REFLECTION: The idea of land in three parts


At SFU Galleries this past fall, an expansive approach to land - conceived of territorially, politically, geographically, historically, and materially - served as a connective tissue crossing the three exhibitions at its galleries. Though artists have long been preoccupied with representations of land, from painters invoking idealized landscapes to Earth Artists who viewed it as a blank canvas upon which to project various industrial, technological and colonial fantasies, the projects put forth by Charlene Vickers, taisha paggett and Krista Belle Stewart renew questions not only about the way that land has been interpreted within artistic practices but also about how layered histories, narratives and frameworks are encoded into the earth itself. Departing from ideas of land as neutral, passive and malleable, each project takes up the thematic as a vessel for carrying forgotten and suppressed experiences and memories into the present, exposing the ways in which regimes of control are enacted in and through land claims. With an eye towards contemporary social and political currents, Vickers, paggett and Stewart figure land as a cipher through which to distill the complexities of the contemporary moment.

In Vickers' project, Speaking with Hands and Territories, at SFU Gallery in Burnaby (Sep 4 - Dec 6, 2018), the artist takes up the controversial and much-maligned Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion in a project that foregrounds the environmental risks of this endeavor and the efforts of anti-pipeline activists on the mountain. Given the ongoing legal and political contentions surrounding the pipeline and its proposed route through Burnaby Mountain, as well as the swell of misinformation and propagandistic efforts to shape its public perception, Vickers' engagement with the topic is especially lucid in its address of the region in terms of its ecological sensitivities and its position in upholding Indigenous territorial rights. 

Speaking with Hands and Territories invited visitors to form earth balls from soil sourced from one site of the pipeline protests on Burnaby Mountain (adjacent to Kinder Morgan's tank farm). The balls were then gathered on a mantlepiece structure in the gallery that is reminiscent of a hearth, as well as alluding to the Sacred Fire kept alive by activists at the Watch House (a small cedar structure built by members of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nations and serving as a hub for activists). The balls varied substantially in size, shape and uniformity; new additions were moist, while older ones began disintegrating in the arid environment of the gallery. Each hand-made sphere bore the marks by which anonymous visitors partook in a moment of contemplation through these minor gestures of solidarity. The gradual accretion of balls and their mode of display can be interpreted across multiple registers: as a reference to art institutions as repositories of objects, as a reorientation of domestic and public spaces, as a means of critiquing the norms of viewing and engaging associated with the gallery as an institution. With respect to the pipeline, however, the delicate procedure by which the balls were formed is given added significance by their marked contrast to the overtly destructive terraforming imposed by the pipeline. The eventual return of the spheres to the protest site upon the exhibition's closure further cemented the different approaches to land as a resource, standing in distinction to the unidirectional exhumation of fossil fuels. The contrast is poignant, offering an invitation to think critically about the way our bodies shape and form the lands we inhabit, both literally and metaphorically. 

Charlene Vickers. Speaking with Hands and Territories. Installation view, SFU Gallery, 2018. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

Vickers also addresses the institutional constructs that influence one's relationship to land. The threshold to the gallery was demarcated by a rippling blue vinyl decal, above which hung a blue and white chevron patterned banner. The banner, raised high and performing the function of a flag, implied a reframing of the gallery as a space for alternative forms of sovereignty, invoking the signifiers of nationhood in order to contest normative ideas of land relations and territory and drawing out how ideas of nationhood and sovereignty are weaponized in settler-colonial states. Referencing the coastal waters that encompass the region through colour and shape, Vickers reminds us of the precarity of the marine environment and the fragile border zone it constitutes (both protesters and judicial officials openly acknowledge the risk an oil spill poses to the coastal ecology). Water's centrality was developed further inside the gallery, as the palette was reproduced on four banners hanging from the gallery's walls: an image of waves rendered in blue and white; a banner reading "HANDLE WITH CARE" above the ball-forming station; a cruciform topped with an eye with the words "SIGHT WATCH SITE" above the mantelpiece; and a "Water is Life" sign by artist Christi Belcourt. The banners bear the hallmarks of protest signs, characterized by highly legible bold font, simplified messaging and clear graphics. Through her proposal to consider the gallery as a space of civic and political action, Vickers raises questions about the political potency of the art institution and the undefined territory it inhabits within the political arena. What kind of political action is possible within the white walls of the gallery? What role do art spaces, as spaces of representation, play in the formation of political consciousness? And how does the inscription of the gallery as a political site inform our actions and relations within it?

Charlene Vickers. Speaking with Hands and Territories. Installation view, SFU Gallery, 2018. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

paggett's installation, i believe in echoes, at the Audain Gallery in Vancouver (Oct 11 - Dec 8, 2018) took up similar lines of thought, figuring the gallery as a speculative terrain from which to critique and examine the tangible political realities that affect racialized bodies. During her performance at the opening reception, paggett read aloud excerpts from Katherine McKittrick's Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. In the book, McKittrick takes up a series of case studies in order to exhume the forgotten political resistance of Black women and their lingering, if unacknowledged, influence. The reading grounded the exhibition’s central question: how can those erased from history and memory persist in the present and into the future? For paggett, a geographic perspective of land gives rise to these histories and memories while also implicating the wider structural forces that determine and inform ideas of space and time. A geographic perspective can be understood as encompassing not only the physical terrain of a site, but also the human activities and phenomena that have unfolded and defined it as a unique and specific site. The three video works in the entrance to the gallery, produced with the assistance of SCA student Han Pham, succinctly demonstrate the ways in which geographic sites are loaded with the burdens of history. The videos feature the artist dancing in three sites: on a mountain trail in North Vancouver, beneath the Georgia Street viaduct, and in the partially finished gallery installation itself. The videos are shot from below, affirming the connection between body and ground and situating the viewer's gaze in the position of the land. The site selection ties into the distinct histories and material relations encoded into the land, most recognizably in the over pass which was built on the location of the former Hogan's Alley. The first and last predominantly Black neighbourhood in Vancouver, Hogan's Alley was demolished in the 1970s when the NPA municipal government elected to construct the viaduct. Through her performance, paggett compelled visitors to reflect on the connotations of the site, the persistence of gentrification and its disproportionate impact on racialized communities, and the strategies through which different communities can address urban erasure.

taisha paggett. i believe in echoes (in collaboration with Kim Zumpfe). Installation view, Audain Gallery, 2018. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

If the threshold into the gallery is rooted in the real, the installation itself is a speculative reworking of the possibilities of site. Drawing on ideas collected under the metaphor of the "meadow," the artist transformed the gallery into a stage where bodies are granted the potential to move and exist outside of structurally coded identities, and where new forms of relationality and embodiment might cohere. Composed of dance, installation, sound, and video, the exhibition was an exercise in redefining our relationship to space and time, drawing attention to the way these seemingly apolitical factors are deeply imbricated in systematic forms of erasure, policing and control. Projected from seven speakers - some hidden within or behind the central stair-like structure, others dangling at roughly human height from the ceiling - haunting breath scores invoked the absent bodies of history. The speakers played variations of the twenty-six recordings made during a series of dance workshops led by paggett. Ethereal and ambiguously human, the breath scores created unexpected symphonies and pulled focus to discrete areas of the gallery. The installation itself consisted of a pair of oversized, partially finished staircases that reach the ceiling. Made in collaboration with artist Kim Zumpfe and with the assistance of SCA student Graeme Wahn, the stairs appeared dilapidated and unscalable, reminiscent of a collapsed building or ruined monument. Carpet tumbled out from the cavity beneath each stairway, beckoning visitors to enter the cave-like formations. Earth-filled bags dotted the edges of the gallery floor, their lumpy, anthropomorphic forms a pointed contrast to the verticality of the installation and emphasizing the body's connection to the ground. Drawing focus to both the floor and ceiling and to disparate areas of the gallery, paggett reconfigured the viewer's spatial orientation within the gallery in order to undermine the normative social codes embedded therein and give rise to new formations of embodiment.

Top: taisha paggett. i believe in echoes (in collaboration with Kim Zumpfe). Installation view, Audain Gallery, 2018. Photo: Blaine Campbell.
Bottom: taisha paggett. i believe in echoes (in collaboration with Kim Zumpfe). Detail view, Audain Gallery, 2018. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

In a similar vein, Stewart used earth in her installation, Eye Eye, at the Teck Gallery in Vancouver (Jun 19, 2018 – Apr 27, 2019) to introduce personal memory and lived experience into the institutionalized colonial apparatus. The west wall has been adorned with hundreds of clay tiles formed from soil taken from the artist's Okanagan territory. Like the earthen balls in Vickers' installation, the tiles are highly individuated, each bearing traces of the artist's hands and exhibiting the distinctive conditions of their manufacture through their variegated coloration, scale and curvature. Arranged on the wall in a grid, the installation references the emergence of the grid in modernist abstraction and what Rosalind Krauss famously described as its, "will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse."1 Just as the grid functioned as an aesthetic tool affirming the autonomy of the work of art from the world of the real, so too did the imposition of this organizational logic onto geographic sites affirm the separation between lived relations to land and its materiality from conceits of the earth as an undifferentiated totality. In Stewart's hands, the grid is taken on as a symbol not only of modernist artistic practice but also colonial oppression. Her tiles look as though they are peeling away from the wall, reaching instead into the space of the viewer and towards the opposite wall. As fragments of clay gradually crumble over time on to the low pile grey carpet, Stewart evinces the unraveling of the grid and its associated mythos.

Krista Belle Stewart, Eye Eye. Installation view, Teck Gallery, 2018. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

The contrast between the regimented regularity of the west wall and the organic, painterly texture of the east wall gives visual form to the distinctions between colonial and Indigenous views of land and its material constitution. Whereas the west wall exists in dialogue with the histories of modernist abstraction and the application of such logic to land and Indigenous bodies, the east wall is less finite in its cultural position. On the east wall, Stewart applied a thin layer of dusty soil into the otherwise pristine white wall, pressing the earth into its minuscule crevices and pores. The layers accrete unevenly, lending the surface a painterly effect that embraces the material qualities inherent in the soil. The contrast can be read as an expression of different modes of working with the earth and its latent histories, while Stewart's gestural application can be interpreted as an erasure of the pristine whiteness of the university and as an assertion of the primacy of Indigenous bodies and presences in articulating understandings of land and territory.

Krista Belle Stewart, Eye Eye. Installation view, Teck Gallery, 2018. Photo: Blaine Campbell.


For information about Charlene Vickers' exhibition Speaking with Hands and Territories, click here.

For information about taisha paggett's exhibition i believe in echoes, click here.

For information about Krista Belle Stewart's exhibition Eye Eye, click here.

BACK TO 2019

[1] Rosalind Krauss, "Grids," October 9 (Summer 1979), 50.