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Visual arts review: A Sense of Site at the AGNS 

A chance, with some augmentation, to experience installations and performances by artists from across the country, challenging colonial history and Canada itself.

Maureen Gruben, “Stitching My Landscape,” 2017 (still). - MAUREEN GRUBEN
  • Maureen Gruben, “Stitching My Landscape,” 2017 (still).
  • Maureen Gruben

To May 12
Art Gallery of Nova Scotia,
1723 Hollis Street

In 2017, a series of projects were commissioned and performed by contemporary artists in and around National Parks and Historic Sites. In contrast to the Canada 150 celebrations that took place that summer, the artworks that were a part of Landmarks 2017 / Repères 2017 challenged colonial narratives and called on viewers and participants to reconsider the history of those places and the nation that operates them. Several of these works (as well as other pieces with similar processes and intents) can now be seen at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in A Sense of Site.

One of the interesting opportunities for artists and curators in an exhibition like this is the chance to show artworks that were only performed or installed for a short time, often in remote locations. But this can also be a challenge—how do you show work that doesn't exist anymore? For many artists this means exhibiting documentation of the event.

For Maureen Gruben, this takes the form of a six-minute video of the creation of her land art piece "Stitching My Landscape." Crossing nearly 1,000 feet, Gruben stretched red broadcloth through 111 ice-fishing holes to create a red zigzag across the ice in Pingo National Park, NWT. The stitching brings to mind textiles—stitching a wound, as well as the stitching involved in traditional Inuvialuit face tattoos—while the red cloth against the white snow also references the colour palette of hunting in northern regions (blood and ice). Shot from above, the video provides angles that the work at ground level could not—aerial shots show the work in its entirety and accentuate the sheer size of the piece.

This kind of documentation is vital to artists who do more ephemeral work like installation and performance. Some take that documentation and create new installations: In Cheryl L'Hirondelle and Camille Turner's "Freedom Tours: Dual Dissonance," the artists performed a series of interventions on a tourist boat travelling through the waterways of Ontario's Thousand Islands National Park. In the gallery, a photograph of each artist flanks a video projection of rushing water from a boat. Each artist can be seen tearing the Canadian Flag into strips, almost like bandages, while a pile of these strips sits on the gallery floor. Nearby, headphones play a voice yelling "water is life," then "freedom!" and the sound of fabric ripping, in a loop.

For other artists time-sensitive and site-specific projects can lead to the creation of art objects. As part of Landmarks 2017 / Repères 2017, Michael Belmore created "Coalescence," which he describes as "a single sculpture in many parts." Belmore inlaid 16 large stones with copper and arranged closely together, following Manitoba's Laurentian Ice Sheet to one of its drainage points: A border between land and water. A photo of part of "Coalescence" is on display, as is a more recent sculpture called "Left Standing on a Barren Stone" (2018). Here a single sheet of copper has become oxidized, bent and rippled, presumably a result of being left to the elements.

Artist Rita McKeough has a joke: "How many performance artists does it take to screw in a light bulb? I don't know...I left." The crux being the idea that most people don't enjoy staying for an entire piece of performance art. When performance happens among a small group of people, or for a short time, an exhibition like A Sense of Site provides a special opportunity for viewers by allowing them a glimpse into these fleeting moments through stories, documentation and materials. Through their exhibition these kinds of pieces become regenerated, allowing artists to rework and reimagine their artwork across space and time: In, around and outside the white cube of the gallery.

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