The Canadian Art Database

Terrence Heath


BorderCrossings, Vol. 22 #4, November 2003.
[ 2,130 words ]

Environmental art is about change. Much of the history of public art, art outside the museum and the private precincts of the wealthy, has had to do with permanence: the record of great events, usually battles; the icons of faith, belief, and ideology; the celebration of great figures, usually men; and the urban or architectural obeisances to kulchur. Even some environmental art was seen initially as permanent; Smithson's Jetty spiralled out into the lake, seemingly a permanent conundrum of nature, but it too has seen the waters rise over its stones and ebb again, leaving the debris and growths of what the waters deposited. Environmental art affirms transfiguration as the basis of all created works, whether created by man or nature. It may simply point to or create metaphors for change, remaining unchanged itself; it may enter into the processes of change itself and eventually disappear; it may incorporate change into its own processes. But however it carries out its tasks, it speaks to us of temporality, mortality and finitude. And, of oneness, belonging and humility.

Shore/lines is the first of a planned biennial of outdoor environmental works that the MacLaren has undertaken. It is, by any standard, a huge project for any art gallery and especially for a gallery that has a staff of fourteen. But no one has ever accused William Moore and his staff of not being ambitious. Remember the 1400 foot field horse of Joe Fafard's; the Susan Rothenberg exhibition; and now this summer the Magdalena Abakanowicz sculpture exhibition? Georgian College is partnering with the gallery in this biennial. It has also been a hallmark of the gallery to involve dozens of businesses and individuals who contribute time, funds, materials, equipment and services. In fact, the involvement of so much of the city, from city council to small businesses to volunteers, is one of the features of Shore/lines that makes it truly a community event.

Barrie, Ontario has two Shore/lines. One skirts the downtown with a swathe of green spaces, parks, fountains and marinas. This shoreline of Lake Simcoe was the site of the industrial lands of an earlier era in the city's history and is why Barrie lies at the end of the lake. The other is the ancient shoreline of Lake Algonquin that gives Barrie a sweeping height of land back from the present lakeshore. Even as the sprawling developments go up in the southern part of the city, dormitory housing for Toronto's workers, the two Shore/lines are still what defines the place. It is the exploration and celebration of these Shore/lines that informs the ambitious outdoor art project of the MacLaren Art Centre entitled simply Shore/lines.

For Shore/lines, the gallery invited international, national, regional and aboriginal artists to execute works that would be environmental, that is, focused on the geography, natural setting and history of the city, where for thousands of years humans have used its waters and Shore/lines in carrying out the activities of hunters and gatherers, fur traders, explorers, farmers, industrialists and the many-layered professions and jobs of a contemporary city.

Initially curated by freelancer John K. Grande and now managed by the gallery's head curator, Mary Reid, Shore/lines originally envisaged works by fourteen artists, each of whom would be brought to Barrie to seek out a site and later to create or install the work. So far (August), nine have been installed, three are in process and two have been postponed. The works will be temporary, remaining in place until the next biennial. I expect though that two or three of them will become permanent as they adapt to their setting and in effect become a part of the site (surely, an obvious fate for environmental art).

The gallery has set up tours of the works with a phone-in system that functions basically like the familiar audio guides in major galleries. It took me approximately three hours to see all the works, including walking through bush, up and down hills, passed swamps and over lush parkland. Some of the works are astonishing; others predictable but well-done; a couple were less successful, or at least raised enough questions in my mind about their siting, aesthetics or inclusion to activate my critical senses.

The piece that seemed to me almost the epitome of environmental art is constructed on a path along the shoreline of Lake Simcoe. Lance Belanger and Kitty Mykka, two Vancouver artists, have made a deceptively simple piece that divides the path into two branches by laying out a line of stones in the middle. The 'art path' they have created has three sections, one with the stone broken into fist-sized pieces, a second of smooth stone cut lengthwise, and a third of jute bags filled with small stone pieces. Neither a description nor a photograph, however, can give much of the experience of coming onto the split in the path and walking beside the stones that seem to become more significant and more — what? mysterious (in the religious sense), the more you examine them. Installed in July, it was already becoming a part of the path when I saw it in August. Dirt had sifted between rocks and bags and into the channel cut into the polished stone. The piece seemed to be settling into the path, becoming a part of the landscape. Settling just as the lumps of coal settled decades ago when this path was the old coal road around the lake.

Three of the artists have woven branches into structures, setting them in amongst the trees and bushes along the Shore/lines. Alfio Bonanno, an environmental artist from Denmark, chose a site on the shores of Lake Simcoe and the local milkweed pod as an indigenous shape. He wove huge replicas of the pods, and filled them with rocks. They lie along the shore, some in the shallow water, others lying on the sand and at the edge of the trees. Enhanced in size, the pods take on the semblance of huge aquatic animals beached on the shore.

In the creek, at the base of the ancient shoreline of Lake Algonquin, Gilles Bruni and Marc Babarit, from Nantes, France, have taken the theme of the freighting of goods by boat to and from the lake. They have woven two halves of a large boat; one half sits upright on a triangle of land in the creek and is filled with twelve-liter plastic water containers; the other half sits behind it and is inverted so that it resembles the cabin of the boat. It is filled with piles of recycled newspapers. Although not anticipated but nevertheless appropriate, the structures are slowly sinking into the waterlogged land they are sited on.

The third woven structure, sited on the heights of the ancient shoreline, was under construction when I visited. Patrick Dougherty, an artist from North Carolina, works with materials gathered or, better said, gleaned from around the site of the planned construction. He is known for building fantasy buildings, weaving them from the natural detritus of an area. The partly finished building I visited already had doorways and winding passages which reminded me of buildings I have seen in Africa.

At the entrance to the campus of Georgian College, which sits atop the ancient shoreline, Derek Martin, a young local artist, has created one of the most physically engaging works in the biennial. The artist has constructed a pathway lined with saplings embedded in the ground. The path formed by the trees narrows and widens over its 150 feet and the trees lean in and out in waves. Walking through the piece gives the feeling of moving from confinement into freedom, back into a confinement, this time not so oppressive, and then released for a few steps where there are no trees and back into the wave to be ejected out at the end onto the hillside. When I saw the maquette for the piece, I couldn't imagine the experience. It is also a striking visual piece, clearly visible from the heavily trafficked parkway at the base of the hill.

Another four of the environmental installations are located on the ancient shoreline. The most whimsical piece is a lighthouse constructed by St. John's, Newfoundland artist, Will Gill. The small white and black lighthouse is hidden in a tiny grove of primeval, that is unlogged, trees. It is the last copse of trees that originally covered these hillsides. Gill has set his lighthouse amongst them as warning of danger just as the ocean lighthouses warn approaching ships. He makes a tongue-in-cheek obeisance to technological protection by setting three large cones, much like the kind one sees on microwave towers, on the top of the lighthouse. They have grass woven into the receiving/transmitting parabola and turn and move somewhat pointlessly whenever a breeze stirs. Gill's is the only humourous piece in the biennial, although it is possible that the Dougherty piece will join him when finished.

Bill Vazan from Montreal has constructed one of his earthworks in the large park that graces the ancient shoreline. His fascination with the relationship of people, ancient and modern, with the earth, and the marks they have made upon it, now spans at least four decades. For the biennial he has dug a huge maze-like pattern into the rolling parkland. He calls it The Belly Button of the World. A part of the piece's fascination is that you can only see part of it from any vantage point, and as you walk around, in and through it, it changes, renews, and hides the goal of its paths. Like the land markings of ancient people in all parts of the world, the intent of which is often unknown to us now, this piece seems to demand no more than that you accept and wonder at it.

Environmental art always balances between the site and the construction, the environment and the art. Mike MacDonald's butterfly garden at the Royal Victoria Hospital is certainly more on the environmental side than the art side. In effect, the Halifax artist has planned and planted a garden with flowers, shrubs and herbs that will attract butterflies. Apart from the fact that the flora is planted, there is no artifice, no visual significance. It is simply a very pleasant garden. The day I saw it, there were no butterflies in sight.

The least successful of the pieces in the biennial, I thought, was the sculpture by Glenna Matoush and Jan Larson. They chose a site adjoining a parking lot above a small lake, appropriately named Little Lake. The concept was to recognize the importance of the beaver in the history of the lakes and waterways. The piece is a larger-than-life, abstracted, polished steel beaver skull mounted on rusted steel columns bent to resemble tree trunks. In the trees near the sculpture the artists have hung red ribbons. However appropriate the installation is as a concept, it does not work for me as a piece. The skull and its columns seem out of proportion for no apparent reason and the siting seems strangely at odds with its seeming intent. Ironically, although it refers to nature in the skull and the tree shapes, it is in fact a monument set out for passers by to view and is built of permanent materials.

The day I was there was scheduled to be the day for the installation of the Babylon piece by John McEwen. It is to be sited on a small offshore island in Lake Simcoe. This is the piece which until recently lined the approach to the MacMichael Canadian Art Collection. Since I did not see it installed I cannot judge the impact of its presence in its new site. It will undoubtedly be a powerful industrial reminder among the natural materials of most of the other biennial works.

Works by the New York artist, Alan Sonfist, are yet to be installed.

Shore/lines is an ambitious undertaking and one that will become an important showplace for ongoing works of environmental sculptors. The mix of international, national and regional artists is, to judge by this first biennial, an opportunity not only to see works by artists whose creations we usually see only in reproduction, but also to encourage and exhibit environmental artists from both here and there. As a commissioned exhibition, Shore/lines is also an act of some bravery, betting on the judgment of the curator and the commitment of the artists to produce works that are both significant in themselves and specific to the very varied sites available along the two Shore/lines of what Barrie citizens say is the sixth, overlooked, Great Lake.

BorderCrossings, Vol. 22 #4, November 2003.

Text: © Terrence Heath. All rights reserved.

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