Potentially due merely to the fact that I have lately endeavored to earn a living solely through, as sundry of my community put it, devotion to the written word (especially adverbs), and have therefore had screenwriting more front of mind than is usually otherwise the case, I was reminded of certain cinematic experiences I’ve had upon encountering Sarah Wendt and Pascal Dufaux’s recent exhibition, The Mountain Moves While My Fingernails Grow, showing at the Rooms provincial art gallery in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.
The result of the duo’s residency in 2018 at Gros Morne National Park on the west coast of the island portion of the province, the exhibition consists of photography, video, sound, and sculptural works that recall the practical special effects of certain science fiction movies and TV shows of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and pieces together a kind of fragmented and speculative narrative set against the bleak, dramatic, and otherworldly landscape of the park whose mountains and fjords were formed several hundreds of millions of years ago, and which recall, – for this intrepid arts reporter at least, the barren, brutal surface of Mars, or one of the other multitude of alien worlds our heroes explore during a season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, or even better, Paul Verhoeven’s perfect filmic masterpiece of 1990: Total Recall.
For the uninitiated, Gros Morne National Park, and the Tablelands within its boundaries, represents a geological goldmine, as it were, where visitors will see the world’s heart exposed. Says the park’s website about the Tablelands: “Half a billion years in the making – formed deep in the middle layer of the Earth, in the mantle. It was thrust up as ancient continents collided, building the Appalachian Mountain chain and assembling a supercontinent called Pangea! More than 400 million years of those towering mountains eroding were needed to reveal what we see today: a surreal barren, orange landscape — the Earth’s inner soul: the mantle – exposed to you the way few have seen it.”
The show feels a little bit as if 80s pop band Duran Duran had creative control of the recent remake of Dune. In the gallery space, through video projection and a series of photos, we see a host of strangely costumed characters perform a series of strange rituals among the jagged rocks and scabrous vegetation of the Tablelands. The viewer is presented with a series of seemingly artifactual objects used in these rituals, whose ultimate purpose remains unknown. Fake fur, plastic, polyester, and pleather. A vintage-store white purse is splayed and resewn to function as a kind of mask or helmet. The enormous “Geodesic Tapestry”—a length of fabric formed of stitched together triangular pieces used in the creation of a geodesic dome—which dominates the center of the gallery space, its geometric shapes edged in fake fur and reflective surfaces, operates as both pictorial representation of the Tablelands, and sculptural representation of same. The vibe- is rather post-apocalyptic: the ragged low-quality detritus of the cheap, mass-produced consumer goods of our era are imbued by Wendt and Dufaux here with a nearly sacred ad hoc quality, as though the characters the artists present search for some kind of meaning in this wasteland, some sense that they are a part of this landscape, and not merely apart from it—separate, and at its mercy.
Is the Tablelands’ exposure of the Earth’s alien “soul,” as the tourism copy puts it, suggestive, in this exhibition, of some deeper alien quality of ourselves? When one arrives at Gros Morne, and sees the Tablelands for the first time, the breath-taking beauty of the forests and mountains give way suddenly to this red and orange, desolate brutality—the shards of ancient rock sharp as teeth—that exists usually hidden from view far beneath the surface of the world. Even as their tongues are planted firmly in their cheeks, Wendt and Dufaux seem to ask: Is humankind’s heart, underneath our sometime pleasant exteriors, even here in an art gallery some sunny summer afternoon, likewise as strange and brutal? What really is the significance of human culture in the face of geological time? And what meaning does artistic enquiry have vis-à-vis widespread planetary destruction, and indeed, the widespread planetary creation the Tablelands represent?
According to the gallery’s text panel that accompanies the exhibition, once the tectonic plates entered their fast stage, they “reached speeds of 20 millimetres per year, which is similar to how fast fingernails grow.” Thus, the grandeur of geological time is brought down to a human scale. As uncanny, surreal, and awe-inspiring as the Tablelands may be, Wendt and Dufaux’s project would seem to suggest that humanity and our cultural production, as insignificant as we are compared to the geological immensity of our setting, are nevertheless akin to it. Time, according to my Grade 8 physics teacher, and at least, to Google, is not absolute, and is experienced relative to one’s speed, as well as, some would argue, to consciousness. The act of observing changes that which is observed. Does the watched pot really never boil? Does the tree fall in the forest? Does the world exist if there’s no one there to see it? And furthermore, do we?
The Mountain Moves While My Fingernails Grow by Sarah Wendt and Pascal Dufaux shows at the Rooms Provincial Art Gallery in St. John’s Newfoundland and Labrador until September 11, 2022.