Fillip

Fillip 11 — Spring 2004

Given without Guide: 
Landscape Exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Gallery
Aaron Peck

The imposition of a sentimental, or false, narrative on the disparate and often random experience that constitutes the life of a city or a country means, necessarily, that much of what happens in that city or country will be rendered merely illustrative, a series of set pieces or performance opportunities.

–Joan Didion, “Sentimental Journey,” 1990.1

Landscape, as such, does not exist. It is made up and never neutral. A friend who grew up in the French countryside avers that there is no landscape where he is from. The sense of wonder a Canadian child felt in viewing the Rocky Mountains in the backseat of an Oldsmobile has more to do with a national ideology that rarifies those mountains than any innate sense of awe. However, at least for this reviewer (no doubt, a good Romantic subject who crossed the Rockies countless times as a child), landscape nevertheless appears as a given. Landscape evinces itself in the cordillera of eucalyptus trees on the Berkeley Hills, in the expanses of the south arm of the Fraser River Delta, along the I-5 corridor through the Skagit Valley, and in the rolling pine forests of the Okanagan. Landscape is the visible relation between distant points. The distance between those two points is aestheticized by what we call the view and thus exhibits what Walter Benjamin calls aura.2

Recent exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver developed into a series almost accidentally, the curator Jenifer Papararo tells me. Gathered as the first three of a series of exhibitions devoted to petit genres (portraiture, landscape, and still life), the CAG published a catalogue titled Landscape, accompanying three exhibitions devoted to the subject, which will be followed by two more catalogues for exhibitions on the other petit genres. The catalogue registers a move away from standard exhibition monographs in Vancouver art institutions towards more thematically based publications (this shift can also be seen in Artspeak’s recent publications). As such, Landscape gathers a number of recent exhibitions at the CAG, providing a thematic focus for a number of related shows. In the spring of 2009, the Quebec City-based collective BGL and Toronto-based Tim Gardner had concurrent solo shows at the CAG, and the subsequent summer show, Sentimental Journey, included the six artists Michael Drebert, Owen Kydd, Gareth Moore, Mike McLean and Laura Trunkey, Kevin Schmidt, and Kara Uzelman.

The exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Gallery offered no coherent approach to or theory of landscape. All three, however, identify a tendency to treat landscape as a priori. Each contribution gives landscape to us in different ways, exploring that relation between distant points differently—even if, in the end, each retains the auratic quality landscape has been given. In his catalogue essay from Landscape, Michael Turner suggests that the work in Sentimental Journey reveals that “our desire to discover what is hidden speaks to our need to understand how the landscape can be a site of competing perspectives”.3 Turner’s remark also describes how the exhibition’s curation operates. Of the work in the various exhibitions, only a few can be addressed in the limits of this review.

Disappearing Act 2 (2009) is a twelve-minute film by Kevin Schmidt of a tree in a mountainous landscape; First Blood (2009) is a small photograph accompanying it. In Disappearing Act 2, Schmidt created a trompe-l’œil on a tree in a mountainous landscape of the scene directly behind the tree, so that there seems to be a hole in the tree through which one looks directly at the landscape. However, certain features—the shapes of the clouds between the trompe-l’œil and the sky; flies that land on it—are deliberately placed to foil the sleight-of-hand. While filming, Schmidt held a mirror reflecting sunlight on the trompe-l’œil. As the sun wanes, a shadow casts a pall over the image. The shadow becomes reminiscent of an aperture: a shutter slowly “closing,” while at the six-minute mark the film plays in reverse so that the shadow then “opens.”

The reference to photography continues in First Blood, a small photograph of a billboard featuring Rambo, displayed adjacent to Disappearing Act 2. The photograph was taken in the city of Hope, British Columbia, a small town on the edge of the Coast Mountain range where Rambo: First Blood was filmed—still that town’s main claim to fame. The billboard has the face cut out: a passerby (usually a tourist) can then stand in for Rambo, placing his or her face in Rambo’s. In Schmidt’s photograph, Rambo is faceless, reminding us of the apparent hole through the tree from Disappearing Act 2.

The work of both Gareth Moore and Michael Drebert recall Lewis Mumford’s comments of Henry David Thoreau, whose “mission,” Mumford claimed, was, “to make [people] see, smell, breathe, feel, touch the objects around them, and to find how much nature could give that culture and civilization had left out”.4 Accordingly, landscape is not a representation of nature; it is an art that activates a relationship to the natural world. Both artists attempt to activate such a relationship to the natural world—or perhaps more generally to the senses—through an absence of what they purport to represent. Both bear a relationship to performance art (a journey) and to landscape art (a terrain), and in both the performance and landscape are absent from the final product. For River Ganges Crash Crawley’s (2009), Michael Drebert took a ball from a Coquitlam playroom and travelled with it to Varnasi, India, where he dipped it in the Ganges, so the story goes. The three-month journey is reduced to three sentences scrawled on posters that appear in the windows of the CAG. The fact that we have no more than the most basic signifiers (ball, play pit, at Crash Crawley’s, dipped, River Ganges) highlights what is absent—the performance itself.

Gareth Moore’s piece works in a similar way. The Road Through the Forest by Lyman A. William (2008) originated as a performance at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco. For it, Moore assumed a pseudonym, Lyman A. William, and was blindfolded and led into the Californian wilderness, from where he had to make it back on his own to the Wattis in time for his artist’s talk, which was supposed to chronicle his recent journey. Regrettably, I was unable to see the original performance,“5”:#note5 but it has now been presented twice in Vancouver as a vitrine of recombined sculptural objects that Moore collected during the trip. Much like Drebert’s work, Moore’s piece works through what it fails to communicate (the performance, the story behind each recombined sculptural object). The viewer is presented with a series of ambiguous objects, gathered and transformed during his journey, each of which purports to be an art object related to the performance.

Owen Kydd’s Sergei and Maria (2009) displays nine flat-screen monitors, all of which document the built environment along the Vancouver thoroughfare of Kingsway. The monitors are arranged into units of three, each with its own sub-theme. The middle follows the life of a family (husband Sergei and wife Maria) that resides on Kingsway, while the triptychs on either side document the surrounding neighbourhood. As such, Sergei and Maria is a fragmentary documentary of an immigrant family living on Kingsway. On each monitor are a number of shots each about thirty-five seconds long. Little to nothing happens in each, and they remain so static as to imply photographs. Stillness and observation reign. A narrative of sorts builds through the loop of images. The viewer begins to piece together the day-to-day lives of its subjects. The way the outer monitors document the surrounding area makes Sergei and Maria into a portrait of a neighbourhood, a depiction of an urban landscape, although the arrangement of the nine monitors into out-of-synch loops means the viewer will never see the same configuration twice and there is never one unified picture of the streetscape.

Benjamin defines aura as “the unique phenomenon of a distance” 6 and uses the appreciation of landscape to describe how that works. The auratic quality that landscape has been given continues resonate, particularly in the place of this writing, the Pacific Northwest, where landscape is a functioning part of how cities are conceptualized. Where I live, the trees are often older than the buildings. The epigraph at the beginning of this article by Joan Didion (from an essay in which she criticized the way New Yorkers sentimentalize their city and obscure the economic and racial tensions that structure it) was meant as a caveat about landscape art in general, but I don’t believe the artists discussed above are sentimental—at least not in the way Didion uses the word. In the case of these works, the most effective do not address landscape directly, but take something else as their subject, presenting landscape as an absence or an incomplete picture. If the work in these exhibits had done otherwise, even if unintentionally, we would have the kind of boosterism Didion warns us of, a particular danger in a city currently hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics.

About the Author

Aaron Peck is the author of the novel The Bewilderments of Bernard Willis. His criticism has appeared in Canadian Art and Matador as well as various exhibition catalogues. He lives in Vancouver.

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