Tristram Lansdowne, The Nurse, 2011, watercolour on paper, 40 x 30.5 inches. From the collection of Mark Zadorozny, Toronto. Image courtesy of the artist.
We tend to section nature into neat grids with roads and fences. We wrap it up into little parcels of parks surrounded by pavement. Forests are cleared for farms. This interaction between the natural and the constructed is the subject of Ecotopia, a diverse collection of multimedia artwork currently making its final appearance in Saskatoon after showing in Ontario and Alberta in 2013.
Losing Ground, a video by Québécois photographer Isabelle Hayeur, shows how that interaction usually goes: trees are cleared for cookie-cutter suburban houses. As the great engine of civilization eats away at the wild, little bits of the natural world are replanted in its wake; we don’t like to be too far removed from the green and growing. Tang Factory 1 by Lisa Sanditz shows a vertical, high-density cityscape with a few sparse trees among the metal and glass. We plant little gardens and rows of trees in our cities and keep an uneasy eye on these tamed varieties, pruning and weeding and mowing.
The Québec-based trio BGL gives a brutally literal illustration of how we try to rebuild a sanitized version of what grew before we showed up. They’ve created a mock tree out of machine-cut lumber and plastic leaves. The tree’s fruit is a chainsaw clamped to the end of a limb. We’re invited to watch it serenely rotate and decide if, by the skill of human hands, this example of reconstructed nature has been imbued with life like its namesake, Pinocchio.
Another clever piece by Saskatoon artist Dagmara Genda shows that our folly extends far from our cities and into national and provincial parks. Panorama consists of a raised wooden platform and a circular painting that surrounds the elevated viewer. The painting’s natural elements – mountains, trees and wildlife – are disordered and wild, but running throughout the painting are wooden platforms and paths. As Ecotopia curator Amanda Cachia explains, we’re instructed to walk out on a platform and told to look at particular panoramas through a particular frame.
But the exhibition is not an entirely one-sided interaction. The planet is always pushing back at the thin layers of concrete we pour, threatening to stab through with blades of grass. Several pieces in Ecotopia look at decay and dereliction – graffiti, weeds, broken sidewalks, ruined buildings. At the top of Tristram Lansdowne’s watercolour, Envelope, a tree erupts from a building and looks a lot more like a symbol of triumphant reclamation.
The title of the exhibit is coy about whether we’re in for a utopia or dystopia. Many of the pieces in Ecotopia are incisive about nature management in North America, but they offer little in the way of an original, imaginative vision of the future. If this is a prediction of a future that is nothing more than a somewhat seedier present, then this exhibit is a terribly depressing dystopian statement.
Ecotopia, Kenderdine Gallery, uSaskatchewan, January 24 to May 7, 2014
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