essay by Amy Gogarty
The exhibition human/nature presents work by four Canadian artists, Lyndal Osborne, Laura Vickerson, Amy Loewan and Liz Ingram, to the Chinese cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong. As I write this, I can not help but wonder what expectations a Chinese audience has for work from Canada, a land so far away, so foreign, yet, historically, so linked with China for several centuries. As I write this, I am aware that my words will be translated into Chinese, that you might be reading this in Chinese. I wonder which aspects of artworks translate across language and culture and which get “lost in the translation.” Of these four artists, one was born in Hong Kong, one in Australia and one spent her youth in India. The fourth was born in Canada, yet she has exhibited her work around the world. If there is a subtext to this show, it is that we no longer know for certain what is familiar, what foreign.
All four of these artists communicate on personal and spiritual levels about the nature of the self, the nature of nature and the importance of integrating the human and natural worlds. What motivates and inspires them as human beings is experienced universally across the planet, as concerns of others become theirs as well. Everyday, as communication systems expand, our world grows smaller. Technology transforms experience for us all, yet it threatens to reduce distance and difference to electrons flickering across a computer screen. Against this danger of dematerialization, these artists make work that is profoundly engaged with the “stuff” of material and natural worlds.
Lyndal Osborne gathers natural materials from agricultural fields surrounding her house and from beaches to which she travels. She sorts and stores her collections of pods, stalks, grasses, stones and nests with obsessive care. Her installations often include lists of materials, which read like wild poetry: “cattail, cloves, Chinese chestnuts, corals, Canada thistle galls, crab apples, chilies. . . .” She fashions these materials into sculptures, twisting, weaving or manipulating the dried materials into evocative, metaphorical shapes that suggest timelessness, regeneration or mnemonic devices that recall her youth in Australia. As she writes in an artist statement (1998), “This way of working acts as a bridge between the memory of my native Australia and present-day collaborations with the flatlands of Alberta.” Many of her works are hardly distinguishable as works, as her interventions are so subtle and respectful of Nature’s processes and seemingly endless variation. For example, Ball (1996-1999) consists of birch twigs fitted together much as a bird might shape a nest, and birds’ nests themselves form the major component to Point of Departure (1996-1999). In this work, some 250 nests crowd together like a sea of grass on a steel table. Each is fitted with a tiny black liner, an addition that is at once comical and abject, in that it underscores the absence of the nest’s original owner. This economy of intervention can be observed in the works on view here, Cultivated Objects and Accretion Tables, both from 2003. In these, taxonomy and display comprise the major strategies, as both consist of grids of nine boxes filled with natural and industrial materials set on tables. Cultivated Objects simulates a shoreline in which various patterns are created by detritus marking the outer edge of the water’s reach. The abundant materials are arranged somewhat casually, evoking an expressive painting. Fresh grass fills the centre, the sharp green contrasting with the more subtle hues of stones, pods, natural and man-made debris. The material in Accretion Tables is arranged more methodically as specimens from an obscure museum. These boxes are divided into smaller compartments, each filled with a sorting of shells, twigs, seed pods, fungi, stones, feathers and other materials. The natural world here is converted into a tableau, its insouciant chaos disciplined and tallied, yet, unlike a scientific presentation, this arrangement evokes marvel. It engages us sensually through the imagination rather than through neutral objectivity. Osborne selects materials specifically for their appeal to the senses of touch and smell as well as sight. By incorporating materials as they approach their final state of decay, she integrates the twin processes of life and death into her art. We ponder the rationale for particular objects being brought together, yet we respond intuitively to the multi-sensory stimulation.
Laura Vickerson similarly works with plant materials, although she prefers the velvety petals of domestic roses to the wild botanicals that so attracts Osborne. For Vickerson, roses connote universal associations: love, death, blood, flesh, passion and memory. Like Osborne, Vickerson gathers, sorts and preserves her resources, interrupting their natural cycle of decay through a form of resurrection. She re-hydrates the petals prior to pinning them onto lengths of filmy organza. In this way, she covers meters and meters of fabric with neat rows of identical petals, creating elegant drapery-like fabrics. Her site-specific installations have been shown in such different venues as an abandoned textile mill in northern Britain and a Byzantine church in Istanbul. Her method of working recalls embroidery and other forms of women’s work directed towards domestic consumption and beautification. It celebrates the sociability and creativity of women’s communities while simultaneously creating contemporary installations of great ambition, integrity and drama. The intensive labour required to produce these sumptuous works recuperates and pays homage to the beauty created by generations of women, as it acknowledges the emotional constraint imposed on those denied more public forms of expression. Rose Red Curtain (1999), the work that will be shown in Shanghai and Hong Kong, was originally created for a bay window in an historic estate home in Ontario. Here, it mediated between a luxurious interior and a rose garden situated beyond the wall. Spiraling tendrils, roots or veins tattoo the upper portion of the organza substrate. The translucency of the fabric admits sunlight, simultaneously embracing the emotional life of the inhabitants within and the teeming life of the garden outside. The lower portion of the curtain flares out across the floor, resting heavily like the dense velvet curtains that once decorated the room. A second work--to be shown in Canada--William’s Carnations (2001), similarly assumes the form of a curtain, yet this one is patterned with two shades of red petals: maroon and ruby. The pattern derives from a William Morris design, cleverly doubling the floral pattern with flower petals. Morris was renowned for endorsing motifs based in nature and traditional craft as safeguards against the soul-destroying uniformity of industrial production. In this way, the metaphor comes full circle: Vickerson’s petal works explore our deep emotional attachment to nature as manifested in our attempts to design and master it. We seek solace in art forms based in nature, which we have so often displaced or destroyed. Ultimately, we must come to realize we, like roses, are manifestations of the natural world.
Concern for harmony with nature as well as with our fellow human beings motivates the woven rice paper tapestries of Amy Loewan. Loewan was born in Hong Kong at the end of the Second World War. She was given the Chinese name, Wai-Ping. Wai, meaning “gift,” and Ping, from the Chinese character for “peace,” was an appropriate name for a child born just as peace was finally declared. She came to North America at the age of 19 to pursue a degree in occupational therapy. She returned briefly to Hong Kong and later moved to Canada, where she has lived for the past 20 years. Active promotion of peace lay behind the creation of Mandala 2 (1998), which was awarded first prize in a national competition commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This recognition was very important to her as an artist, as it encouraged her to continue the innovative rice paper weaving she initiated with this work. The work installed here, A Peace Project, furthers Loewan’s integration of ethics, compassion, healing and respect for human dignity, all values she brought to her new work as an artist from her health care career. This large-scale work consists of eight floor-to-ceiling panels. Computer-generated texts from over 30 world languages were printed and then pasted onto folded strips of rice paper. The artist wove the strips brocade-style to reveal and conceal words within an intricate surface pattern. Each word refers to qualities she considers essential to fostering peace and human dignity in the world: compassion, kindness, respect, understanding, patience, tolerance, gentleness and forgiveness. The materials and technique reflect Loewan’s Chinese heritage of calligraphy and woven containers, but the multiple languages reflect Canada’s essential multiculturalism. The words flow from top to bottom, from left to right and right to left according to the rules of the individual language to produce a polyphonic murmuring of voices. From countless small gestures and limited means, Loewan has created something universal that addresses world concerns. As Joanne Marion, Curator of the Medicine Hat Museum and Art Gallery has written:
Weaving is an almost universal method of binding, of creating something larger from smaller components, of bringing resilience and strength to impermanent materials. Something woven can easily travel, can be nomadic, transported, folded, rolled. It . . . speaks of ingenuity, of something from nothing, of the modest made to serve.
In addition to the printed words, Loewan has drawn on the surface with charcoal and marked some with large circles or mandalas, ancient symbols of eastern wisdom. Together, the large hangings create an internal architecture or oasis of quiet and reflection. Like Vickerson, Loewan invests significant labour into her work. Labour transformed through a sort of meditative attentiveness brings discipline and order to the chaos of random voices and language. Loewan uses unassuming, ephemeral materials and techniques associated with domesticity and women’s work to create effective and lasting monuments to peace.
If the work of the first three artists can be characterized as additive, comprising the manipulating, pinning or weaving together of multiple components, Liz Ingram’s work appears, by contrast, hermetic, technological and self-contained. She presents back-lit photo-based transparencies, which draw subversively on advertising to address the most natural and immediate of subjects: water, “like you’ve never seen before.” Water serves as a perfect vehicle for representing her many concerns. In its physical structure, it shifts between solid, liquid and gaseous states; as a symbol, it hearkens back to ancient Greece as one of the four fundamental elements, and, as a biological resource, it is essential to life. Her curved light boxes derive from a single series, Sacred Stream (I-V) (2001). She brings years of experience as a printmaker to bear on her manipulation of the photographic images, which she produced using her own body, a bathtub, an open shutter and a flashing light. Multiple exposures and aleatory effects of light create tableaux of great intricacy and movement. The decision to layer and back-light these images arose from her practice of viewing transparencies against a light table while designing multiple-plate prints. The lighting relates them to the computer screen, yet these images are produced almost in mute protest against the depersonalizing cultural effect of ubiquitous, computer-generated advertising. Ingram spent much of her youth in India, where extremes of poverty contrasted with heightened sensuality, spiritual wealth and respect for natural resources. She credits this experience for developing her interest in “bodily intelligence,” transitional states, environmental resources and intimacy. In these images, female hands connote the body of the maker; they embrace and caress the shimmering water with unbridled sensuality. As the water pulses, silver bubbles blur the boundary of limb and liquid, creating a liminal space of fusion. Ingram brings together two themes that have obsessed her as an artist--the body and water--to create a poetic metaphor for transience, vulnerability and preciousness. It is her on-going concern for the balance between the human and natural world, the embodied self and spirit that links this work to others in the exhibition.
These four artists can be said to typify Canadian art in that they all make work that is confident, personal, rich in concept and highly skilled in execution. Clearly, their work is not uniform in its visual appearance, nor does it ascribe to any particular style or mode of expression. What makes their work representative of this region is the artists’ commitment to values of human dignity, respect for the environment, visual economy and a willingness to engage viewers in a shared experience. Each artist brings her own experience of self and world to create works expressive of her understanding of what it means to be human and her responsibility as an artist to nature.