The day I went to visit Graeme Patterson’s exhibition “Strange Birds” was marked by a dreamlike and melancholic encounter. After entering the Fine Arts Building on Grenfell University campus, I went to look out over the city before seeing the show. A large window and sliding glass door connected to a wide viewing deck, normally fully vacant, revealed in the left-most corner a small American goldfinch, lying peacefully on its side, feathers fully intact. I knew that it must be dead and wondered what might have happened. It wasn’t close to the window and there was no sign of attack. It appeared, instead, to have fallen from the sky to its decided final resting place. It was beautiful and haunting. It was strange.
Entering the gallery, then, provided a balm to this sad sight, like leaning on a trusted friend who’s been through it. In the first room, dim light gave contrast for a full back-wall projection of dreamy animation at once lush and spare. Projected onto the wall was a series of scenes set in Sackville, guided along by a gentle, ambient, musical backdrop of soft orchestral swells. While many of these scenes are contained by the realistic setting of a pastoral landscape replete with wind turbines and cars rushing by on the distant highway, what often catapults them away from reality are the multi-projections of a whimsical figure—Graeme himself, dressed like a disco party bird, lanky and peacocking in a black and yellow sequined bodysuit, sway-dancing in slow motion from side to side in a way that could be perceived as cringe or touching (or both), depending on your mood. In many of these scenes, the bird multiplies in the same shot, overlaying bodies that perform subtle gestural movements, varying from slow dancing to incredulous arm rubbing, as some of the birds look around seemingly wondering whose dream they’re occupying and how they got there.
Indeed, the question of dreamy revelry in relation to reality is one that expands through the viewer’s engagement with this Wes Andersonian multi-media exhibition, which incorporates installation, sculpture, scale model, frame-by-frame animation, robotics and music. This particular exhibit was spaced among three rooms, the first of which also contained three large dioramas propped up by big chunks of an actual tree, a callback to the tree that fell onto Patterson’s house and caused some damage during the pandemic.
The first diorama is Graeme’s house in Sackville. Questions emerge regarding the natural world. What happens when the outside makes its way in? The house, uncanny in its structural realism, is lit from the inside, where a warm glow flickers on and off to reveal snapshot-like scenes of each room, seen through the windows. The doors to the house remain open, reflecting a decided vulnerability. These flashing lights make you look differently from the way you might if the light held steady, also recalling the nostalgic quality of snapshots. Gestural sculptures of the strange bird appear in many of the rooms, which otherwise contain only spartan furnishings of tables, chairs, beds and lamps, all rendered with such detail and accuracy that nothing other than size moves you away from their photorealism. In the house, the only other objects you see are scattered art supplies: tubes of paint laid messily beside a sink, a tripod set up with a camera in the attic placed in front of our strange bird, who stands, mid-pose, ready to be captured in image. In some rooms, a fox languishes on the floor in place of the bird. While the flickering lights summon the jagged calculation of unconscious perception, they also bring to mind the vulnerable penetrability of the house in relation to the natural world, recalling the precarity of electrical hard-wiring in old homes. Is it a house threatened by a bad storm, veering towards pitch darkness as the lights stop working, or is it the start of a disco, as lights emerge in a space long dormant? Is it both?
Another diorama, this one of a transport truck, perches atop a stump of wood, as if floating. This piece includes a set of headphones that play music that sounds like the Law and Order theme but dreamier, weirder and warbling. As you peer inside the open back of the truck, a screen reveals our lanky birdlike protagonist dancing, multiplying (as usual) by two or three. The prominent dancing bird here maintains a steady and free-flowing series of slow kinetic gestures, while the figures appearing at his left and right seem less spirited, as if they are working to shake off or move through grief and embody the spirit of the identical figure in the centre.
The third diorama is a billboard covered by tarps. Behind the tarped billboard is a series of our bird protagonist moving through a labyrinth-like system of screens. Together these artworks reflect the foreboding reality of pandemic isolation, with the hopeful addition of hidden parties and vibey backlit structures, all of which balance a felt melancholy by reminding viewers that creativity and whimsy can help enliven deserted spaces. The suggestion that a secret dance party is possible in the quietest, most unexpected of places offers a lateral comfort to some of the other heavier themes in this work that point to pandemic-related isolation in dying rural communities, capitalistic homogenization and its threat to small industry, and ecological disaster.
The integration of digital and analogue forms of artmaking is particularly striking in “Strange Birds.” One room enables viewers to put on a VR headset and roam through digitized versions of all the rooms in the diorama house, each detail rendered in uncanny similarity. Here, the viewer becomes the subject, and immersion from a viewer’s perspective is taken to new, fantastical heights. Models of both bird costumes, otherwise rendered only digitally, take the stage in the middle of the gallery, in all of their handmade, painstaking detail. Patterson showcases process for a show that undeniably took hundreds, if not thousands, of hours to make, and the result is mystifying. I left feeling like I’d been invited to a secret party so trancelike that it made me lose track of time entirely, the edges of my day awash in a sparkling haze long afterwards. ❚
“Strange Birds” was exhibited at Grenfell Art Gallery, Corner Brook, from May 26, 2023, to August 4, 2023.
Aley Waterman is a creative writer and English professor from and living in Corner Brook, Newfoundland. Her first novel, Mudflowers, was published by the Dundurn Press literary imprint Rare Machines in September 2023.