The Canadian Art Database

John K. Grande

Peter von Tiesenhausen: Ship of Life

National Gallery of Canada, August 17th - October 28th, 2001
The Power Plant, December 8th, 2001 - March 3rd, 2002

Border Crossings
[ 4,240 words ]

In Demmitt, a sawmill ghost town in northern Alberta where he grew up, Peter von Tiesenhausen builds pods, ships, towers, and any number of woven willow forms on site in the landscape. Before becoming an artist he worked as a labourer, miner, roughneck, and cat-driver in the Klondike, Antarctica and the oil fields in northern Canada. He lives off the land through his art which often explores his relation to that same land. As he has stated "I'm not trying to make monuments to anything. I want to have a dialogue with the land." Ship (in field of timothy] (1993) a willow boat structure references the journey his ancestors made to arrive in the New World. Ephemeral, like so many of the works von Tiesenhausen creates, it suggests the theme of a passage or journey through life.

During a stay at the Banff Centre for the Arts' Leighton Colony, von Tiesenhausen actually carved a boat out of ice, set a rock into it and sent it on a journey floating down the Bow River. When the work eventually melted at some point on the river, the rock dropped unseen into the river's depths. When an oil company asked to run a pipeline through his land he refused a lucrative buy out offer. To preserve his land for future generations, von Tiesenhausen had to claim the land as an artwork through the use of the copyright act. The oil company subsequently abandoned trying to get their pipeline to cross his land.

Lifeline (1990- ) is a life long work that began with the arbitrary placing of an 8 foot section of picket fence at a point easily visible from the artist's studio. Each year an additional 8 foot section will be added to this fence structure until von Tiesenhausen`s death. As the project evolves, sections will decay as others are added. One of his most recent projects, called Figure Journey, involved touring a collectivity of carved larger than life figural sculptures. The Watchers, as the five sculptures have come to be known, have travelled approximately 30 - 35,000 kilometers through every province and territory of Canada, and have even gone by boat through the Arctic`s Northwest Passage. They have stood at the edge of the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic Oceans. The sculpture's journey established a dialogue as people in logging towns, restaurants, gas stations, in cities or the country reacted to the figures in various ways. While that journey ended at the same point where it began nearly 5 years later in Demmitt, Alberta, The Watchers have now been cast in iron at a foundry in the city of Hamilton and will be permanently installed in front of Olympia & York`s new building on Queen St. in Toronto.

JG: Peter, could you tell me what got you into making art?

PvT: I've always been painting and looking around, excited by art, and it was only at 30 that I had the opportunity to finally do that full time. I didn't know what it meant to be an artist. I thought I would give it a go anyway. I started with what I knew which was the land and landscape painting. I loved to paint and I just responded to what I saw around me.

JG: When you studied painting (1979-81) it was at the Alberta College of Art and you left there without graduating. It was 10 years later that you began your first environmental site specific project Lifeline on a 50 acre field in northern Alberta. This is an ongoing project that will last your lifetime. It involves building, the scale of the land, demarcation, growth and decay. Can you tell me something about the project?

PvT: That was the first thing that I did that was at all successful. It was just after working in the gold mines, and in Antarctica. I was embarking on a different life, setting to rest the previous one. I built a section of fence to mark that time, and add an 8 foot section each year for the rest of my life, never again painting or repairing the previous sections.

JG: Your recent painting seems increasingly to draw from your sculpture. The forms are quite resolved in the images you make on wood and paper and even resemble primitive cave drawing. The symbolic presence is there in the delimiting and reduction of form. The elements are so simplified. If it is a boat or a figure, the various components are drawn or painted as if they were actually made of sticks or willow and fire, which is an element often used in your sculptural process. There is a kind of osmosis going on between the sculpture and the painting. Do they feed each other?

PvT: I think everything I have ever done is influencing what I am doing now. You go through these stages. When I built the willow fence around my property it allowed me to see that as sculpture. It was a fence, a functional thing, but it looked like a drawing somehow. That opened up the ship, the boats and all those things. I began to leave behind landscape painting at that point to conceive of line and form in the actual environment.

JG: Your first boat piece was made in Demmitt where you live and then you made another boat piece in France as a guest artist at Espace d'art contemporain near Poitiers (1995). With the second one, instead of building onto the land you dug into the clay earth recreating the outline of a ship to original dimensions. Sand was brought from the sea 100 kilometers away and filled in. The first boat piece involves drawing in space with branches, while the second is drawing or engraving into the earth. The actual building involved repetitive actions, a kind of ritual of recreation, yet the boat suggests a journey, emigration or immigration, arrival and departure. How did you come up with the concept for these works, or was there a concept?

PvT: It is a flow of ideas. You start with the idea of a ship and one thing leads to the next. Before I actually made the first piece in Demmitt I measured out the ship in the field. I walked on the snow, back and forth, pacing it by foot. Over the winter period, every time it snowed I would trample it down. I came back from traveling somewhere and during a thaw, here was this frozen outline of snow, which was a white line on the land in the shape of a boat. It influenced the piece in France a great deal. I could draw the outline in this red earth in France but wondered how I would do it. It was summertime. So I decided to dig it into the land.

JG: How did people in France react to the image of a boat in the earth?

PvT: It is an area of France where there are a lot of Merovingian ruins.

When I first flew into the area I could see traces of foundations all over the place that had been gone for a thousand years. Everywhere you went, driving through the villages, there were these water troughs that were actually coffins, sarcophagi that people were using to water their cattle. The history there is fantastic. So I thought why not leave a trace in the land that is not harmful. I would make this trench below the ploughline so that it would always be there in some form. As the field gets worked it will remain. When I began work there people were quite negative. They thought I was some kind of art star who was going to do something that would attempt to change their way of thinking. I had no intention of changing what they did on that land or of altering the land. I was just going to create this work in the land. Then people could go back and while farming it reflect on what is below the surface.

JG: This interaction with the public is often part of your work. It justifies a public reaction because you integrate a human element in environmental art and its something that is not so common. A lot of people build structures or design pure aesthetic forms. Pure design is a neutral thing. Your work always has this reference to history and the human element, to shelter, travel and so on. And so it stimulates a different reaction from people. An example is your Forest Figures, that have since become known as The Watchers, which you toured across Canada. You have put them in urban sites out west like Calgary and Kelowna, and floated them at Coutts Paradise for the Zone 6b show in Hamilton, Ontario. You have also driven them along rural routes, across farmers fields, on the highway, across parklands. They have even been up in the Arctic and on the Queen Charlotte Islands. Casts of these figures are being permanently installed in front of Olympia & York's new offices in Toronto. The Forest Figures stimulated a reaction from ordinary people wherever you brought them...

PvT: Yes they do and I don't think I would use the term touring. I would use the term driving around because I am interested in the whole idea of being inclusive rather than exclusive. What I do can be done by anybody. There have been instances where people have been included in ways they don't necessarily want to be included. A guy in front of a coffee shop was looking over to the side at The Watchers when he should have been looking ahead and it totaled his truck. The way I see the Forest Figures is like a huge drawing, drawing a line across the whole country. Little bits of charcoal fall off the figures, large chunks of rust are continually dropping off the truck. People take souvenirs of rust off the truck, get into the truck and have their pictures taken when its parked in the street somewhere. Its often travelling at 60 miles per hour. Just imagine sitting at a stop light watching this thing go by. You just get a glimpse. And that too is a drawing. It somehow gets imbedded in the mind of the viewer in a way that's much more immediate than going to a gallery to look at art. Just as the rust bleeds into the snow or into the road overtime spreading this little seed of seeing, these figures (you can't ignore them) imbed themselves into people's minds and maybe that bleeds and feeds into the other things they think about. I have had other people say that they've seen these things 500 miles from where I meet them. They say "I saw it in Regina. Were you in Regina?" Its interesting to be inclusive without preaching. When people ask what it is about, I ask "What is it about for you?" and then they tell you.

JG: So The Watchers stimulate stories?

PvT: Constantly. With gas station attendants you never talk about the price of gas or the weather anymore, you talk about what's worth doing. You talk about their father that died, or the kids that they love, the job that they would like to have, or whatever. That's really meaningful stuff for a 3 minute conversation.

JG: After the boats you did the woven willow pods up in the trees, and huts on the land, and the Maelstrom funnel at the Richmond Art Gallery in British Columbia. These works are a continuation of the boats and again they reflect the human presence in nature. Does this relate to your own rural roots in Alberta that you bring the human into outdoor work and don't set nature aside as a pristine place. You don't differentiate between people and the landscape. People are reflected in the landscape.

PvT: First of all I don't consider myself a nature artist. Its just that I am surrounded by the land. I don't think we need more stuff in the landscape. We've got enough. I am conscious of my mark on the land and try to leave as little of a mark as possible because I really love what I see. I understand my humanity and need to be connected to the land.

JG: There is no ideology of nature or art that does not eventually become redundant. The only thing that remains is the art. Life is short, art is long. It seems art that leaves the most lasting impression on people has a physical presence and impact. I myself believe in sculpture for this reason. I do believe nature or natural materials maintain a stronger impact on people therapeutically and unconsciously than video, TV or screen technology, particularly if it is well made. I also think that if we live in a world where people have less direct experience of nature, it is possible that because of that deprivation they don't know how to respond to nature. Maybe we have lost some of the instinct or knowledge that was part of our ancestor's experience, are less able to identify with it.

PvT: We are totally removed from the land, out of touch with what is actually happening. We have lost our sense of being part of the whole thing.

JG: Our culture emphasizes distraction and entertainment. Permanence — the idea of working together to build and work together towards a better society is subverted by the pervasiveness of the entertainment and consumer industry. People do not have the opportunity to produce at their highest level and are being diverted into a kind of passive distraction. I feel the same goes for a lot of art. It has as much staying power as a micro chip, video art in particular... Video that has a narrative can be interesting, but when it is composed of fragments, it has no staying power, no meaning or purpose other than to comment passively on powerlessness, the demise of democratic traditions. A way of building a dynamism into sculpture is with environmental sculpture outdoors, building and creating with the context in mind, by responding to the particularity of a site. Is it a place where there is a lot of human interaction or is it out in nature, something to be discovered? The Squamish tribe in British Columbia, for example, put a Cedar Woman figure sculpture in their traditional lands in the upper Elaho Valley, amid first growth forest where few people actually go.

PvT: I have got sculptures built out in the land that nobody has ever seen. That's not to say they are my weakest things either. They are often stronger works. I have shown them in photographs. Why was it so important to drive out to the east coast with the Forest Figures? Because somehow it embraced all the potentials that I can possibly embrace. Its like this quest for this thing that I don't know and I don't have any end result in mind. I had this concrete idea, that I would send the figures out to sea on a boat made of ice. But that was abandoned after this horrible tragedy at Pouch Cove where three teenagers drowned in the icy water. So I had to rethink the whole thing. I have to be completely open and sensitive to whatever presents itself, be in tune with what is happening around me at any point in time. If the people that are clear cutting around where I live actually went outside a few times a year and walked through those forests before they clear-cut them, they couldn't possibly bring themselves to do it. Usually they're focussing on some kind of entertainment, usually television, and can just say "Yeah. Take the trees. They're worth $40,000." Everywhere you go is an important site. This year, I was asked to do this TV interview and talk about my connection to the land. I was thinking to myself "Well what the hell do I know." A day before they arrived, I went down into the muskeg, and lay down on a piece of moss in an area where I never go. It is kind of a mundane area so I gave myself a half an hour to lay there and look up at the sky thinking maybe some thoughts would come to me. After half an hour of lying there I was noticing all kinds of things that I never knew existed in that place! I was so exhilarated that all kinds of thoughts came to me and I wasn't doing anything. It was a kind of healing. We need to take the time to sense and feel what is there so we don't destroy it. A guy who is sitting in a feller buncher cutting down 2,500 trees a day listening to his disc man is no longer conscious of what he is doing.

JG: Maybe sensory deprivation is part of a formula for environmental destruction...

PvT: You remove yourself from it. I myself have done it. I have run heavy equipment and cut down more trees than most people in the world have done.

JG: Do you like to leave the forms you make partially incomplete to let the materials speak for themselves. Do materials have a voice?

PvT: Absolutely. My marks are all about superficiality. They are my idiosyncrasies or skills showing up. My sculpture is not about technique. It is about spirit. If you bring the spirit of the idea of those Forest Figures for example, which are crudely carved, the fire begins to bring back what is intrinsic to that wood. The charred nature of that wood brings back its own texture. It is just a rough idea, an approximation of what you want. I believe that's more honest than being intricate.

JG: Isn't that a very contemporary idea, or state of mind, to think of artmaking as a sketch? In classic times people sought the perfect form, proportion and everything. It is very much related to media culture and our current state of mind that even a sketch or an approximation is hard work.

PvT: When I look at a tree I think a tree is never wrong. A tree is always right. Why is that? Even a rotted off stump is still beautiful. Why is that? Even an old log cabin made of wood that's rotted and laying there is very interesting. It becomes more interesting the more nature takes it back. The rest is all pretension. I find that there is nothing that engages me more than going for a walk in the woods. Just being anywhere, actually just being alive, pulsing with that vivid magic that we have here.

JG: Your art is an expression of your experience and growth, of where you have lived. Isn't what you are doing an expression of your identity?

PvT: Perhaps. The other aspect of that is I have learned to recognize what is beautiful for me. It's that recognition I am always looking for. A lot of it is just kicking it around until I recognize it is beautiful. Then I take that thing that I believe is beautiful and I do something with it. I put it in a gallery, cast it in bronze or drive across Canada with it, or burn it or take a photograph of it. Photographs present this flow of ideas to other people. A documentation of the trail.

JG: At the Art Gallery of Southern Alberta in Lethbridge you recently created a work called Deluge (2000) that was completely different, a kind of visual maze or optical illusion. People could not immediately see what the suspended branch forms represented. It was only in walking through the gallery, in a sense interpreting the work visually in the whole environment, its form became evident. How did you conceive this piece, its effect?

PvT: It came to me after the piece I planned initially became impossible. I was walking through the wilderness area near Lethbridge with my nephew Michael when he observed how the trees formed an arch where they came together. I noticed in that arch that when I moved to a certain point two other branches formed a cross in the arch. I realized that the drawing only formed itself from one perspective. That enlightenment led to the piece Deluge, Constellation and three dimensional drawings.

JG: A lot of art these days has lost any sense of history or continuity. Maybe it's because we have lost touch with our storytelling or narrative traditions. This need not be religious. It can just be a verbal thing.

PvT: We are so used to being entertained as a culture. Everything is didacticized to the point that you just don't want to look at it anymore. I just built a little 10 x 14 foot long cabin as a refuge - to focus. The most recent project I have been doing involves a quarter section of 160 acres I bought this past summer. There is an abandoned apiary on this and in one of these buildings I found the plywood bases for the beehives - 190 of them. I have made them into individual paintings with a chainsaw and an axe carving the image of a fire in low relief. They have wax and traces of the bees on the back, and charred wood on the front. I will be presenting them on a wall in a grid pattern. I have also had each digitally photographed and edited. The plain images will follow each other. They become the individual frames of a film. A film with these images will be projected on one side for exhibition and this wall of fire will be on the other side. The thing that I really like about this particular project is it is part of a film. Each one of those pieces will potentially go off into a private collection. I will use the money that comes from this to purchase a new piece of land for conservation purposes. Then I will find what is there to make art out of. The process continues...

JG: You are the only one who knows the origins of these pieces, where they really came from. They integrate this cultural and natural history together. Here you are putting your imprint after the bees have left their imprint, and the bees were a source of sustenance for the person who ran the apiary and then finally they become art. That's interesting.

PvT: This project has all the things I have ever been interested in. Culture, the abuse of the planet, protection of the planet, and all the different media affecting the art. It puts it all into one thing. It shows you can put a variety of different elements into one piece and it still makes a comment on what you like and what concerns you.

JG: It's true that video can add another dimension and brings to life object-based art when you juxtapose the object with video. We are so trained now to look at video that if you do it in reverse, it becomes a way of introducing people to the object. It goes backwards and works in reverse. You almost have to do that now. It becomes a way for people to seize the object's presence and appreciate the art.

PvT: Every piece of a work should be engaging and able to hold our attention on its own. You should be able to take any one of those elements and remove it, and it should still be interesting. Otherwise it is just theater, pretense.

JG: What about siting? Wouldn't it be nice to have a work on a billboard?

PvT: I think actually people don't notice it. There is so much going on, everybody is blind to it. If you put a ship in a field where there isn't any art at all, it is a profound thing. If you put that willow ship on a wharf beside a bunch of ships. Who cares?

JG: One of the few permanent pieces you have made is for the City of Calgary Centennial at the waterworks. Can you tell me about it?

PvT: I did this piece out of white Vermont granite. It is 27 feet long, 5 feet high, and weighs 60,000 lbs. It is sited in a very beautiful place overlooking the Glenmore Reservoir in front of the waterworks filtration building. It is a piece that talks about time. Originally I thought of making it out of marble, but marble doesn't last as long, so I decided on white granite. If you go inside the white granite, it becomes a calming, meditative space. I like it now, but it is still too full of my marks. Too new. It's very much about time and in 10,000 years it will be remarkable, possibly even a sacred place.

JG: It seems to refer to a journey like so many of your sculptures, one that is both an inner one and that involves the real life. Its a ship of life.

Text: © John K. Grande. All rights reserved.

The Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art
The Canadian Art Database: Canadian Writers Files

Copyright ©1997, 2020. The CCCA Canadian Art Database. All rights reserved.