“Every work of art is a claim. It makes a claim on something, it claims to be something, whether it’s an object or an illusion,” says art historian and curator Dr. Justin McGrail as he explains the title of Nathan and Cedric Bomford’s current exhibition at VIU’s Nanaimo Art Gallery.
The Claim is the latest collaboration of the two brothers, whose internationally recognized work mostly involves photography and installation. In this project, they explore Vancouver Island’s landscape and bring their findings to the gallery for us to take our own stand on the local legacy of colonialism, prospecting, industrialization of nature, and owning space.
The exhibition came together in various stages under the guidance of three different curators (Gregory Ball, Ellen McCluskey, and Justin McGrail). The idea and its execution evolved over the course of the four years it was in conception.
According to Cedric and Nathan Bomford, The Claim is their response to “the contemporary moment when everything is available for extraction.”
“You are not only able to, but also encouraged to take what’s around us,” Cedric says. “You’re even expected to do that.”
The exhibition is tied together with the theme of mining, land marking, and the contrast of natural and man-made patterns while addressing the issues of property, demarcation, land use, and other aspects of the complex act of claiming space. It also studies the multilayered meaning of the term’s language and code.
The artists begin the discourse by constructing a slightly distorted, but still functional, version of a pithead on the gallery’s exterior deck.
“We’re staking a claim on our patch of land,” says Cedric, explaining that they take the utilitarian language of construction and turn it into an interactive sculpture.
A solid background in carpentry allows the Bomfords to build a stable, safe construction, but also to experiment with the balance between practicality and the artistic, more expressive nature of the installation.
“There is a sense of discovery,” McGrail says. “The work feels open-ended, but also very imaginative in the way they’ve chosen to create the structure.”
The shallow, angled cut of the stairs leading to the pithead, for example, play with the viewer’s perception. The diagonal lines and slightly distorted perspective create an illusion of the tower being taller and further away.
Bomford’s play on scale and sense of disorientation continues in the viewer’s interaction with the piece.
“We like to make people aware of their surroundings and pay attention to the piece as soon as they physically enter it,” Cedric says.
“We want them to feel like the world has changed,” adds Nathan.
The brothers emphasize working without a clear plan and instead developing the initial idea during the construction.
“We are thinking through building,” Nathan says about the process. They frame the work in their mind, but create and alter as they go along. Nathan says wood is a medium they understand and feel comfortable with, but they want to avoid turning the creative process into a pre-planned task.
“We know the construction practices to make sure [the pithead] is safe, but it’s not code. There is no code in art,” Cedric says, suggesting that the mineshaft becomes the gateway to the language of art.
“We built the mine shaft and dug,” he says. “What we found is inside the gallery.”
The exhibition inside shows the result of the artists’ search in the woods.
The photographs, divided into five thematic groups, and accompanied by a found object installation and sound recording, draw us closer to the mining area and convey the distortion of space and matter by, as McGrail notes, “bringing the outside in.”
Three black and white and two color photos taken during the pithead original assembly on Bowen Island document the process of construction and mining. Another three images of a dusty logging road seem to capture the fleeting moment of a car passing by, evoking the sense of exploring throughout different historical periods.
“It takes me back to the time when these gravel roads were the main means of transportation in this area,” viewer Karen Birch comments.
The central, large scale photograph of an undeveloped forest invites us to enter the not yet claimed space through our own imagination, before the series of eight images captures ribbon-marked trees, and starts a sequence of land-labeling in progress. McGrail says these photographs remind us of how our experience of nature changes as soon we see one of those striking, synthetic bits of ribbon.
“We could be anywhere out there in the forest,” he says, “but once we see evidence of the claim, it immediately brings us back into the social setting. All around [Vancouver Island] people are staking claims. They claim space, they claim land, they claim resources. The interesting thing about this process is the way we encounter it.”
That is, according to Bomfords, the idea behind the sequence. They believe the ribbons convey a particular code of location.
“It is a language created and understood by a few people telling one another where the space is, to demarcate the edges of our boundaries that is their claim,” says Nathan, adding that it is, similarly to the construction code, understood only by people who are involved and invested in it. He adds, however, that the language is simple when studied closely.
“It’s the same with art,” he says. “Most people don’t get contemporary or modern art, because they may not know the language.”
Cedric Bomford admits the influence of German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, and their centrally composed, large format shots.
“There’s something about their way of looking I found interesting, he says. “The method of approaching the world, building typography of form and utility. They gave us structure for looking at the world beyond ‘this is beautiful or awful.’ Their work was about removing the spectacle from the image.”
In the found object installation, Bomfords assembled a sculptural group of water jugs, wood logs, timber, tar, a sign, and smaller natural elements in order to continue the theme of the contrast and interaction of nature and industry, or rawness and machine-made form. As the artists say, all the material is the product of their own mining, and its essence has been transformed in the process.
They present the wood, clean cut, arranged, and straightened, along with the water extracted from the ground and measured by the gallon, as industrialized commodities. A loop of industrial noises on a tape housed inside the sculpture runs in regular intervals, enhancing the sense of disturbance and ongoing colonization of nature. McGrail believes that “this place is still very much in the colonial world, [and] every prospector is working as part of it.”
“The artists are a bit like our prospectors here,” he says. “They’re out there on their own, taking the risk, and it may or may not yield anything. It reflects in the show, even though it is very well-conceived and developed over years. But it is something that all artists do—take risks, stake a claim on something, some new ground. They are here to ask us to generate that question, and how it makes us feel. I think each of us has a different reaction, whether we think of it in terms of development, whether it’s someone’s right, or if it is terrible and there should be a park.
“Those plastic ribbons and the photographs put us in the place to ask those questions.”
The Claim will be open for contemplation until January 11, 2014.
For more information about the exhibition and the artists, attend the exhibition or visit the Nanaimo Art Gallery website.