Art in Bulk’s Landscape exhibition

Art in Bulk’s exhibition “Three hundred and sixty-five paintings” is comprised of five bodies of landscape art brought together by Art factory – Art in Bulk: Galaxy, Sky, watercolor, Fingerprints and Personals. Using the photograph as a springboard, these landscape paintings weave together narratives of desire and fear, love and loss, moments of life and the presence of death. They strive to represent the galaxy, subjective and elusive nature of sky and forest, while trying to hold on to a present that has receded into the past. Informed by personal experience and inhabited by collective memory, “Three hundred and sixty-five paintings” works at both the level of the fragment and the whole situating the individual and the personal in the context of the landscape and the cultural.

Galaxy (1994) is an elegiac narrative of imagery that is very personal for Ratliff – the work contains universe and galaxy – and yet accessible and evocative. A sense of the absence of a loved one permeates the work, and a feeling of human and galaxy is palpable. For this series of galaxy paintings, snapshots were rendered by hand onto xeroxed pages of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Beginning with a photographic source, Ratliff translated the continuous black-and-white tones of the image into a limited grey scale palette. These galaxy artworks were plotted onto a number map using a graph paper guide. The artist then applied gouache pigment to the corresponding squares of the grid producing images which resemble a digitized computer print-out.

In places the xeroxed page remains untouched by pigment, and the sonnet numbers, words and phrases show through. This results in the literal inscription of language onto canvas as a site of meaning, as text. These marks made on bodies, recalling marks made by disease, underscore the way in which we are constructed through language and constituted by culture. Numbers are a representational system not unlike language. Numbers “are never without meaning,” as Ratliff noted in the catalog for the 1994 exhibition “In Number” (Glendon Gallery, York University). “We use them to mark holidays, seasons and our ages. They help us keep track of our T-cells or our heart rate.” Numbers also conjure up statistics. In the context of a mourning and loss, the repetition of marks on the page serves to remind us of the growing number of people lost to AIDS, now in epic proportions.

Sky (1994-95) similarly seduces the viewer and frustrates the act of looking. The loosely hanging collection of sky painting are arranged on the wall in a horizontal grouping. Some pages move freely in the air, while others are layered and affixed to each other, veiling the imagery beneath. Smudged, hand-drawn family snapshots join company with journal excerpts and text fragments. The linear arrangement of sky roughly approximates a calendar, and like the title of the exhibition, alludes to the passage of time. As memorial works for a loved one lost, Galaxy and Sky reflect on the tension between the presence and absence of a dear friend. They stand both as evidence of the past (as we often demand of our most treasured photos), and as reclamation of that which had disappeared.

Tree (1995) are small mono-print landscape art made from paintings of trees, printed on gold-edged haiku cards and book pages using the fingertip of the artist as a printing plate. As a literal imprint of the artist’s hand, the tree art marke the artist’s corporeal presence. Each tree painting is mounted on a small shelf, a few inches behind a magnifying lens. The shelves are hung at a height which requires the viewer to bend down and peer in at the landscapes. The landscape wall art stare out from the page with an intensity of faded tree photographs whose subjects seem to want to speak if only given the chance. Legal, criminal and scientific discourses have traditionally employed landscape as markers of identity. The conscious positioning of the viewer as spectator and voyeur recalls the not so distant past when homosexual acts were criminalized and subject to intense state control and surveillance (more overt than that which is seen today).

Personals (1994-95) is a series of portraits made from magazine photographs folded into origami boxes. Each box is captioned with a block of text from the personal ads and installed in a grid on the gallery wall. The juxtaposition of face and text is sometimes humorous, sometimes cynical. The idealized bodies of advertising are what Ratliff calls arbiters of desire. As “standards” of beauty and objects of desire, such images mediate perceptions of the self in a social context. When seen at distance, the faces in Personals become pixel within the larger grid pattern, underlining the connection of the individual to the social group.

“Three hundred and sixty-five pictures” reflexively plays with the indexical nature of the photographic image, an aspect of photography that has been significant over the course of its history. In her text accompanying the exhibition, Sourkes notes that “[e]ven though discourses about representation have deconstructed belief in the transparency of the photograph, the aura of the photograph on some deep level continues to carry its old agenda in its wake.” Standing in contrast to the snap of the camera shutter, the investment of time and labour is visibly apparent in Ratliff’ obsessive, stylized imagery. Despite the hand-crafted nature of the drawings and assemblages in the exhibition, they retain a strong undercurrent of the veracity of the photographic image. “Three hundred and sixty-five pictures” references photographic genres with which we have become intimately familiar; the snapshot, the portrait, the yearbook picture, the family photo. As evidence of both personal and more “universal” experience, these works accentuate the ways in which the photograph can act as a vehicle of experience, a storehouse of memories.

Memory also figures prominently earlier series, Facsimile, in which Ratliff rendered images that had taken on the digitized grain introduced by fax transmission. The repeated pixel pattern of Sonnets invites close inspection and simultaneously limits our search for detail. Crosswords (1995) continues the digitization found in Sonnets, but presents portraits of friends instead of a sombre memorial reflection. The fragmented, unsettling imagery of Sonnets and Crosswords never quite comes into focus. Up close, pixels cascade across the page. At a distance, the details recede, and a united image appears. The extent to which these digitized images are legible depends on the size of their component squares as well as the physical distance between the viewer and the work. Like memory itself, these images gain clarity with distance.

Perhaps, one of the most striking features of “Three hundred and sixty-five pictures” is the way in which the fragment (the local, specific, individual) is intimately connected to the whole (the collective, the cultural). Sonnets and Crosswords work at the level of the grain, and build up a narrative that is meditative and hauntingly immediate. Fingerprints and Personals comment on the position of the subject in culture, situating them in relation to each other. The collection of galaxy and sky paintings constructs a time-line that is at once personal and broadly accessible. “Three hundred and sixty-five pictures” enables us to see the connection between loss and recovery, between past and present, between life and death. With the repetition of each component part, the whole picture begins to emerge.

James Bay Revisited

“Amazon of the North: James Bay Revisited” comprised several shows at once: documentation of Hydro-Quebec’s interventions in Northern Quebec; reiteration of the vulnerability of the Cree people inhabiting the region; and an exhibition of politically-based art intended to bring awareness through formal expressiveness. Considered as a political declaration, the exhibition was both evocative and powerful. German collaborators Rainer Wittenborn and Claus Biegert, artist and journalist, respectively, sought to make a statement that would resonate across time. They shied away from haranguing their audience, most of whom were likely already deeply sympathetic to the plight of the Cree people.

Wittenborn and Biegert have presented such material before. In 1981 the two produced a multimedia exhibition, highly documentary in nature, entitled “James Bay Project: A River Drowned by Water.” The show was based on three months of collecting information of all kinds – images, words, biological specimens and artifacts. Unlike many of the anthropologists and travelers who collected data and then were never seen again, Wittenborn and Biegert ensured that their stay was characterized by regard for their Cree hosts. Indeed, the show opened in the Cree village of Chisasibi before touring throughout the world. In turn, the Cree’s Grand Council invited them back in 1989 to report on recent changes in Northern Quebec.

“James Bay Revisited” is starkly resonant. It remains openly, perhaps naively, divided about its dual allegiance to art and politics. Housed in three interconnecting rooms, the art sometimes felt thin in material terms, even as it argued with eloquence that the hydroelectric project would result in immense cultural suffering and ecological devastation. The conflation of political and aesthetic messages demanded an unusual technique; many of the pieces evidence a kind of visionary didacticism, in which a part stood for a much larger whole.

The first gallery held a large, computer-generated printout of a caribou, meant to symbolize a catastrophe brought about in September 1981 when Hydro-Quebec directed overflow from the Caniapiscau reservoir into the Caniapiscau River. This decision was based on economic expediency, for if the surplus water was released through the power plants, the power would have been impossible to market. According to the wall text, Hydro-Quebec opened the gates for twenty-five days, and the resultant overspill killed ten thousand caribou migrating across the river toward their winter home. The Inuit people of Kuujjuag helped clean up the site, a week-long job that cost close to $600,000. With stunning hubris, Hydro-Quebec announced that the flooding was an act of God. The computer image is based on an actual photograph of the disaster: a caribou buck nearly overwhelmed by white water. The pathos of its repetition across the wall is initially numbing – until one invests the work with historical fact and consequent feeling. In fact, the show’s hortatory and aesthetic power revolved around the quality of the audience’s response – that is, the intellectual and ethical passion brought to the image.

In a show such as this historical awareness dictates everything. As Armin Zweite observed in the 1981 catalogue, “Wittenborn … groups all the cited facts around a context of suffering which, of course, no longer conveys itself directly, [but] rather unfolds itself alone in the consciousness of the viewer.” In other words, the real change, both aesthetic and political, is supposed to occur inside one’s head. This rings true. Wittenborn challenges monumental power with quiet images that stay close, aesthetically and historically, to Cree culture. As a result, often the show’s meaning must be expanded by a particular knowledge of the politics involved.

This was especially evident in the exhibition’s last space, containing large prints of five young Cree women. In their own right, these photographs conferred no innate meaning, except, perhaps, the suggestion of an anthropological study. Once again, exhibition notes proved not only informative but necessary. The young women are future mothers, photographed in a local hospital. It appears that the huge reservoir – flooding more than 4,200 square miles of Cree land – has been responsible, along with acid rain, for the presence of mercury in the food chain. Pregnant women have been warned not to eat fish at all. Wall notes made it clear that the Cree women, presented so impassively, are in fact being tested for mercury levels that could deform their children. With such background material, the photograph of a simple strand of hair assumed poignancy – that is, if one knew that mercury levels can be determined by analyzing hair samples. As in all the works, the image is meant to instruct and move at the same time.

The exhibition’s middle room, holding two mixed-media installations, was devoted to Hydro-Quebec’s effect on marine life. Last Dance for a New Skin had as its primary image a white whale drawn in outline on black fabric. About where its heart would be were two audio speakers emanating the animal’s calls and cries. The catalogue explains that the whales stay close to the rivers after shedding their skin, preferring freshwater to saltwater. If the second part of the James Bay project is completed, the rivers will be diverted and the whales will have to go elsewhere. Such changes would deprive the Inuit living in the area of a regular food supply.

For now, the political subtext of “James Bay Revisited,” the Great Whale Project, is off (there is, however, no guarantee that project will not be resumed). Wittenborn and Biegert must be congratulated for their effective melding of historical data, political perception and aesthetic form. Still, larger questions are unanswered. For the collaborators, working as transmitters of propaganda, there is no difference between the issues and the aesthetic means with which they express them. In a sense, the individual works are meant to stand as discrete events in the thoughts of someone committed to saving the ecology of James Bay. By fostering awareness of the problems facing the Cree, the art is admirable; but it also tends to be visually oversubtle. Viewers must bring much background information to their experience of the art, and it is primarily in light of what they know that their perception is energized. The wall texts and catalogue proved absolutely necessary for the comprehension of the art.

In many ways, Wittenborn and Biegert profoundly politicize what they create by reversing the usual experience of an exhibition – they would like us to think first and then perceive. Yet there has been a cost: their work sometimes possesses a formal isolation only the prose of a historical document might bridge. Involved in collaboration, the two men must have realized how their purposes and methods would sometimes split – that the intuitive communication of the artist and the factbased writing of the journalist would inevitably diverge. As political communication, the show demonstrates an acute awareness of its own intentions. Viewed as art, it becomes slightly less effective, for the filling in of gaps requires rigorous effort. The patience Wittenborn and Biegert ask – evident in the way the viewer needs time to take historical knowledge and use it to bracket and expand a formal perception – suggests new ways in which contemporary art can posit a spontaneous world, wherein our perception and our readiness to act coexist at exactly the same moment.