.” A series of four stations shows an image of the viewer on a screen along with instructions such as “stop talking” and “enjoy discomfort.”

The “get curious” station, for instance, invites the viewer to “vocalize … ignorance” by stating “I know nothing” out loud.

Vancouver is not the first stop for Conceptions of White. It also had a two-month stint at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto. And before that, spent four months at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Sask.

Curated by Canadians John G. Hampton and Lillian O’Brien Davis, the exhibition consists of new and existing installations — including one dating back to ancient times.  Like the Vancouver Art Gallery itself, it’s heavily supported by government sources, drawing funding from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Toronto Arts Council and the Ontario Arts Council.

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Probably the most controversial part of the exhibit is Aryan Recognition Tool by Toronto-based artist Jennifer Chan. The tool actually exists permanently online, where users are invited to submit a photo of their face to an artificial intelligence engine that then “measures how your face compares to the facial measurements of an average Aryan — distilled from the most infamous leaders of the Third Reich.”

“Aryan Recognition Tool offers a playful yet uncomfortable window into the continuity of thought in facial typologies,” reads a curator description.

Love and Loss in the Milky Way is a 2005 piece from New York that consists of a table set with white ceramics along with a bust of an African woman. “The arrangement suggests connections and provokes audiences to question their assumptions and social conditioning and teachings,” says Davis in a curator walkthrough.

A “Whiteness timeline” is included along a wall to document “the circumstances that documented the emergence — and evolution — of white as an identity.” Included among the events are Charles Darwin publishing On the Origin of Species, the founding of the Ku Klux Klan and Canada’s 1867 founding.

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White Man’s Burden, by Montreal’s Deanna Bowen, is a series of items pulled from the MacKenzie Art Gallery permanent collection intended to represent “Canadian White supremacist ideologies and organizations in the first half of the 20th century.” It includes documents relating to arts donations made by former governor general Vincent Massey which helped found the MacKenzie gallery.

Also included is a reconstruction of the ancient marble statue Apollo Belvedere, which is now held in the Vatican Museums.

“Apollo is a very potent symbol in terms of the research surrounding whiteness and white identity,” said Davis in a talk recorded in February.

In the 18th century, the Apollo statue’s brilliant white surface was praised by the German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann as it “reflects the greatest number of rays of light.” According to Conceptions of White, this review “inspired Neoclassicists and race theorists to propose a new concept of racial superiority theorizing that European features like light skin are indicative of more highly evolved humans.”

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