“Sense of Site”

Re-presenting performance and site-specific art in galleries poses questions for audiences to which there are no easy answers. Is “performance documentation” even art, for instance, or just what its name implies—a document? If something is site-specific, can it exist, as art at least, away from that site? And, anyway, just how much time and effort should be put to preserving something conceived and executed as ephemeral?

“A Sense of Site,” a recent exhibition at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia curated by David Diviney, brought these questions, and more, centre stage. Diviney was one of the curators of the exhibition “Landmarks 2017/Repères 2017,” a project set in and around several national parks and historical sites across Canada, featuring work by Michael Belmore, Rebecca Belmore, Chris Clarke and Bo Yeung, Raphaëlle de Groot, Jeneen Frei Njootli, Maureen Gruben, Ursula Johnson, Cheryl L’Hirondelle and Camille Turner, Douglas Scholes, and Jin-me Yoon. The stated aim of “Landmarks 2017/Repères 2017” was to present projects that invited “people to creatively explore and deepen their connection to the land.” The various projects addressed issues such as Indigenous title, systemic racism, the limits of national identity stories and how individuals mark their presence in the landscape.

Maureen Gruben, Stitching My Landscape, 2017, video still, colour, sound, 6:10 minutes. Courtesy the artist.

At the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, the 12 artists took different approaches to presenting versions of their site-specific projects. Some relied on documentation of their performances, along with objects that were used in the performances themselves; some presented new works that were based in the ideas explored in their previous works; and others relied on a mix of these strategies.

Michael Belmore, Ursula Johnson and Douglas Scholes presented new but related works, and Jin-me Yoon presented a series of photographs taken as part of her residency at Pacific Rim National Park. Maureen Gruben, Jeneen Frei Njootli, Cheryl L’Hirondelle and Camille Turner, and Chris Clarke and Bo Yeung presented videos that documented the performances that were part of their residencies. Raphaëlle de Groot and Rebecca Belmore combined documentation with works reflecting the concerns of their site-specific projects.

The work most removed from its source in this exhibition is Ursula Johnson’s, comprised of three framed works hanging on a wallpaper- covered wall. The framed works consist of two screen prints and a framed and matted section of the same wallpaper, and all the works are based on an image Johnson developed for her “Landmarks” project, (re)al-location. The foliage pattern she developed was printed on fabric and used to clothe participants in her performance in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, The Festival of Stewards. There, the pattern, based on the foliage native to her home area of Cape Breton and printed in colours used in traditional Mi’kmaq design, was integrated into the original setting and context. In the gallery, however, the framed works act as disruptive elements on the patterned wall—signifiers of the distancing created by galleries and the art market.

Raphaëlle de Groot spent a year living in the Côte-Nord region of Quebec, in and around the Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve. She travelled across the region, gathering stories from residents, as well as objects collected from the landscape, that she integrated into a series of sculptures and performances. The film documenting this process is included in “A Sense of Site.” Scattered on the floor in front of the seating area where the film could be watched was a varied collection of objects that looked like the detritus at the tide line on an ocean shore. Closer inspection revealed that while much of what you saw was exactly that, others were screen-printed fabric, depicting shells, jellyfish, seaweed and other flotsam and jetsam, as well as images of the skyline, the shore itself and cliffs and hills bordering the sea. Subtly, de Groot prompts us to pay attention to the world around us.

Maureen Gruben’s performance project Stitching My Landscape is captured in a video that documents the process she went through to create her work, which, given its geographic remoteness, would have been seen only by people in the immediate vicinity of Tuktoyaktuk. On the sea ice of the Beaufort Sea, and adjacent to the Ibyuq Pingo (the tallest of the unique ice-filled hills that have served as landmarks for Inuvialuit travellers for millennia), Gruben drilled holes in the sea ice to make anchor points for her brilliantly red broadcloth “stitches,” adding a decorative element to the stark white sea of ice. The work’s environmental concerns, given the fragility of Arctic sea ice and the environmental catastrophe looming as a result, are clearly and poignantly articulated.

Jin-me Yoon, Long View, 2017, 6 C-prints, edition of 5, 83.8 x 128.2 centimetres. Courtesy the artist.

Another northern perspective is provided in Jeneen Frei Njootli’s Being Skidoo. The video shows the process of making regalia for snowmobiles. Working collaboratively with participants at a land-based learning camp near Vuntut National Park in the Yukon, Frei Njootli’s work adapts traditional Gwitchin blanket patterns used for sled dogs, honouring and acknowledging the snow machines as necessary “partners in travel” for northern communities.

There were multiple videos in the exhibition, all presented with headphones so that the sound wouldn’t bleed from one piece to the next. The exception was Rebecca Belmore’s Wave Sound. A long copper cone sat on the floor of the gallery, its surface studded with the hammer marks of its making. On the wall was a photograph of a cliff with another large cone form installed near its edge. For “Landmarks 2017/Repères 2017” Belmore installed four of her Wave Sound sculptures in four national parks: Banff, Pukaskwa, Georgian Bay, and Gros Morne. Each sculpture gathered the ambient noise of each location and amplified them. In the gallery sounds recorded from these locations played softly, a low murmuring. The sound of wind and ocean acted almost subliminally— it takes an act of concentation to isolate it from the noise you make just moving through the gallery. Coupled with the photographs of the various sites, Belmore’s work succeeds in both bringing the sense of the land inside and projecting the viewer out of themselves, and out of the gallery. Again, we are reminded to pay attention.

“A Sense of Site” doesn’t answer questions about re-presenting the ephemeral and the site-specific; rather, it poses more. It works as a companion to the original project, much as a catalogue would, and, as a catalogue does, it provides a record of the project. Here, though, that record is less documentary and more discursive, not a recording of a story but the continuation of one, or many. ❚

“A Sense of Site” was exhibited at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax, NS, from February 9 to May 12, 2019.

Ray Cronin is the author of six books on Canadian art, the arts blogger for Halifax Magazine, and the editor- in-chief of Billie: Visual Culture Atlantic. He lives in Nova Scotia.

Volume 38, Number 3: Painting

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #151, published September 2019.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.