The saying “it comes in waves” is terribly accurate when applied to grief. The wave metaphor is apt: grief washes over us, it swells and then abates. In the exhibition it comes in waves, curated by Amy Ash, seven artists present work that explores the pause between the waves, the in-between moments of grief, where we come up for air, where we contemplate.
In it comes in waves Ash has thoughtfully chosen the works and installed them with precision. She creates an effective and eerie stillness in the two galleries of the UNB Art Centre.
In the three richly textured photo-polymer prints by Emily Critch we see monochromatic images of the land beneath our feet: rocks, sticks, ferns, and leaves. Using metallic foil and inks the artist has subtly intervened into the images, delicately drawing attention to small details. In crow gulch I, selected leaves and flowers on the forest floor have been embellished in rose gold foil. The image is stark and strangely byzantine. This series explores a very specific place: Crow Gulch was a community on the edge of Corner Brook. The Mi’kmaq people who lived there were Critch’s maternal ancestors; they were displaced when the community was dismantled by the government in the 1960s. By naming the place the artist subtly thwarts history’s attempted erasure; her personal connection to Crow Gulch is made evident in these intimate and tender glimpses of the land itself.
Lan Florence Yee is also working with personal histories. “What do we lose when we describe ourselves” they ask, the words are stitched over a photograph printed on cloth. The image is from a family album and depicts the artist as a young child. The threads in each letter match the vermilion, pink, blue and black shapes in the image so effectively that the words themselves threaten to disappear; we must look carefully to decipher the text. In A Legacy of Ethnography and other works, Yee refers to “the multiple losses that make up diasporic memory,” and questions the reliability of the archive. What is lost, indeed, or misunderstood? Who gets to tell the story?
Chantal Khoury is probing the diasporic memory as well. Her paintings present imagery associated with Lebanon, Khoury’s ancestral country. In Sweet Cloth we see a pomegranate, split in rough symmetry, each half dark and ripe with shiny seeds. The pieces hover on the suggestion of a lace tablecloth, spilling over the table toward us. Shtawi is a fig, an ambiguous shape floating on a watery blue ground, cut open to reveal its pink flesh. The word ‘shtawi’ describes a specific Lebanese fig, one that fruits in winter. There is an “otherness” implied in these fruit bodies, they are clearly markers of Khoury’s cultural identity.
In her work Funeral (Redux), KC Wilcox is addressing grief more directly with her monumental sardine tin, which doubles as a coffin. There is an absurd, playful quality in this over-sized object and the materials evoke the plasticene and paper crafts of childhood. The title grounds the work in a more serious realm, however, and multiple losses are embedded in it: the collapse of fisheries, the plight of the planet, the collective experience of grief. Wilcox created the work as a method for coping with a personal loss and reminds us that making art is a therapeutic act.
Adriana Kuiper and Ryan Suter have created an evocative in-between space. In Cover I and Cover II silent speakers and video monitors are partially shrouded in handmade quilts, alongside acoustic foam, and artfully folded sound blankets. The triangular shapes of the foam trays are echoed in the repeated geometric motifs of the quilts, which are beautifully designed and sewn in moody industrial tones. The quilts and the acoustic foam trays are visible again as images on monitors in a deliberately slow-action video. The works reminds me of One and Three Chairs by Joseph Kosuth by challenging what we think we know about the meaning of “things”. These pieces are uncanny and mysterious in their existence; we get the feeling that something is missing. References to sound are abundant, but these objects are silent, as if protecting their secrets.
Lou Sheppard’s three channel video work The Exquisite Corpse features Séamus Gallagher and Marley O’Brien performing as “queer familiars,” creatures in drag who walk on a beach, sometimes singing and reciting poetry, and sometimes not performing at all, but candidly conversing with each other about their hopes and fears for the future. No matter what they are doing, they are mesmerizing to watch. Across the three screens we also catch several intended glimpses of the camera crew, so ultimately this feels less like watching a film and more like witnessing a creative collaboration, where anything is possible, and new realities can be negotiated. Although Sheppard’s film captures feelings of dread and eco-anxiety it also contains great hopefulness. “Which apocalypse is this?” one of the performers asks in the opening sequence, as if they have been here before, and will be again.
The exhibition includes a small reading room where Ash has arranged dozens of books, mostly from her own collection, including such titles as The Waves by Virginia Woolf, A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit, and The Queer Art of Failure by Judith Halberstam. Many of the texts are familiar, and this feels comforting. On bookmarks printed for the occasion there is a prompt to write “notes to your future self and/or the next reader of this book”, which is another way of saying: “you will be here again”, a further acknowledgement of the cyclical nature of grief.
This is a sombre exhibition; it offers no logic and no answers, instead, we find solidarity and beauty in the collective experience of loss. More waves are expected. Hold fast.