Prairie Dread

Anxieties unearths the roots of unease past and present

Art | by Gregory Beatty

Anxieties
Art Gallery Of Regina
Until Feb. 2

In the late 19th century, the Canadian government, in cahoots with the Canadian Pacific Railway, lured European families with deliberately misleading promotional campaigns that portrayed the West as largely settled territory. When the immigrants arrived, they found themselves isolated on quarter-sections of unbroken land in a harsh and unforgiving climate. The experience was so traumatic, the theory goes, that it scarred our collective psyche, leading artists to produce work infused with angst and surreal fatalism.

The aftershocks of this event resonate through Anxieties, which runs at the Art Gallery of Regina into early February.

In Anxieties, curator Carmen Robertson’s focus is “Saskatchewan Gothic” as an influence on provincial art practice dating back to those hard-scrabble pioneer days. The exhibition features work by Audrey Dreaver, Sarah Ferguson, Kevin McKenzie, Lionel Peyachew and Sylvia Ziemann.

Anxieties reads more broadly than that, though. We do, after all, live in fairly scary times.

Little more than hairless apes from an evolutionary perspective, we’ve nonetheless developed innumerable advanced technologies that, while conferring many benefits, also present us with significant challenges. In little over a century, we’ve gone from a world population of around 1.6 billion to a projected eight billion in 2023. We’re going through all sorts of wrenching transitions too — from rural to urban, analog to digital, local to global, while also trying to address a shameful legacy (in the West especially) of sexism, racism, homophobia and more.

Saskatchewan Gothic

Settlement wasn’t just traumatic for European immigrants — it was also traumatic for Indigenous people, who found themselves displaced from lands they’d inhabited for millennia.

Given that fact — and given that Robertson is of Indigenous descent, as are Dreaver, McKenzie and Peyachew — it should be no surprise that one issue this take on Saskatchewan Gothic looks at is the harm caused by residential schools.

In “Abstruse”, Peyachew presents a black-shrouded figure standing alone in the corner, as if being punished. When you view the figure from the front, you see it’s a nun perched on a wood crate with a large crucifix around her neck. The crate’s marked “fragile”, and the crucifix is gold framed and inset with shards of mirror glass.

The old curse about a broken mirror and bad luck springs to mind. But picture an Indigenous child looking up at the nun. What they’d see is their own fractured reflection, which serves as a poignant metaphor for the cultural dislocation children suffered in residential schools.

One of Dreaver’s paintings features a crate too. It’s based on an archival photo from the Holy Angels Boarding School in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, and depicts a group of Indigenous children — girls in pink dresses, boys in blue shirts and breeches — kneeling in supplication at a crate containing a religious statue.

Standing off to the left is a priest. Just a portion of his cassock is visible, but given the authority of his religious office, it’s easy to envision him a stern figure. That notion is reinforced by the children’s standardized clothes, compliant posture and cropped hair — which in the girls’ case includes stubs of chopped off braid. Like the fractured reflection in “Abstruse”, the stubs dramatize the extent to which children were cut off from their families and culture.

Christian overtones are present in McKenzie’s contribution to Anxieties as well. “Dead Apostle” consists of a crucifix-topped black matte bison skull resting on a pillow inside an open coffin. The arrangement recalls a viewing or wake, although McKenzie undercuts the Christian aura of the installation by placing branches around skull.

Spirituality aside, bison in the pre-settlement period were the foundation of the Plains First Nations’ economy, providing resources for food, clothing, shelter, tools and more. When they were hunted to virtual extinction, Indigenous people were greatly impoverished (hence the cheap pine coffin with red fabric inlay) which made them vulnerable to colonization.

Peyachew links to that history in a second sculpture called “Contagion” where he presents a super-sized Victor mouse trap. Only the trap’s been rebranded Victim, and instead of cheese as bait there’s a bucket of the Colonel’s finest.

“Contagion” reads partly as an inside cultural joke, I think, but it also offers a broader indictment of the challenges Indigenous people face — whether in rundown inner-cities, or remote rural areas — accessing healthy and affordable food. In cities, the term “food desert” has even been coined to describe the situation of residents being ill-served by supermarkets and having to “shop” at convenience stores and fast food outlets for “groceries”.

Fast and/or junk food as a treat once in awhile, okay. But when people are forced to rely on it as a dietary mainstay it leads to diabetes, heart disease and other health problems.

High Anxiety

In a relatively compact exhibition like this, Robertson and her five artists are necessarily limited in their ability to address all the existential concerns that haunt us. But there is plenty to chew on.

Ziemann’s installations, for me, are always a pleasure to view. They consist of mini-houses exhaustively detailed inside and out and equipped with tiny motion-activated videos that evoke various urban myths/fears.

Some, such as “He Was A Quiet Fellow”, “Post-Partum Delivery” and “Hostages”, hint at the terror and tragedy that can lie behind closed doors in communities where neighbours are often strangers. Others, such as “Home Invasion” and “Getting Ready”, focus on external threats to domestic safety and security such as crime and voyeurism.

That leaves Ferguson, who presents two large-scale black-and-white digital photographs — both nudes, one called “Alien”, the other “Fish” — that explore modern-day anxieties around gender, intimacy, sexuality, the environment and other issues.

Anxieties seems well-timed as we head into the year of President Trump. With escalating threats from nuclear war, climate change, terrorism and rising inequality, not to mention the Brexit fallout and Putin’s Russia, there’s no doubt we do live in anxious times.

Happy new year, everyone.