Site/Scene ran this October at the Hilda Woolnough Gallery at The Guild in Charlottetown, one year after Post Tropical Cyclone Fiona. It featured independent and collaborative works by Evan Furness, Lisa Theriault and Damien Worth, who all live and practice in rural Epekwitk/PEI. Site/Scene maps ‘the local’ through the unforgettable aftermath of the storm that divided experiences into ‘before’ and ‘after.’ Inspired by “weathering storms, navigating isolation and collective coping strategies,” the artists experiment with genres—nostalgia, comedy, horror, folklore and satire and the exhibition includes works on paper, video, installations and sculpture.
Shelter in Place, a collaborative installation, is built of wood, plastic, damaged objects from Fiona and Dorian, and assembled decor such as carefully curated books and DVDs. The exterior salvaged wood and vinyl siding retain a coating of sand, blasted by hurricane winds. The interior holds an old portable television playing a video collage, with cuts of the three artists building a house of cards, interspersed with footage of canning, the snapping lids of jars sealing nourishing time capsules. Later the artists golf, oblivious, while behind them green screen forest fires burn and storms surge menacing surf. The artists carry on, finding camaraderie like they are acting out a satirical storyline of a weeknight sitcom. The carefully designed set of the shed contains the collapsed house of cards. Here and throughout the rest of the show, nonlinear narratives emerge, sharing cultural knowledge gleaned from the climate crisis and lockdowns in the context of social media exchanges that amplify horror, isolation and vulnerability.
Damien Worth’s sculptures, ‘Priorities,’ greet viewers in the centre of the gallery. The blade of an old chainsaw holds a miniature scene with two power poles. In the electric wires between them a birch tree is suspended, awaiting heroes who will dismember it and restore functionality to useless household appliances. In Worth’s sculptures viewers see a miscellany of catastrophic landscapes: a tiny scene of a golf course littered with imported beer bottles, a barnyard water pump, a picnic, more fallen trees. Worth illustrates the mourning and tensions felt by locals struggling with crises that contrast with the classist ideals of tourism marketing campaigns.
Worth’s other pieces are ‘The Fall,’ in which plaster fragments of a windswept church descend in a column from the ceiling to floor and ‘Geriatric Community,’ which shows digital prints of neglected farm houses, quilted together and cut out from negative space, floating on the wall. Damien Worth’s display of quintessential island buildings speaks to the economic stages of ruination and cultural obsolescence.
Evan Furness’s ink and acrylic paintings on paper are scenes of PEI that rebel against clichés, with primary and secondary colours and experimental compositions depicting sometimes nocturnal views of a winter farm. Furness’s video installation, ‘We Drift Like Worried Fire,’ is amateur drive-by cell-phone footage of a distant fire which cuts to the POV of walking around the exterior of a humble rural residence by flashlight during an icy winter night.
Unlike Damien Worth and Evan Furness, Lisa Theriault’s drawings in ink and colored pencil bear no trace of pre-industrial localism, agriculture or subsistence farming. Expanding conceptually beyond iconoclasm, Lisa’s work offers more angles for viewer engagement. ‘Lone High Rise,’ shows a glass building in an inhospitable landscape of sheared trees and electric poles, resting on a bedrock that gives way to a steep precipice. The textures and precision of mechanical illustration characterize Theriault’s isometric drawings of various buildings, always vacant but full of traces of human activity, with angles and lines always parallel, similar to CAD styles and retro Minecraft and SIMS imagery. This perspective, employed by other artists whose medium is often architectural fantasy, such as Winnipeg-based Simon Hughes or even M.C. Escher, allows them to re-use already drawn assets and modular forms, adjusting scale to build their compositions. Isometric perspective reinforces the prioritization of data over subjectivity. Viewing them, I felt the isolation of exploring abandoned (evacuated?) buildings, left with mysterious and foreboding implications. In Theriault’s drawings there is a perfect persistence of utopian abstraction and inhuman geometry, while all life falls apart.
Collaboration on Site/Scene was fueled by mutual excitement and critique. While some works are un-nuanced statements about easy targets, like the ‘othering’ of golfers and the house of cards metaphor, the show conjures tropes and meanings from a collective resistance to hegemonic culture and imposed identity. The group hopes to continue collaborating and to connect with other rural artists to find commonalities like expressions of rural isolation, alienation and implausible landscapes.
Site/Scene is an interesting model of how emerging artists can share exhibition space on PEI, its collaborative production an example of adaptation and perseverance, like other energizing movements of collective support that emerged during recent crises to push back against relentless commodification and the blurring of marketing campaigns and personal identity.