Gleaners, a new exhibition hosted by the downtown branch of Nanaimo Art Gallery, brings together local and international artworks with the unifying theme of “gleaning” ignored ideas, discarded objects, or commonly overlooked parts of histories or cultures. Curator Jesse Birch chose artworks from across the genre spectrum—video, photography, needlework, storytelling, performance, installation, assemblage, and found objects. The exhibition concept was inspired by “Gleaners,” Jean Francois Millet’s painting from 1857, in which peasants pick forgotten crops from a harvested field. A representation of the painting, a needlework of the same name by Mary Atkinson, is the “spirit work” of the exhibition.
Surrealism, with its practice of finding objects, reassembling them, and attributing to them a new meaning and value, also informed the concept. But to Birch, the main source of inspiration lays right here. “Nanaimo is an environment of sharing—on an organizational level as well as personal.” He points to the NAG’s collaboration with Nanaimo Foodshare during the exhibition. “This is a community of gleaners. People here really like gathering and sharing.”
The exhibition begins with a mixed media installation by Norwegian artist Joar Nango who assembled a tape player, headphones, and a supply of mix tapes with Sami hip hop music into a “distribution outlet” on the gallery’s wall. The work symbolizes the methodology of improvisation—both technological, artistic, and cultural. Sami are the indigenous people living a traditional nomadic life in the north of Norway.
“Being nomadic in the north, where it’s really difficult to get material, the Sami tend to improvise with whatever they have on hand,” Birch says.
The mix tapes carry a collection of 22 songs by different rappers in their indigenous languages.
“Some are the last speakers of their respective language,” Birch says. The mix tape is a medium that preserves the history on multiple levels throughout time and technology, but it is also a medium of sharing, and not necessarily legal distribution, of samples.
Distributing the voices on the mix tape internationally is therefore a political gesture of “looming around this illegal territory and restrictions put on hip hop music, and the distribution of this subculture covertly,” Birch says.
The installation itself is a microcosmic representation of the larger mechanism of an underground culture. The tapes are available by donation. “The only catch is you have to have a tape player,” Birch says, adding that the tape has been following him on his car trips for a year.
Vancouver-based artist Sean Alward contributes to the exhibition with two works of conceptual character. First, a series of plant photographs called “Salal (Mouth of the Columbia River, April 1825)” presents a unique novel photography technique that uses plant chlorophyl printed on paper. In this process, chlorophyl, a photosensitive emulsion, replaces silver or platinum used as emulsions in traditional photography.
Alward used the technique to produce eight enlargements (scans of the original and fugitive prints which are kept in a dark room) to portray salal plants at a range varying from lifesize shots to macro closeups. The prints, loosely attached to the wall and seemigly coming off it, are meant to mimic the movement of leaves on a plant, while the texture of the print surface evokes the tactile quality of both nature and technology.
“It’s about touching,” Alward explains the three levels of contact the work explores. First is technological—the photographs are made through contact print. We can see the second, physical touch, on some of the photographs which capture the artist’s hand holding the plant in front of the lens. The last level, “the colonial contact,” is the conceptual core of the series. Alward draws the idea on a diary entry of a Scottish botanist David Douglas who explored the flora of British Columbia. Salal was the first thing he touched upon stepping off the boat in 1825, which, in a historical analogy, was the exact same time photography was being invented in France.
In the second work, “Screen,” Alward further explores the contact of mankind with its history. In 2014, the artist joined a team of graduate archaeology and ecology students to document their mission to Calvert Island to explore a midden site that is closed to public.
“You can find the general area on a map, he says. “But if you went there on a boat, trying to find exactly where it is would be difficult. It doesn’t even have a name.”
Alward’s colour photograph printed in canvas captures two archaeologists completing a “dig” in the ocean near Calvert Island, on a site where ancient peoples harvested shellfish. They are pulling out a screen box used for picking artifacts from the sea bottom.
“They’re sifting ancient garbage full of artifacts. They’re looking, screening, trying to pull out information. They’re trying to conjure a picture of what life was like 6000 years ago,” Alward says.
The figures, with their backs to us, are looking at the box over which Alward painted a bright green field as a reference to Chroma Key, a green screen used as a backdrop for special effects and digitally inserted images in television or film production.
“It’s about conjuring an image,” he explains the threefold symbolism connecting the archaeologists, the green screen, and the artist. “My ideal images are pictures. They’re trying to conjure one kind of picture in their way, I’m dealing with images and pictures in another way, and the analogy I saw in this photograph between what they and I are doing is thinking about screens. It is a way of substituting something that is not there giving space to our imagination and speculations.”
A similarly scientific approach to the idea of gleaning can be found in Randy Lee Cutler’s installations and a video from a body of work called “Salt Walks” (2013-ongoing). A Vancouver-based writer, artist, and professor at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Cutler experiments with new media and performance to explore the relationships between art, gender, science, and technology.
“Salt Walks” is a study of salt as a primordial substance and essential element in nature as well as a versatile material in local cultures. The two vitrines show the mineral in relation to sea life (represented by barnacles, a crystal used by Vikings as a navigation tool, and smoked salt) and in alchemy, where salt played an important role as a rudimentary substance in various magicbordering experiments. Cutler designed this part of the work as an introduction to an upcoming performance, and while the video documentary talks about salt’s social, cultural, economic, and historical impact on everyday life in a specific location (Vancouver’s Chinatown), the artist will be giving a similar talk about salt’s significance in the Nanaimo area on the “Salt Walks” tour on April 19.
Another work dedicated to local matters is Back To Gabriola, a short documentary film by Gabriola Island-based filmmaker Steven Davies who revisits Canadian involvement in the two World Wars from the perspective of First Nations veterans.
Davies, Coast Salish on his paternal side, draws on the testimonies of a number of his relatives, volunteers from the wars, and recognizes the lesser-known history and forgotten stories of First Nations participation in combat.
“My ancestors over three generations were native veterans from the coast,” he says.“It’s time for me to not only honour my family but all First Nations veterans. There are more aboriginal volunteers for all the wars than any other community in Canada. That’s a story people need to know and understand—that the first peoples were signing up to protect the land here.”
Davies has been exploring the topic through working on a feature format, and while the feature length format is currently in development, he completed a shorter version of the documentary specially for Gleaners.
“There have been a lot of sensitivities with this film that I decided not to include, a lot of personal aspects and experiences my family had,” he explains.
Dutch artist Joost Conijn brings more global perspective on gleaning for the forgotten or unheeded from his journey across eastern Europe in a documentary film Haut Auto/Wood Car (2012). Having a solid artistic background in creating homemade forms of transportation (including building a plane he ended up flying), Conijn documents his adventure driving a wooden car, which is also fueled by wood, through the back country of eastern Europe. The film depicts numerous little episodes with different local communities with whom the artist seems to connect with through the wooden automobile. None of the scenes are translated and subtitled. There is, in fact, very little dialogue, as Conijn doesn’t speak the countries’ respective languages and the countrymen usually don’t speak English.
“He’s constantly struggling to communicate what he’s doing, but the car speaks for itself,” Birch notes. “People love it; it’s a very powerful storytelling piece.”
Conijn spends most of his journey gleaning: for stories, sights, wood, or food which the locals share with him. The very act of traveling in this manner is a gleaner’s gesture to the contemporary world which prefers convenience at a fast pace.
Another work “lives” in the gallery in the form of a story told by artist Michael Drebert during set-up and now narrated by Visitor Services Coordinator Dawn Marusin. We listen to the story of the artist “falling in love” with a Japanese fishing bowl he saw in a guest house in Haida Gwaii. We follow him on his quest to Japan, where he returns the precious object to a local fisherman. By letting the story be passed on to visitors in the spoken form, Drebert refers to the oral culture, so closely tied with the nature of gleaning.
Kara Uzelman’s three-part installation, on the other hand, is present in the gallery both materially, acoustically, and as an electric energy. The work is closest to the surrealist practice of reassembling found objects into new unexpected forms. Uzelman not only works with the found objects, but takes her art pieces from her previous series and regroups them into a new body of work. “Magnetic Stalactite” (2009), hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the gallery, is an assemblage of metal objects and magnets found in the Nanaimo area. “Expanded Radio” (2015), a functioning “circuit board” of objects connected by an electric wire, occupies most of the gallery’s floor, while it’s centrepiece, an old crackling radio, responds to the movement and proximity of other objects and visitors in the room. The third work, “Spirit Level” (2013), is a sculpture made of found wood and a crabapple moonshine bottle. All works embody the gleaning act of extracting the discarded and unnoticed from the landscape. Uzelman further references the landscape in the improvised invisible environment she created through connecting all the works through electromagnetic energy but allowing them to retain their specific spiritual quality. “Each piece has its own energy and language,” she says.
Gleaners will be on show at the downtown Nanaimo Art Gallery until May 15. Admission is free. Additional programming includes free screenings of Agnes Varda’s film The Gleaners and I at the NAG Art Lab on Fridays February 13, March 13, and April 10 at 7 pm. “Salt Walk,” Randy Lee Cutler’s “lecture” tour of Nanaimo, will take place on April 19 at 2 pm.