The Oilsands-Inspired Creation that Looms in Washington

Winnipegger Mia Feuer's art reflects the 'sculptural' transformation of Alberta's landscape.

By Andrew Nikiforuk, 23 Jan 2014,

Mia Feuer sculpture

Mia Feuer. "An Unkindness." Photo by Kate Warren.


Reviewers alternatively call the Washington, D.C. exhibit dystopian, eerily beautiful, or a "nightmarish manifestation" of environmental ruin.

In particular, many are attracted to the ominous black skating rink that occupies the rotunda. The plastic rink may or may not be a metaphor for oil's grip on Canadian politics.

Others are awed by a giant (40-feet by 40-ft. by 30-ft.) sculpture that hangs over the rink. Composed of a riot of suspended trees, oil field junk, tar paper and black birds, it resembles some strange, Harry Potter-like hallucination.

It's all viewable at the venerable Corcoran Gallery of Art in the U.S. capitol, where politicians are still debating the future of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that would transport bitumen to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. (Word is that Canada's U.S. ambassador Gary Doer, a fellow Manitoban and a Feuer fan, hasn't yet peeked his head into the gallery.)

Winnipeg-born sculptor Mia Feuer calls her bitumen-inspired creation "An Unkindness," after a gathering of ravens. She says that artists have a duty to respond and reflect upon the times we live in.

"We just can't all be making beautiful things," Feuer says.

'It sounded sculptural'

The idea for Feuer's exhibit began with a journey to the oilsands.

After watching petroleum tankers ponderously move through the Suez Canal while on a Middle East visit in 2011, the well-known artist from Winnipeg's culturally celebrated North End started to ask some questions about the use of oil in daily life.  

It was no idle reflection. Feuer primarily uses large sheets of Styrofoam or polystyrene, which Dow Chemical first made from cracked oil in 1941. She also cements her sculptures with more petroleum-based glues.

Mia Feuer sculpture

Also part of Mia Feuer's Washington, D.C. exhibit, this dog sled is made entirely from plastic flotsam found on Norway's Spitsbergen Island. Photo by Kate Warren.


Mia Feuer isn't the only Canadian artist thinking about oil these days.

London-based Susan Turcot's recent exhibit at the Illingworth Kerr Gallery in Calgary was based on her encounters in Fort McMurray, where she lived with Aboriginal elders, an African family and project camp workers in 2009 and 2012.

Her evocative charcoal portraits of 18 trades workers, called "Hide and Seek," tell the unheralded story of trying to remain human in an inhuman environment.  

The portrait-sitting gave Turcot time to hear the powerful stories of miners living in a town where the pace of development continues to outpace public infrastructure.

She drew and listened to a Lebanese cleaner, who dreamed of his homeland; a Portuguese worker from Mozambique who hoped to reverse his family's ill fortunes; a bucket crane operator who feared digging up and bursting another underground aquifer; and an Aboriginal worker from Edmonton who had been stabbed 27 times yet lived.

She also did a portrait of a "First Impressions Manager," whose job was to make sure that new bush workers didn't go to bed at night with bad impressions of the mine site or the company that ran it.

Turcot writes that a forest generally represents feelings of connectedness, being grounded and fully alive. But "a mined area tends to be vacant, fragmented, dry, sometimes toxic and ghost-like with the memory of all that has lived there. What remains is isolated, vulnerable, not attached, or connected."

The artist wanted to find a way to make the grinding industrial process less abstract. So over 10 days, she did 24 portraits of workers in a bush camp.

She writes: "The small capsule of space formed during the observing, listening, exchanging time of drawing became an anchor of possibility in an otherwise transitory space. Most people I drew needed and wanted listening time, this may be an effect of being partly invisible here, uprooted from home, and working in an violently uprooted landscape operating with 24 hour shift work. The conversation we had often focused on a place of home or belonging from the past or future as a way of keeping themselves attached to the present.

"Conversations wove through immigration, political unrest, personal breakdowns, unemployment, lack of safety on site, money filled dreams, and then often the impossibility of keeping relationships going with long distance work. For some starting life over again, then over again, suggested an unease at being settled. As we drastically break apart the environment, is it surprising that people's experiences can become similarly affected?"

Turcot now has an exhibit in Berlin titled "Bitumen Blood and the Carbon Climb."

— A.N.

Feuer admits she's as addicted to the toxic and buoyant material as some people are to their SUVs.  

"The foams are lightweight and allow me to make mistakes and fix them. I can manipulate the foam. It's genius. I can sand, cut and glue it. It's a magical material. I can make anything out it," she says.

Like most of the world's relationship with oil, Feuer says she has a "fucked up" relationship with the foam. Explains the artist: "I am aware of its devastating environmental consequences, and yet I continued to be seduced by its wonderful material versatility."

Her reflections opened one door, and then another. Soon, she found herself reading about the world's largest energy project in the northern forests of Alberta. She was curious about the material and transformation of the landscape by mining operations. "It sounded sculptural," she says.

After several companies turned down Feuer's requests to tour one of 10 approved open pit mines and the 170 square-kilometres of man-made dykes containing more than 840-billion litres of toxic mining waste, she got inventive -- as Winnipeg North Enders tend to be.

She found a flyer on the web advertising a company barbecue in Fort McMurray and emailed the organizer. The two connected, and Feuer soon found herself on a Greyhound bus to the city, where she stayed with a middle-class family with a fondness for art.

Reclamation tour

During her tour, Feuer got a glimpse of so-called reclaimed sites.

After digging up low-lying peat lands, fens and rivers to mine bitumen, industry replaces complex boreal landscapes with artificial, man-made hills made with layers of mining waste, including petroleum coke and salt-laden sands.

The process also includes dumping toxic mining waste into pits and then capping the pits with freshwater: an untested form of reclamation.

Because peatlands, which occupy 65 per cent of the mineable area, take 10,000 years to make, there is no requirement for industry to restore them. Nor is there any legal requirement to replace wetlands with wetlands, as most industrial nations now mandate, because of the high cost to industry -- up to $12 billion.  

After building sandy uplands, industry then attempts to grow salt-tolerant plants on engineered soils. Scientists calculate that it may take 200 years to determine if the man-made sculptures can survive droughts, forest fires, erosion, insects, pathogens, or bitumen pollutants.

The reclamation sites gobsmacked Feuer. "I stood in a land that was once boreal forest, that was now a bunch of toxic wheat grown in toxic earth," she says.  

The wheat, an attempt to build some vegetation cover, invited a mice plague. One company, in turn, sought to control the rodent epidemic by planting trees upside down, with their roots sticking in the air. The trees gave mice-hunting ravens a place to perch. (Since 1977, industry has blamed meadow voles and deer mice for slowing reclamation efforts.)   

It all looked like some "twisted-demented nursery rhyme," says Feuer. And it inspired a huge sculpture that now greets visitors at the Corcoran.

A space of contemplation

To accompany "An Unkindness," Feuer came up with the idea of assembling a black skating rink directly underneath it. She made it with the same material used in synthetic kitchen cutting boards. "It's as oily as you can get," she says.

As a child, Feuer remembers skating at an outdoor North End rink under the sky, often alone or with her father, a goalie.  

"It was cold and exhilarating. It was a space of contemplation and thought. I wanted to give the viewers of 'Unkindness' a place to consider and focus [on]" a world made from oil, she says.

The gallery provides skates for one thinker at a time.

"People experience the exhibit in a personal way," explains Feuer. "There is no right and wrong. It's not didactic, and it's not like a protest. It is subtle, but not so subtle. It's open-ended."

The exhibit also includes a dog sled made entirely from plastic flotsam found on Norway's Spitsbergen Island, and a sculpture of an abandoned Siberian coal mine that seems to embody the soul of entropy itself.

Feuer notes that everything, from our phones, to cars, to food, is related to our "irresponsible addiction to oil."

"I knew that before," remarks the artist. "But now, I have more questions."

Mia Feuer sculpture

Mia Feuer. "An Unkindness." Photo by Kate Warren.

Read more: Energy, Environment

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