Up until recently, Newfoundland and Labrador had avoided the brunt of the turmoil caused by the pandemic, with single bubble households ending and various businesses reopening with limited capacity since June. While the rest of the world was thrust into lock-down and a complete upheaval of people’s lives due to COVID, not to mention how the virus has spread so quickly through communities on the mainland, life here, for many residents of the province, was relatively normal. Newfoundland and Labrador is sparsely populated, and most new cases of the virus arrived through labourers returning from Alberta or elsewhere, creating an environment in which, as usual for us, the major events on the world stage seemed very far away. Two weeks ago however, there was a major outbreak of the virus in St. John’s, and the city has once again been locked-down. As the locals say, we’re all gone mad.

Luckily perhaps for readers of Billie, this intrepid reporter had the forethought, back in December 2020, to snap some pics of Curtis Talwst Santiago’s Infinity Series—a collection of twenty tiny dioramas constructed from dime-store jewelry boxes, in a display that refers to museological or archival exhibition techniques, and am, therefore, able to write with some degree of accuracy, if not insight, about the exhibition, sequestered safely from my home office—otherwise known as my bed.

Curtis Talwst Santiago Nanganesey Creek with Deer, 2016 mixed media diorama in reclaimed jewelry box 4 1/4 x 4 1/4 x 5 1/2 inches (10.8 x 10.8 x 14 cm) (CSA44-SC) Photo Courtesy of The Rooms.

Even back then in December, before this second lock-down, I was struck by how loaded Santiago’s practice could be interpreted given the particularly fraught context within which our society presently finds itself. Before these pieces are exhibited, Santiago presents each jewelry box to strangers on the street or elsewhere, and after the initial suspicion on their behalf subsides, asks them to open it. He tells them its story, and then asks them to describe what they see in the diorama without correcting their interpretations. As the accompanying wall text says, rather than a stranger’s observational powers being tested, for Santiago “the value of these small objects is as a space to meet, to connect.” He describes these works as “whispers—a form of intimacy, a form of secrecy and a form of trust.” Like much else, I’m guessing this feature of Santiago’s practice is on hold for now, yet there is a certain viral quality to the way in which Santiago operates—these small containers and the brief interactions between artist and the public which is so vital to how this work functions can be seen as a kind of micro-intervention in which both the artist and those with whom he interacts may have their consciousness altered through the experience. As we are all too aware, there is no telling the wider consequences such small interactions may have. With all due respect to the oeuvre of Ashton Kutcher, Santiago’s work recalled for me not the 2004 science fiction thriller, but the scientific phenomenon for which the film is named—the butterfly effect.

Curtis Talwst Santiago Rebel Rebel, 2018 mixed media diorama in reclaimed jewelry box (CSA51-SC) Photo Courtesy of The Rooms.

The scenes depicted in the dioramas, these erstwhile containers of precious tokens of romantic or familial love, variously show scenes fantastical, absurd, brutal, funny and sexy—and sometimes all of the above at once. “Flamingo Having Its Way With Tiger While Teacher of Touch Looks On” (2017), shows just what its title indicates—yet there exists some ambiguity in that the “teacher” appears to be a full participant in the proceedings, the person’s legs sticking out from beneath the flamingo’s rear end. Or, to get a little “meta” in my thinking, is the “teacher of touch” who “looks on” in fact the art viewer themselves—implicated somehow by the act of viewing this bizarre scene? “Prison Industrial Complex” (2016), presents the gallery-goer with a tiny rectangular cage within a larger fence of barbed wire, and creates, within this viewer at least, the contradictory or paradoxical feeling of dread and claustrophobia from an object that fits in the palm of one’s hand.

A Canadian-Trinidadian artist who considers himself decentralized—that is, being able to live and identify with multiple diasporas—Santiago’s work explores trans-culturalism, memory, and ancestry in the contemporary diasporic experience. As Santiago says: “Diaspora, for me as an artist, is having to sit and be uncomfortable in new places. Sometimes I won’t understand the impact of an experience until years later. Revisiting those experiences is therefore a form of diaspora as well.”

Curtis Talwst Santiago: Infinity Series runs at the Rooms Provincial Art Gallery in St. John’s until April 4, 2021.