LICHEN: Mary Anne Barkhouse & Michael Belmore
Review of Toronto Sculpture Garden installation by Harold Alegria-Ortiz
What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted by talking wires?
- Chief Seattle
Since the earliest human settlements both animals and humans have
negotiated overlapping territories where their resourcefulness, resilience
and ingenuity have been put to the test. In the last two centuries, the
accidental and constant expansion of industrial-based productive cycles has
caused the displacement or disappearance of entire ecosystems. Under the
aegis of progress, the present generation will be left to face the daunting
prospect of a future where humankind will dominate over a bestiary of
extinct species, with only a few scavengers, feral dogs, pets, pests and
guinea pigs saved from extinction.
The Toronto Sculpture Garden installation by artists Mary Anne Barkhouse
and Michael Belmore consists of a family of wolves cast in bronze and a bus
shelter. The shelter has no salient feature other than a blown-up black &
white backlit image of a raven perched on a bare trunk. To complete this
narrative, a delicate pencil drawing of a clear cut forest is placed at eye
level and reflected at the back of the bus shelter .
The installation bears an ominous reference to the constant expansion of
scavenger and predator species, humans and the encroachment of civilization
upon the world's last tracts of wilderness. It also plays with the notion
of a reversed occupancy. The animals are occupants intruding into the urban
environment and effecting the human ecosystem. A converse subjectivity that
privileges us with the beast's intrusion within our tame environments,
forces us to ponder how easy would it be to coexist with the wild on its
own terms; to hang around a pack of wolves for whom killing is the only
assurance of survival . The reversal of roles leaves no doubt as to what
humans have achieved with their own value system, in a city where tooth and
claw could easily translate into business as usual.
The first disconcerting feature of the site is however not the predatory
instincts of wolves poeticized in contemplative poses such as sitting
attentively, laying curled up or looking up to the belfry with dignified
hieraticism. What is the most evident is the austerity and rigour with
which Barkhouse and Belmore have taken from the black omen, laisser-faire
capitalism has cast upon nature, and turned it around. Reclaiming it as a
spell against our own complacency . The work compels us to re-contextualize
our surroundings, not only that of the affluent front street but of
urbanity with all it's contradictions.
Instead of the typically colourful cosmetic ad campaign, Belmore supports a
pesimistic warning. Borrowing the conventions from advertising, he makes
use of pure semiotical content, Belmore's raven averts the facile dismissal
of environmental doom by corporate demagogues and their political lap dogs.
It invites us to chase the evidence of destruction and senseless
exploitation represented in the drawing at the back of the shelter.
Echoing the aboriginal myth of the bird who stole the light from the gods
and brought it to mankind, the large scale luminous image of the raven
leads us to explore the ominous prospect of extinction: ours and those
beings that share the planet with us.
Shelter, refuge, forests settlements, all the elements of survival, are
just some of the themes integrated in Barkhouse's and Belmore's narrative.
Their preoccupation with the animal world is a preoccupation with the idea
of displacement. The drawing of a clearcut forest alludes to the very
experience of ex-patriation and extinction.The image of such a desolate
place reminds us of the forces that operate within society to effect such
constraints upon the natural world can be identified as the same ones that
conditioned the wolves to prey on deer. Our tools and technology have
unfortunately magnified the scale of the operation and its impact to
unprecedented destructive proportions.