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Art for an Anxious Age

Eleven young BC artists are showing timely work, with marvellous stories behind it, at the Polygon Gallery.

By Dorothy Woodend 5 Jun 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

It’s a strange time to be alive. Stranger still if you’re a young artist, sniffing the wind, creative antennae unfurled to catch the currents of cultural change.

This moment is uniquely captured by the selection of work shortlisted for the Lind Prize, currently on offer at the Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver.

The Philip B. Lind Prize, established in 2016, is awarded annually to an emerging B.C. media artist. The word emerging is easy to trip over, calling up images of damp embryonic creatures clawing their way out of a pupal state. In fact the finalists, selected from over 50 nominated bodies of work, are an accomplished group.

Eleven artists were honoured. Jessica Johnson, Christian McGinty, Weronika Stepien, Evan Berg, Claire Geddes Bailey, Roxanne Charles, Ran Zhou, Aaron Leon, Garnet Dirksen, Lilian Rose Smith and Ryan Stella hail from several different communities across B.C., from Terrace to Enderby.

While photography, video, animation, installation and film all feature prominently in the exhibition, what is most curious are the convergences between the works, how they talk to each other across the gallery, jostle for attention or simply commune silently. Thematic commonalities such as surveillance culture are especially evident.

For Tyee readers, here’s a glimpse of some of the work on offer in the exhibition and an enticement to experience the show in its entirety. Go, take your time, let it soak into your skin, and then ride the SeaBus home filled with a delicate sense of time passing as ephemeral and fleeting as ocean waves.

For her film Hazel Isle, Lind Prize winner Jessica Johnson travelled to the Isle of Coll, a remote Scottish island that’s home to sheep farmers and enormous craggy boulders perching uneasily on the landscape. As the locals go about their business, a Gaelic teacher named Kirsty MacFarlane explains the gradual attrition of knowledge as place names disappear along with the original language of the island.

The film has screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival and the Festival du Nouveau Cinema in Montreal among others. It’s a deceptively simple document. But as the scratches and pops of 16-mm footage combine with the resonant images, a deep and profound emotional experience unfurls.

Jessica Johnson, Hazel Isle (detail), 2018, single-channel video, 16mm film transferred to digital, sound, 14 min.

A kind of bittersweet mournfulness is present, but so is something even more affecting. I hesitate to call it nostalgia or even homesickness. The Germans have a lovely word fernweh that refers to yearning to travel, but carries with it a more nuanced meaning about longing for a place you’ve never been before.

Christian McGinty’s Grief Pattern uses found footage, manipulated and layered, to explore the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Film clips, including a scene from the cinematic adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go, disintegrate into fractal bits, dissolving and rearranging in blank spots, eaten away by the forces of entropy and chaos.

Weronika Stepien’s work, In This House and Hog’s Offering, incorporate 3D animation, drawing, painting and photography. Fleshy, disturbing, but also strangely funny, Stepien’s images recall a pulsating human brain or an enormous anthropomorphic strawberry in ballet slippers tiptoeing lightly through the frame.

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Weronika Stepien, Hog’s Offering (detail), 2019, backlit digital print, courtesy of the artist.

Evan Berg’s The Passenger, a two-channel video installation, explores “different emotional states, psychological and emotional being in our hyper-networked digital society, intertwining aspects of surveillance, neoliberal individualism, isolation and memory.” If that doesn’t sound fun, I don’t know what does.

In Swimming Pool, Claire Geddes Bailey uses stop-motion animation, multimedia installation and a puppet avatar of herself to illustrate the internal processes of creation. Whether it’s a puppet/artist/avatar pulling woolly-looking tears out of giant eyeball or swimming in knitted waves, the work is sweetly tactile, goofy, and occasionally a little disturbing.

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Claire Bailey, Swimming Pool (still), 2018, mixed media installation, looping stop-motion animation, sound, courtesy of the artist.

Ran Zhou’s The Classroom was inspired by artificial intelligence systems in China that track not only the physical whereabout of students, but also documents their emotional state. Layered images of kids in a distant classroom are projected on the walls, the floor and a couple of empty table and chairs.

In Altered Landscapes, Aaron Leon uses tri-colour photography to create surreal landscapes that ripple and glow with acid-etched colour. Leon is from the Splatsin First Nation located near Enderby and takes a meditative approach to creating his images. Red, green and blue channels of light combine in a process that can take up to an hour for a single negative. The resulting images force you to look anew at the movement of waves or the arc of a waterfall.

Aaron Leon, Altered Landscapes series.

Garnet Dirksen’s photographic series John the barber, Effluent, Logyard map, Dry Good and Seating document people and places in Merritt and the Crowsnest Pass in Alberta. Dirksen, who grew up in Merritt, has a particular affection for rural communities. When the artist’s solo show opened in Kamloops last year, he explained his methodology in an interview with the Merritt Herald: “I was there for more or less the first 18 or 20 years of my life — there is only so much to look at before you start to look closer and realize, even in a smaller community, how much history there is...”

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Garnet Dirksen's John the barber.

Lilian Rose Smith’s images of the Birtle Indian Residential School in Manitoba that opened in 1894 and closed in 1972 capture the decay and sadness of the place — peeling paint, rotting foundations and semi-obliterated murals. Smith, of Métis descent, documents the current site of the school that has been preserved so that people can visit and see the remnants of the system that decimated generations of Indigenous children and families.

Lilian Rose Smith, Birtle Residential School, 2018, digital print, courtesy of the artist.

Ryan Stella’s photographs — Organs, Goat, Sheep, Untitled and Skinning — depict life and death on his family’s farm in Terrace. The intermingling of horror and beauty combine spectacularly in one image that captures the entire digestive system of a butchered animal in muted colours, recalling a Francis Bacon painting. It’s stunningly beautiful and also kind of gross, also like a Bacon painting. Vegans may blanche at the sight, but grace and compassion are amply in evidence as life and death bump up against each other and challenge you to look away.

Roxanne Charles of the Semiahmoo First Nation is an artist and cultural historian who works through visual representation, oral history and ceremony. My Matilda is based on the artist’s great-great grandmother, Matilda Charles, who constructed a violin case from cedar bark in 1936. Charles reconstructed her grandmother’s masterpiece, combining archival photographs with spoken word performance that recalls the artist’s experience of seeing her great-great grandmother’s work in the Museum of Anthropology.

The work of the Lind Prize winners is on display at the Polygon Gallery now until June 9.  [Tyee]

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