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.