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Gut reaction 

Artist Mary-Anne Wensley builds sculptures out of dried pig intestine, a material that both fascinates and repulses her.

From afar, Mary-Anne Wensley's installation, inescapable shelter glows peacefully and appears to be constructed of a thin parchment-like material. But, on further inspection, there's a sense of the grotesque---the translucent material is actually dried pig intestine. "I struggle with the definitive 'why' that I work with this material," Wensley says. "It's almost like the material has chosen me. I'm continually fascinated by it and continually repulsed by it." Inescapable shelter consists of a small, garden-shed-sized house built of bricks, made from the dried intestines and hanging nets of small rings of intestine tied together. Blooming in the corners---easily missed---are small tufted plants Wensley constructed from the ends of the tubes, not wanting to waste any pieces.

She buys the sausage casings from Brothers Meats on Agricola and hangs them on a clothesline in her home for a few hours to dry. "When they dry, the light is incredible, they kind of glow from within," Wensley says, showing a photo of the ghostly looking tubes hanging. The price of the casings went up 30 percent midway through the project: "Due to market issues that I was going to investigate more, but didn't have the chance to," she says. Though not a vegetarian, Wensley confesses to not eating a lot of meat and doesn't find the smell of bacon particularly appetizing during times she's creating with wet casings.

Wensley first began working with pig intestines as a student at the Ontario College of Art and Design. She stuffed them with everyday detritus---bus passes, clothing labels, money, receipts. In 2001, she came to Halifax for the MFA program at NSCAD. She then continued working with the material and in 2002, she created similar sausages stuffed with assorted objects in the windows of Eyelevel Gallery, at their former Barrington location.

For her graduating exhibition at NSCAD's Anna Leonowens Gallery, she used wet intestines to "write" on the walls, tossing pieces onto the walls and forming them into an "implied language"---mainly squiggles that appeared to be words. The pieces that were formed into real words were visceral ones, like "bite" and "chew."

"What runs through my work is the vulnerability of the body, anxiety, pain and feeling restrained," Wensley says.

She first used the idea of a shelter when creating a piece for a group show curated by a NSCAD classmate about reactions to September 11. Brave New World showed at Anna Leonowens in 2006. Her piece, "Safe Houses," consisted of numerous tiny houses made of thin, dried pieces of pig intestine. Wensley wanted to try using the material in a different way, forming it into shapes.

"I wanted to work with the idea of safe houses," she says, for criminals, during war times and on the Underground Railroad, "but it's also undermining the idea: You can't be totally safe." The clusters of houses made her think of "refugee camps and army camps."

After drying the intestines, she cuts them into segments and irons them to make the flattened parchment-like pieces that the house in Saint Mary's gallery is built from. Wensley then meticulously cuts and glues the dried pieces to form small bricks; over 2,700 of which were used to build the house. It's a continuation of the project begun with the "Safe Houses." She wants the viewer to be surrounded by the piece. Working on it, Wensley was considering the relationship of her work to the body, the close genetic relationship of pigs to humans and mortality. The "scab-like pieces" that make up the nets that hang from the ceiling represent a "desire to be safe," alluding to fear and "trying to be brave."

The idea of shelter seems to be predominant in local consciousness lately, with houses, trailers and Cold War fallout shelters appearing in recent shows. Saint Mary's also mounted the exhibition Burrow around this theme last summer. Local artist Adriana Kuiper created a shelter for that show and a tunnel-like structure on the Dalhousie campus during October's Nocturne festival. Is it the era, the cruel climate or fear of another Halifax Explosion that's motivating this work? Wensley nods in recognition of her peers---her pigskin house is scant protection against the maritime winds and rains.

Mary-Anne Wensley's inescapable shelter runs until April 11 at Saint Mary's University Art Gallery, 923 Robie. Artist talk and catalogue launch: Thursday, April 2, 8pm.

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