Rita McKeough

Rita McKeough’s recent installation at the Walter Phillips Gallery at the Banff Centre is a complex and compelling development in this formidable artist’s career; it reproduces the urgency of the ecological crisis by situating us among the resistance forces in a guerrilla war. McKeough’s multimedia work has often explored our relation to plants and animals, and now recent developments in posthumanist thought have caught up with her. In particular, philosophers of “plant being” such as Michael Marder and Patricía Vieira work to challenge the traditional Western view of plants, rooted from Aristotle, as the lowest form of life, lacking mobility, sensation and communication. Critical plant studies parallel recent discoveries by botanists that plants do in fact communicate with each other, they sense and respond to things in their environment, and they do move, albeit on a different time-scale from humans. McKeough’s earlier work often anticipated these scientific discoveries. In the performance-based work Long Haul, 2006, for example, McKeough wandered the streets of Toronto with a blue spruce named Bee, who travelled in a motorized planter. Together they gathered bits of fallen vegetable matter, such as twigs and leaves, and attached sound chips to them, enabling them to speak: in McKeough’s world, plants do move and communicate. Ignoring the traditional hierarchies of creation, she characterized her relation to the moving tree as one of those collaborations.

darkness is as deep as the darkness is begins with an assembly of metre-high roses singing “You Are My Sunshine.” Humour is a disarming strategy McKeough often employs, and there is something especially comic about giant roses singing this ballad of emotional dependency. For one thing, it literalizes the metaphor: plants do indeed need sunshine to live. But the emotional relation overlays and reverses a more fundamental energetic circuit: life on this planet depends upon plants converting sunshine into chemical energy. These twinned (but reversed) plant/human relationships point to an ethical question: What do we owe plants that make our survival possible? “Come closer. Please help us,” whisper the roses.

Rita McKeough, installation view, “darkness is as deep as the darkness is,” 2020, Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Donald Lee.

The mood darkens in the second part of the installation. Here, in what feels like an underground bunker, we find rows of little camp cots, on which lie ferns and pine cones. On the walls are projections of wild animals; on a soundtrack we hear a conversation between a bear and a cranberry bush, talking urgently in terms that evoke guerrilla warfare about the ongoing destruction by machines of the land above.

The camp cot set-up echoes an earlier installation, tender, 2015, which featured wieners in little hospital beds watching projections of cows eating grass. tender offered us the bleakly funny spectacle of hot dogs dreaming of getting better and returning to life in the pasture. Here, the rehabilitation of the ferns suggests battle wounds: their roots have been injured by the machines above. More broadly, the camp hospital signals a relationship of care, which again calls us to an ethics. While we may not owe particular plants—cut ferns, for example, or the grains that we eat—a duty of care, we surely owe the plant kingdom something.

The third and largest part of the installation is unambiguously dark. Twenty towers stand in a grid pattern. Each tower has a platform at about eye level, on which are the same sword ferns from the previous section. No longer underground in a bunker, here we are emerging from the earth, our heads at dirt level. Through the opening in the centre of each platform rises a large, threatening object that could be a claw, a thorn, or a horn: some kind of animal or vegetal weapon. The object is mounted on a hydraulic pedestal that periodically lifts and falls. The movements are coordinated, so that we have a sense of collective action, a literal uprising.

These towers are a strange mix of the organic and mechanistic. The combination aligns with the longstanding Western view of plants (and, in Descartes’s view, animals) as essentially machines, devoid of souls and thus not worthy of ethical consideration. From a different perspective it echoes the Aristotelian view of plant growth as monstrous and machine-like in its limitless growth (what philosophers vividly call “bad infinity”), which can surface in nightmare scenarios of sprawling plants that take over the world, or the atavistic fear of the forest as a dark and dangerous place.

At the far end of the room, on top of a platform (in fact, on the roof of the bunker), is a group of miniature construction cranes. Their size and placement make them a looming threat in the distance; we are situated with the ferns and the thorns. Given the Alberta context of the installation, the cranes stand as a metonymy for all those machines that dig into the earth, whether for construction or resource extraction. The audio conjures a landscape of fear and pain, with a mournful cello playing and a voice that repeatedly sings “they take everything.” A sword fern protests against the machines “that dig and hammer and pull at our roots.” What is left behind is the comic voice of the singing roses. Here, both the grief and the threat are real: we have disturbed an ancient life force and we will now pay the price.

The idea of a primordial plant-god, claws rising from the depths to avenge the sins of humans, is a wild revenge fantasy, not too far removed from stories where the crime of the protagonist summons a monster into being. A monster, according to its etymology, is a warning. But as with the roses, there is a deeper circuit of meaning, once again connected to energy; because in fact there is an ancient plant spirit in the depths, in the form of hydrocarbons (made, to a great extent, from the ancestors of the sword ferns), that we are indeed calling up from the earth, and which is indeed about to kill us. McKeough urges us to listen to the warning and to reimagine a relationship of care with our fellow earthlings. ❚

“darkness is as deep as the darkness is” was exhibited at Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff, AB, from February 1 to March 17, and September 26 to November 13, 2021.

James Ellis is a professor of English and director of the Calgary Institute for the Humanities at the University of Calgary. He has written widely on literature, art and film.