Western archives take great pains to shield objects against the passage of linear time, and the inevitability of death. To preserve a thing is to stare down mortality, however unsuccessfully. Countless theorists have made efforts to decenter the power structures that govern archival materials, by creating counter-archives, living archives, anarchival impulses, and anti-archives. Whether they aim to preserve their contents or not, these reactionary movements often maintain their own structures of legibility and classification, reflecting elements of traditional archival practice. It is rare that an exhibition about archives moves beyond the limitations of pro- and anti-, and demonstrates the potential of archival narratives by enacting their complexity in the gallery space. The group exhibition falling through our fingers does exactly this, by resting in the grief that archives hold, and fail to hold.
falling through our fingers is the second exhibition at the Owens Art Gallery curated by Emily Critch, which remains on view until September 17, 2023. As a Mi’kmaw and settler curator from Elmastukwek, Ktaqmkuk (Bay of Islands, Newfoundland), Critch worked at arm’s length from the institution as adjunct curator to assemble a selection of artists who pulled from archives of rare books, inherited fabrics, ritual practices, found artifacts, ancestral knowledge, and family photos. As a result, the exhibition featured several collaborations across time and space: between Kelsey Street and her grandmother Alice Mary Bennett; between Racquel Rowe and her mum; between BG Osborne and their birth mother Joan. In Weaving With You, L’nu artist Kelsey Street replicated a blanket her grandmother created, using inherited yarn from her grandmother’s collection. The wave patterns in the fabric evoke her memories of beachcombing at her grandmother’s house on Woods Island in Elmastukwek, Ktaqmkuk. As a curator, Critch’s role involves caring for artists, and in this case that care extended to their familial artistic collaborators, past and present.
B.G-Osborne explores their psychic connection with their mother Joan in their installation EACH OTHER, using materials that reference Joan’s wood carving and ceramic practice in the 80s and 90s. Prior to her death from lung cancer in 1995, Joan hallucinated that her bed was on fire, and much later Osborne began experiencing visual hallucinations of smoke. Osborne’s photo collages are mounted using charred wood, and when asked what drew them to charred and gilded materials, they said, “There was also a feeling that is difficult to describe; something like warm hands on my shoulders, which felt like Joan guiding me towards these materials.” Osborne’s collages often show restraint in their composition–with geometric balance and even spacing–but never without playfulness. In one corner of the collage, a cutout photo of young Osborne and their mother on a four poster bed is overlaid on a dry forest landscape, and the circular quilted wall hangings from the bedroom float like floppy moons in the sky. Osborne’s archive of family photos remains fallible, and subject to change in the same way that memory can be.
Two video-based works by Faune Ybarra and Racquel Rowe were boldly installed in direct confrontation with one another. Despite both works featuring audio tracks with the sounds of water, they were easily separable to the ear, like two currents dividing the room into a sound sculpture. Rowe’s two-channel video acts as a diptych, showing footage of the Barbadian-born artist in Carlisle Bay, opposite a similar video of her mum on Sandpiper Beach, each engaging in the Bajan ritual of sea bathing in the early morning. “I approach video art like a painting” says Rowe, and compositionally the two figures intuitively move in parallel with one another. At one point the deep, rolling sounds of waves on the beach are interrupted by a quick “good morning” from a passerby, grounding the installation in a conversational lived reality.
By contrast, Faune Ybarra’s video Iceberg Stranded in My Bed featured water sounds that felt manufactured, like foley sound effects created in a studio for an animated movie. On screen, the artist from Oaxaca and Mexico City stands on her bed in Vancouver holding up a sheet like a cartoon ghost, moving dramatically in sync with a soundtrack of splashing and dripping. Projected on the sheet is an archival photo of an iceberg taken in of St. John’s (Ktaqmkuk) harbour in 1905, which is distorted by Ybarra’s movements. A washi paper sculpture is suspended nearby, acting as a second lonely iceberg which is printed repeatedly with the tiny phrase, “thinking of you.” Critch described the text as “a constellation of well-wishes,” though they could also be small songs of longing.
Remarking on the interactions between the two works, Critch said, “I was really interested in having them next to each other in terms of thinking about water as an ancestral archive in itself.” Critch’s words evoke what Sabrina Perić refers to as “archival melt,” in the thawing of the permafrost. The iceberg itself is not an archive, but an archivist–one that is perpetually collecting, despite being on the edge of a slow release. There is an ease with which archival material is released when faced with societal collapse. There is a similar ease in the way that ancestral histories that are concealed, silenced, or hidden will inevitably reveal themselves in the thaw.
While some artists in this exhibition drew directly from archives, others created fictions, mythologies, and narratives around archives that could have been, or futures that, when they arrive, will hopefully give us a feeling of déjà vu. Excel Garay’s paintings express a longing that is cosmic in scale, featuring veiled figures reaching out towards a void as if to say, “wait for me, I’ll find you.” The surfaces of the canvases are sliced and woven back together, creating forms with elements of translucence that seem to unravel and shapeshift. The paintings lean against the white walls of the gallery, precariously balanced on urns painted ultramarine blue, which hold tropical plants. Garay’s practice frequently references the extractive history of ultramarine pigment as a commodified resource due to colonial trade. The potted plants are also products of displacement, which impose upon the institution by requiring infrastructural changes to the gallery lighting in order to survive in the absence of sunlight. Garay’s paintings teeter on these transplanted entities, retreating from the gallery walls.
Daze Jefferies’ installation resurfacing you torn-together is a tribute to a pair of nylon hosiery that washed ashore in the Bay of Exploits, Ktaqmkuk, which are laid on a plinth wrapped in vinyl poetry. The poems create a speculative narrative about “the might-have-been of trans sex worker histories in the Atlantic region,” mediated by the ocean (also an archivist). These poems are included in Jefferies’ chapbook Water/Wept, and when read on the page they roll off the tongue like a quick and hasty prayer in search of a transient maternal entity. When installed sculpturally in the gallery, the poetic fragments can be rearranged in multiple slow meditations. Jefferies describes this plinth “like a memory table at a wake,” one which reaches across generations in an effort to find transfeminine sex worker kinship.
The yearning for an abstract “more” is not necessarily a yearning for a more complete archive (which strives to maintain encyclopedic legibility and rigid classification, ultimately serving white supremacy), but for something beyond completeness. To move beyond completeness is to rest in the narratives we create from what we’ve lost. Many works in this exhibition expose the tenuous link between memory and grief, demonstrating how memories are made and remade through loss, creating narratives that are both truthful and anachronistic (incongruent with their time). To be at odds with one’s current timeline is to seek that something beyond completeness.