Figure and Ground: Dynamic Landscape
May 02, 2011
Scarlett Hooft Graafland spent four months of 2007 and 2008 in Igloolik, Nunavut, doing the strangest things: building igloos from blocks of frozen orange lemonade, sketching out palm trees on the barren ice pack with bloody seal entrails, writing non-sequiturs in the snow with bright yellow rope.
Given the shifting and disappearing ice way up there, Graafland’s various gestures were appropriately impermanent. They endure only because of photography. That they happen to be viewable here, big and in-person, we owe to the Contact Photography Festival, so consider this my thank-you card.
A tall, dark-haired Dutch woman with halting English and a big, broad smile, Graafland is one of four artists showing as part of Contact’s anchor exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, which opens today. She explains that her pictures — documentation, really, of wacky interventions in the frozen landscape — had “partly to do with environmental problems, but also the beauty of nature and Inuit culture.”
She singles out one image, of herself perched on a stepladder in the tundra, swathed in a polar bear rug near a distressingly open sea. Against a blackening sky, her bare foot pokes out from the yellowed fur — testing the waters, maybe, that need to be frozen solid to ensure the bears’ survival.
In Inuit culture, she said, artists often engage with transformation from human to animal, but her image’s undercurrent — of a seascape in a constant state of melting, and a dead polar bear clambering vainly to stay above it — is intentionally, absurdly bleak. “It’s not a Greenpeace photo,” she says, smiling. “It has different sides.”
It better. For Graafland and the other artists here, they’re charged with carrying Contact’s central theme. For a festival that sprawls as widely as this one, with 212 exhibitions, the majority of them on open invite to any “artist” with a venue and entrance fee, such themes are best communicated by example.
Called “Figure & Ground: Dynamic Landscape,” the show draws on heady theory for its title, from Gestalt psychology to Canadian media soothsayer Marshall McLuhan’s reading of same. If the thesis seems a little dense for the images you encounter, well, fair enough. So let’s take it a little more literally:
Throughout its relatively brief history, photography’s most dominant tropes have been portraiture (figure) and landscape (ground). Here and now, in our wildly advanced, technologically-driven culture, the obvious synergy to be plied, writes Contact artistic director Bonnie Rubinstein, is “the shifting tensions between humanity and nature.”
Those tensions have been a central part of the art conversation, photography or otherwise, for at least a century. As an anxiety central to the human experience, it can be relied on to never really stop unraveling — not so long as we keep heating up our atmosphere and melting icebergs — so it is as good and relevant a central axis as any.
Graafland’s work addresses the theme most succinctly. Her lemonade iceberg, entrails and a line of caribou horns sinking in the melting ice have the quixotic whimsy of fiddling while Rome burns. Others= artists here choose commentary that ranges from the oblique to the only vaguely relevant.
Olga Chagaoutdinova, a Russian artist who moved to Canada in 2000, presents a suite of images that capture modest, shabby interiors in Russia and Cuba. They depict both a paradise lost and homely attempts to regain it. Ragged houseplants creep out of soda cans and across weathered countertops; a collection of amateur landscape painting is nailed to a wall of flowery wallpaper, faded and filthy.
A picture of a grimy bathtub, perked up by campy stick-on scenes of nature at its cartoonishly sublime best, is my favourite. Framed by mildewed caulking on the dirty white tiles, a whale breaches in a rosy-hued sunset, adjacent to a frothy waterfall. The idea it presents —for most of us, nature is little more than a poorly-recalled fantasy — conveys a difficult truth in the gentlest of ways.
On to the figure side of things, then, with Viviane Sassen’s selection of images, captured in Senegal, Kenya and Tanzania. Sassen is also Dutch but grew up partly in a small village in Kenya before returning to Europe to become a fashion photographer.
Her African practice is mostly portraiture. While the material can be rote cliché to the point of mild embarrassment — it’s hard not to cringe at the notion of a white European fashion photographer finding beauty in nobly impoverished, long-limbed Africans in the ruins of fractured colonialism — the pictures are gorgeous, to be sure.
Sassen surprises exactly once, with a picture of a young boy, his back turned, slumped stiffly in a blue plastic chair. It takes a moment for the mind to parse what the eye delivers, but the boy is tipped over, fallen on the dusty ground; Sassen has simply turned the photo 90 degrees. It’s a good trick, but that’s all it is, not near enough for the freight she’s meant to carry here.
Dayanita Singh’s “Dream Villas” comes closer — closest, in fact — to the ambiguity all good art requires. Trained as a photojournalist, Singh’s pictures focus on the liminal zones between the chaos of nature and the barriers erected to keep it out by the wealthiest in Indian society. That chaos includes both flora and fauna, especially the two-legged kind. Walled compounds ringed with razor wire glow dully in a humid haze, overgrown with towering weeds. Along a mucky road, a woman in a sari marches in the undergrowth, swathed in darkness. Singh’s images capture a sort of World Without Us netherworld — except we’re still hanging on, if barely.
Back to Graafland. “you winter,” reads one rope scribble, inscribed in a jagged ice floe, “let’s get divorced.” It’s an old Inuit saying — a little dark humour needed, no doubt, as salve for the long, much darker days of the cold season. The rub here is that, with shrinking icepack and rising waters, winter seems ready to take it seriously, pack up its permafrost, and vamoose. That’s the kind of dynamic landscape, if I can borrow a phrase, nobody wants to see.
Figure & Ground: Dynamic Landscape opens today and runs to June 5 at MOCCA, 952 Queen Street West.