Crude, sublime power: artists make unnerving points about environment

0 Posted by - March 27, 2010 - Blog, Installations, Visual art

Originally published in
Planet S (March 25, 2010)

The two exhibitions that are currently at Saskatoon’s AKA Gallery and Paved Arts and New Media share a conceptual focus. Going with the idea that there’s no such thing as coincidence, I’m going to speak of them as one entity.

Robin Moody’s Power and Shelly Rahme’s Crude: Sublime Scuptural Landscapes overlap and enhance each other, both in form and function. Both are sculptural, though one is more “interactive” while the other is more “silent.” In their respective manners, both work very well.

Rahme has produced sculpted “landscapes,” out of materials that are anything but ecologically sensitive in origin. One of her maquettes, for example, emits a faint smell of tar, and the materials used are more reminiscent of industrial waste than the pristine nature we often (and often erroneously) assume is still the rule in Canada. The black, gooey pools of “Open Pit” and a pond made out of shattered fragments of glass or plastic called “Lonely Isle” made me think what the Group of Seven might have produced if they were made to work in materials found in an industrial waste site. (But then your mom wouldn’t want that calendar, eh?)

Moody’s installation is more seductive, as he has three components to Power: two are “water” components, and one is “fire” — but the lakes are shiny, black hand-made gears that spin and turn (when you trip a motion detector) to mimic the flow of water. The gears/lakes have been lit in a manner that, as they move, produce brief glints and blazings on the top of them — a technology mimesis of the glinting, active surface of a body of water.

Shelly RahmeI was told they’re meant to imitate, in their shapes on the floor, Pony River and Hope River, in Alberta. Interesting, but this specificity is unnecessary — it’s enough to know they’re meant to be about the “spillage” of the waste of our pursuit of more power, at cheaper rates, at any cost. (Sounds like the nuclear advocacy here recently, which could have been more honest and just said “Cheap power for us! Let our great-great-great grandchildren deal with it!”)

The reflected lights move along the walls of the darkened gallery space, and when the “water” is still, the lights look like a night sky full of stars on the walls of the gallery. To trigger the motion detector is to make the “water” run again — or you could enjoy the “campfire” that Moody has placed between the waters (again made of technological detritus), which even has fake pops and crackles. It works nicely with the “night sky” when the installation is still, but it’s not the strongest part of the show: the purely seductive nature of the spinning gears, whose noise even begins to sound like running water in the wilderness, will hold your attention for some time.

Moving from that side of the building to the adjacent gallery of AKA, Rahme’s work seem quiet and very still. This allows for the subtle smells of the materials she’s used in her bastardization (or realization) of the unpleasant truths about our environment and our uses and abuses of it to permeate you — cloying, industrial smells that you’ll remember long after you’ve left the gallery space.

Lastly, a couple of points I’d like to inject in terms of understanding the works of Moody and Rahme. There’s an idea out there that I hate painting: this is incorrect — I hate bad art. In the same vein, my real distaste is reserved for bad new media, as familiarity breeds contempt (being in new media, myself). I was reminded recently of an assertion by Douglas Copeland that highlights a major issue with “new media art” in Canada. He joked that you should imagine if, back when paper was invented, people had run through the streets saying “Hey, look at this! It’s great! Now we just need content! Somebody give us content!”

Too much media work is about how it was made, not communicating any idea other than a “boys with toys” mentality. Moody’s work is significant as it has a strong idea behind it, just as Rahme’s superficial form disagrees with its subtler concept. These two exhibitions did more to reach me with environmental issues than any zealotry on the part of either side in the current “climategate” debate, and that makes both shows very good art.

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