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Chris Welsby – Lost Lake
From the Western Front Gallery Programme Notes, by Petra Watson
Lost Lake

"Nature," Donna Haraway writes, "cannot pre-exist its construction." Through representation nature is "made to speak," but to give "voice to Nature" is to immediately evoke the impossible, "that which we desire, but cannot have."

Lost Lake is an installation by Chris Welsby composed of a sixteen monitor video wall layed flat on the floor of the gallery. The monitors construct a grid of abstract forms that depict the reflective surface of a lake. The viewer must attend to nature's "making," or representation, both rhetorically and materially. Nature only "speaks" when subject to a language, or process of use through time. This process is emblematic of the ecological and technological conditions/representations of nature, that are inseparable from Haraway's tension between how nature is spoken of, or spoken for (giving "voice to Nature").

The "mirror images" of the surface of the lake suggest a nature found and, as proposed by the work's title, a nature lost. Filmed with a 16mm camera, then looped through video disc, the lake's delicately rippling surface fills the frame (the curvilinear shape of the video monitors adds to this undulation of form).

Nature, concurrent to the loop of video images, is a flow of information mutating to abstraction. The audio – track of the sound of wind on the lake's surface is severed by planes passing overhead; this serves as a guide to technological intervention. The sound track is also accompanied by the droning of fans (used for cooling) beneath the video wall.

As with all landscapes, Lost Lake is concerned with concepts and constructs of space and time. Nature as an abstract form is shaped by the transparency and reflectivity of the movement of water. This abstraction, occurring largely through optical reflection – colours on the lake's surface – allows the viewer to reproduce the adjacent landscape: the absolute greens and sturdy browns of the surrounding forest with the coupling essence of blue sky. These abstract elements structure the relations between illusion and reality; space and time work to restore the "completeness" of the separate parts.

The conceptual patterns of the grid initiate engagement. The viewer moves around the lake/monitors, for it is the video wall, flat on its back, that constructs the space of nature by setting everything in motion – surface and light – while also "losing" the natural, reflective illusion of the surface, hence its closeness. Therefore, on the one hand, light is revealed as a natural necessity to nature (the reflection), and, on the other, a primary material component of this piece (the monitors). But, Narcissus can no longer find his form in this watery surface.

Influenced by the tenets of structural film (in fact, Welsby was an active practitioner during the 1970/80s in England), the installation reveals a primary emphasis on real time, the joining of abstraction and representation, and an interest in the forms of perception opened up by cinematic space. Welsby's exploration of nature is also influenced by Dutch artist, Jan Dibbets (who lived in England during the late 1960s). Welsby shares with Dibbets a phenomenological directness and simplicity in representing nature, that draws from a "classicism" of concepts and materials, especially elements of light.

But as we leave the Old World and retreat to the New, the North American conceptual terms of nationalism occur more sharply through public association with landscape images. Nature and culture, traditional and modern, are featured through a rhetorical association of colonial and national conditions of settlement and expansion, the nature of wilderness, the removal of Native culture from the landscape, and much more. Nature spoiled is conflated with nature saved, or this "lost and found." This representational logic often ends as a romantic nationalism (and also spiritualism); for example, the concepts found in the paintings of the Group of Seven, or further south the writings of Henry David Thoreau, as well as the late nineteenth century paintings of the Hudson River school. These writings and paintings (as they consider wilderness and settlement) incur a sense of possession of nature, but also loss, that is a desire and memory of nature without imperfection. For example, as Henry David Thoreau writes:

"A lake is earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature." As he continues addressing his beloved Walden (his "pond"): "a perfect forest mirror.... Nothing so fair, so pure, ... as a lake, perchance, lies on the surface of the earth. Sky water. It needs no fence.... It is a mirror which no stone can crack ... a mirror in which all impurity presented to it sinks."

The conditions of lost is of a nature never fully experienced (or Haraway's "that which we desire but cannot have") because of the changing material and political realities. The contemporary social histories of nature are never a "pure" category, but embedded with social histories: the ambivalences of natural and cultural landscapes, the marginalization of Native peoples, and the practices and "voices" of resource capitalism and environmentalism, amongst others. Who can speak as nature's representative? These "voices" are the mirror images – the grid of reflections in Lost Lake – that imply technological intervention, as well as social and political contexts that shape the meaning of nature, consequently its interpretation and use.

Petra Watson
Vancouver 1999