Odds are, when we imagine a female spy it's a busty James Bond temptress or Jennifer Garner in Alias, flirting with terrorists in conspicuous disguises. Toronto artist Nina Levitt hopes to portray something a little closer to the truth in her exhibition at Saint Mary's University Art Gallery. Little Breeze pays homage to the lives of Britain's first female spies, who served in occupied France during WWII. "I was interested in the ordinary women, who really did have a big impact on the war," says Levitt.
Little Breeze does not provide viewers with a linear narrative, nor is it entirely historically accurate. Levitt fuses sounds and imagery from popular culture with information taken from documentary sources. Neither the melodrama of the glossy film world nor the sterile professionalism of the historic documents transmit the real experiences of these women. Rather, Little Breeze captures the imprints the female spies left on those around them. Viewers leave with their own perceptions of the women, which are valuable despite being completely subjective.
The narrative of Violette Szabo, a British special operations executive secret agent, ties the exhibition together. Levitt projects documents on the gallery wall or replicates them herself, containing both banal and gut-wrenching details about Szabo's life. Szabo, whose alias was Louise, died at 23, after torture and interrogation at the hands of the Gestapo. In one letter, a high-ranking British female officer promises to return Szabo's camel-hair coat to her parents. "My imagination goes to the point at which the parents received that coat and that's all they had," says Levitt. Other documents include account statements and officious character assessments. "I think there's a failure in these documents to really describe who somebody is," says Levitt.
Levitt sends gallery-goers on a scavenger hunt for information. "If you don't interact with the work, you don't get all the potential information from the show, so it requires somebody to actually act," she explains. In one room, the floor is lined with several vintage suitcases. When viewers open them, they get sounds and images on a large screen. "There's a real kind of potency in picking up a suitcase, handling it, smelling it," says Levitt. Some of the footage comes from the 1958 British drama Carve Her Name With Pride, based loosely on Szabo's life. Other times, the faces of female spies emerge in an indiscernible sea of ASCII code.
In an adjacent room, viewers can walk around reading short obituaries of female spies. Levitt describes the deaths of the young women in both French and English; some died via a single shot to the head, others by firing squad or lethal injection. The facts stand in stark contrast to newspaper-sized images of healthy, smiling young women, plucked out of ordinary lives. Speakers activated by motion detectors emit sounds and music. The mellifluous vocals of Maurice Chevalier singing "Louise" alternate with the tense pounding of the song's lyrics in Morse code. "In order to hear the song, people eventually learn that you keep moving," explains Levitt.
"Every little breeze seems to whisper Louise," drones Chevalier, with a sweetness that feels eerie.
"That idea of a little breeze, just that little moment in a landscape really stood out to me," says Levitt. For her, it's the perfect metaphor to describe the actions of these women, who defied gender conventions and had enormous cumulative effects.
Nina Levitt’s Little Breeze Until April 11
Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery
5865 Gorsebrook Avenue