CANADA, MY HOW YOU’VE CHANGED: Shine A Light at the National Gallery of Canada illuminates landscapes dramatically transformed

Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun Red Man Watching White Man Trying to Fix Hole in the Sky, 1990 (© NGC)

“Shine A Light, Cast A Shadow”

Canada is known for its tradition of depicting resplendent and majestic landscapes but the inspirational legacy passed down by artists like those in the Group of Seven aren’t echoed by the contemporary artists featured in the National Gallery of Canada’s show of new acquisitions.

The vignette of Lawren Harris’ North Shore, Lake Superior, as seen from the Gallery’s water court and framed by rose granite walls, shares with us a vision of the Great White North as a pristine place. Now the more North you go the more you experience the impact of global warming. The Inuit populations located in Northern Canada are the canaries in the coal mine of climate change. The situation is dire and artists in Canada have responded.

I entered the Shine A Light exhibit at a different point each time and each time I was confronted by works that overwhelmed me with a sense of dread. Artists used to celebrate this land. Now artists like Edward Burtynsky, David McMillan and Isabelle Hayeur scatter themselves across the globe to photograph how human populations are manipulating, extracting and polluting their environments often beyond the point of no return.

Edward’s work is by far the most familiar. His command of composition is always breathtaking, even exhilarating because of the scale of the photographs. They suck you in. They are cinematic making you feel a part of the terrain. He places you at ground zero, he’s like the Weegee of the environmental crime scene and you can’t look away.


Isabelle Hayeur, Death in Absentia II, 2011 (© NGC)

David McMillan and Isabelle Hayeur are lesser known but have equally challenging content. David photographs Chernobyl and Isabelle the dead waters of America. The discombobulating viewpoint of Isabelle’s photographs drown you. David’s work brings back the ghosts of the cold war, the stuff of children’s nightmares and threats of nuclear winters. Glasnost saved us from a global moment of disaster but nuclear technology was still devastating for many Russians. His work provides a document of disaster that irradiates how our modern material culture is forever stuck in some plastic purgatory that’s going to be hard to get out of.


David Hartt, Awards Room at the Johnson Publishing Company Headquarters, Chicago, Illinois, 2011 (© NGC)

The content of David Hartt‘s photography in Stray Light, also about location documentation, is aesthetically more palatable, you could even say seductive. Instead of cold war ghosts you feel a guilty sense of nostalgia for that time before the OPEC crisis, a time when North Americans thought there was no real harm in living large. The video component of Stray Light takes us into the building of the Johnson Publishing Company (JPC) former home of Ebony Magazine. As the video transitions smoothly from room to room, accompanied by the lush music of jazz flutist Nicole Mitchell, because of what I witnessed en route to David’s work I can’t shake off a sense of foreboding.

The African sculptures made of wood and stone seem confined in the plastic fantastic world of JPC. People move in and out of the scenes hedged in by office structures that conflict with the softer movements of their bodies proceeding through the space. Watching the final moments of the iconic Ebony in it’s place of conception is like entering a crypt in a necropolis that lures you with its beauty. It feels like the oxygen is going to be sucked out of the building and eventually the space will become a time capsule shrink wrapped for the archive and searching for its final resting place.

Geoffrey Farmer, Leaves of Grass, 2012, Courtesy of the artist, Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver and Casey Kaplan, New York (© NGC)

My initial response to Geoffrey Farmer‘s Leaves of Grass was “this is obscene.” After more time spent with the work my response was still “this is obscene.” His process (a team spending countless hours cutting and pasting), the content (17,000+ cut outs from 5 decades of Life Magazine) and the final presentation (100+ feet of archivally problematic paper, grass and glue) illustrate the absurdity by which we hold on to the past. We collect, categorize and create hierarchies of meaning that allow for justifications of all kinds. We trap ourselves in a constructed story from which we can no longer budge. Leaves of Grass is an absolutely breathtaking piece but as stunning as it is, the work is suffocating. There is too much to take in with no place for the eye to rest; a well executed entanglement of wicked questions. Do our strategies for classification make perfect sense? Are they nonsense? How do they really help?

Junk culture. That is what we are left with and this is the legacy that many of the contemporary artists in this show are trying to illuminate.

David Armstrong Six, The Radiologist, 2012 (Courtesy of the artist and Parisian Laundry. Photo: Matthew Koudys)

The shadowside of Readymades

“Combining found objects with a variety of materials – plaster, plywood, steel, rebar – his sculptural explorations merge the raw and the readymade into aesthetically intriguing and ambiguous compositions.” (sited from Shine A Light catalogue)

David Armstrong Six continues in the tradition of the readymade but Duchamp and the Dadaists weren’t working at a time when people had to be concerned about an impending environmental crisis. Bricolage takes on a different meaning when we are at risk of burying ourselves alive in a rubble pile of our own making. Maybe ‘l’art pour l’art’ is no longer enough to redeem the materials.

An Te Liu, Aphros, 2013 (© An Te Liu. Photo: Dustin Yu)

This is the question that An Te Liu seems to be trying to tease out as he works with casting the materials that accumulate from our post-modern predicament with packaging. Arranged like collection of Brâncușis, the five pieces are beautiful to behold but lack the life force that Brâncuși’s pieces, made of wood and stone, exhale. Rendered in ceramic and metals they give the impression of impotence like the materials they reference, materials that will persist in the environment without the capacity to be generative.

From the room with the David Armstrong Six’s readymades and An Te Liu’s towers you can look out across the Donald R. Sobey Family Gallery and view Luke Parnell’s Phantom Limbs from above. Here yet another graveyard is encountered. The 48 wood carvings laid on the ground are made to represent the homecoming of the ancestors when the Haida Repatriation project succeeded in having ceremonial objects and human remains returned to Haida Gwaii from private and public collections. Luke gave each carving a different expression. Contained under cases of plexi some look understandably pissed.

The Shine A Light catalogue, arranged alphabetically with each artist’s name, ends with the work of Lawerence Paul Yuxweluptun and a 2 page spread of his painting Red Man Watching White Man Trying to Fix Hole in the Sky (see above). This work hasn’t been publicly viewed for nearly 2 decades. Now seems like the requisite moment to bring it out again to remind us that in those 20 years we haven’t transitioned forward with many solutions. Instead we see a global trend to become more entrenched with ‘pie in the sky’ ways of living. Suffering with the collective trauma of watching our world come to the brink of disaster do we brush off our artists as Chicken Littles? Because the sky is indeed falling, our ozone layer is literally breaking apart into pieces.

large abstract drawing of large round shapes in a dark background

On the back wall of the 2nd floor is The Arsenal, a work by Jutai Toonoo. It is a large scale oil stick drawing of T cells. He created the work at a moment when he was trying to understand the pathology of the cancer his mother was stricken with. The helpful T cells fight against viruses, bacteria and diseases.

Our material culture is replicating faster than stage 4 cancer. It metastasizes in places as topographically different as Chernyobyl, Nunavut and India. The micro T cells, as the subject of Jutai’s work, are metamorphosed into a macro landscape that covers a large expanse across the Gallery’s wall. The allied cells shine like a phosphorescence glow in an inky black sea. After the challenging content of Shine A Light his work highlights hope. We are in need of an arsenal of solutions to push back the chaos. Encoded in the DNA of the planet are the cellular memories that can transform a landscape in crisis.

Above images by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag unless otherwise noted.

INTERSECTING THE CITY: Urban Fabric at the Textile Museum Toronto shows how the natural and constructed co-exist


Queen. Image provided by Scott Norsworthy.

“Urban fabric as a metaphor for the city” ~ Deborah Wang

“The artists in Urban Fabric: Portraits of a City engage with the interwoven hard and soft dimensions of the city from multiple perspectives; their photographs, paintings, sculpture, film, and pattern-making create a portrait of a city, often taking Toronto as their subject.”

This year’s Toronto Design Offsite included an interesting partnership between TO DO and the Textile Museum. Urban Fabric: Portraits of a City, curated by TO DO’s Creative Director Deborah Wang (pictured right) traversed the intersections of what comprises a city – “the built environment, webs of individuals, and the social, technological, and economic processes that produce a particular urban framework” as well as the insertions / assertions of nature.

The exhibit featured stunning photography by Scott Norsworthy that included the West End of Toronto. Hard isolating walls of bricks, unbroken expanses of asphalt and a multiplicity of electrical wires were softened by gentle light blanketing the concrete jungle with air and sky. Sheila Ayearst‘s series of Concrete paintings also contained a softness despite their subject matter. The canvasses, in varying shades of gray, had titles like Beaconsfield Concrete, again recalling the West End and its rapid development.

“Holes in the urban fabric, these sites speak to the city as an evolving network of development, appropriation, redevelopment, undoing, and neglect.” ~ Scott Norsworthy

(top to bottom) Dundas, Dupont, and Dupont. Images provided by Scott Norsworthy.

“Visitors in search of escape instead encounter.” Jessica Craig

Jessica Craig’s large projection of a location along the Don Valley revealed the lushness of a green Toronto that doesn’t just exist as an unattainable Shangri-La in our imagination.


Don Valley #212 (2012). Image provided by Jessica Craig. 

“Long protected from intervention by floodwaters and topography, the ravine defies construction and therefore profit: it is a fracture in an otherwise unified urban fabric.”

Jessica’s photographic work considers the concept of “terrain vague” and in her essay Landscape off the path she writes:

“Terrain vague is Ignasi de Solà-Morales’ term for abandoned spaces within a city that exist outside the common social realm and are often perceived as empty.”

These transitional spaces, because of the ambiguous mystery they offer city dwellers, hold latent potentiality as places of enchantment and restoration. “The value of the still unaffected land – and the relief it offers to a highly developed city – is difficult to quantify” but there is a sense that spaces, such as these, are seen as necessary in order to restore some sort of balance to the rigid confines of the constructed city.

(top to bottom) Don Valley #212, Don Valley #132, Don Valley #240 (2012). Images provided by Jessica Craig.  

“Roots are the first kind of textile.” ~ Scott Euson

For artist Scott Eunson plant roots are like fibers as they shoot up and spread out and the city is like fabric in that it is made up of many single “elements [fibers] that cooperate with the whole” as it rises up and moves out across the landscape like a rhizome. He spoke on how we often talk about the city as though it is a textile “neighbourhoods are knit together” or “densely woven.” He took wire and wood along with roots and bent metal, all found on walks through the city, to loop and twist a typography into place.

His piece Material Map – Toronto represents the complexity of urban spaces and their intertwining of newly digitized and still naturalized realities. The city is where we are often forced to locate our busy lives but not without letting go of our desire to feel our natural-ness now and again. As skyscrapers rise we haven’t completely forgotten the call of the waves. The shoreline always beckons us to return to some ancient cellular memory. Below the foundation of the city lies what was once the Glacial Lake Iroquois, what’s left now named Lake Ontario which means “Lake of Shining Waters” in the Wyandot language.

I like that this piece presented without judgement. In the assemblage there is no warning about the eradication of nature due to the city, the metal wires are able to co-exist with the natural. Despite the entanglement there is a type of order and an absence of hierarchy. The wood and wire take turns coming up between the foreground from the background, at times each receding, other times bending or breaking out of the grid.

The shape of the work represents Toronto as it is contained by the borders of the Humber River on the West and the Don River on the East. A few wires and twigs grow out past the North, West and East boundaries but at the shoreline of the Lake all halts, deferring to the great body of water that lies to the city’s south.

For me this piece is hopeful suggesting that there can be a resolution between the requirements of a city with all of its systems and our urban yearning for woods and water, that the existence of one doesn’t mean the end of the other.

Perhaps we can wrap ourselves around the notion that balance is not beyond our imagination and our quest to discover where it lies in the urban space is the taut thread that snaps everything in place.

Urban Fabric closed on January 25, 2015. Read more about the show on the Textile Museum’s website.

Images by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag unless otherwise noted.

 

“THE PEOPLE ARE DETERMINED TO PROTECT THE PINES”: Remembering Oka / Kanehsatake

Kanehsatake 270 Years of Resistance by Alanis Obomsawin, National Film Board of Canada

“They know very well what they are fighting for and its probably worth much [more] than nine holes in the ground.”

Just over a month ago the Turkish people came out to demonstrate in Taksim Square in Istanbul. The ignition – the desire to save trees. In an overdeveloped but ancient city, Gezi Park is one of the few green spaces left and the plan to rob the citizens of this enduring place for want of a modern mall was the final strike of the match.

In seeing the footage of the masses that showed up in Istanbul, I fantasized about the same size of a crowd gathering to protect the trees and the sacred natural spaces we have left here in Canada a land once so abundant with natural beauty but now being sliced through and whittled down.

Today is the anniversary of the blaze that started here in the town of Oka and Kanesatake community in Quebec. A developer’s desire to conform the land into a golf course was the fuel for a blaze that burned regarding human rights.

For the want of trees a population was ignited into action to deal with the deeper discontents.

The trees in Gezi Park were / are symbolic of the deeper discontent of the Turkish people with regards to their government.  Most people would be in agreement that the Turkish people, in their desire to save the trees, acted poetically in their fight for justice.

Was Oka any different?

END NOTE: Some of the land desired for development was a burial ground for the Mohawk people of that community. For over 400 years an Armenian cemetery was located in that area of Gezi Park. After the Armenian Genocide the cemetery was razed.