UNMADE | Curatorial Essay by Jill Price

by Jill Price

As a white, female settler of Welsh, Scottish and Dutch-German descent, I would like to begin by acknowledging how grateful I am to live, work and play on the traditional territory of the Wendat, the Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee, Métis and Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. In confronting my settler past, present and future, and recognizing how public and private institutions continue to expropriate and extract from lands that our not ours, I have come to see waste and global trade as a contemporary iteration of colonization. As part of this self-reflexive journey that considers what it means to consume, make and curate in a moment of deep ecological crisis, I conceptualized UNMADE as an exhibition that ‘hails’ artists to move outside of colonial, capitalist systems that encourage the mass production of goods and therefore the mass destruction of the environments that sustain us.

Drawing inspiration from past art movements such as Dadaism, Fluxus, Relational Aesthetics and Craftivism in order to arrive at sustainable modes of making and presentation, one goal of UNMADE was to arrive at qualitative data that can tell us what needs undoing and how we might begin to unmake physical, political, economic, cultural, social and psychological entanglements that contribute to the global ecological messiness of our realities today.  Inviting artists to examine “unmaking as a creative act” and deliberate on how all art and design, by virtue of their material base and processes, is Earth Art or Land Art as it is from the environment we encouraged to mine that which already exists and push past nostalgia in order to “unmake the old into something new.” 

Hoping to arrive at a RE-Craftivism Manifesto as well as establish a network of environmental creatives, UNMADE also encouraged artists to think about materiality in a deep ecological way where land becomes objects, objects become land, land becomes human and all that we do and create has affect.  This mandate works to push the idea that “ecology is predicated on the principle that every creature is connected to every element that composes the environment so that all living things depend on the balance of a complex system of growth and decay.”  

Selecting artists who embraced the ready-made or used deconstructive methods in their process, chosen works, unstretched and unframed, help to make room for new understandings of creativity by undoing perceptions on what it means to paint, print, weave, draw, write and sculpt.  Each work also assists in redefining the values by which we might determine an artwork’s worth.  Did they use existing materials? Will their skill and cleverness delay the item’s trip to the landfill? Can their work pack into a suitcase upon moving or exhibiting abroad? Can the elements be recycled or absorbed into our day to day life to be used for other things? Does their work draw attention to the value of material and immaterial things beyond the work itself? Striving to answer yes to all of these questions, I began to review the works collectively in order to identify named and unnamed themes that run throughout the work. 

To begin, the “unmaking of boundaries” clearly occurs in the contributions by Amy Bagshaw, Kadi Badiou, Sam Jones and Sarah Moreau.  Using mapping as a method, Bagshaw’s Within/Without Perimeters laboriously unmakes burlap, a textile often used in the packaging and shipping of goods, to arrive at an onsite installation that draws attention to how interior and exterior landscapes or domestic and global ecologies are inherently linked.  Badiou’s Building with Bulging Blocks physically demonstrates how the manufacturing of “things” results in uncontainable materials moving into undesignated territory. Visualizing how there are no physical boundaries between the human body and our highly interconnected and contaminated landscapes is Jones’s weird and wonderful sculpture entitled Life Forms (Belly) No. 3.  By providing us a grotesque arrangement of the elemental, synthetic and edible, the artist’s material narrative regurgitates the saying “we are what we eat”.  Beyond material interconnections and interdependencies, Sarah Moreau’s video recording of her performative piece entitled Extricate, animates how one might unmake physical or mental constraints to ensure self-sustenance or healing.

Drawing attention to the longevity of stuff while simultaneously unmaking the importance allotted to permanence and motioning towards more ephemeral art practices are works by Christopher Bradd, Michael Becker-Segal, Anita Cazzola, Craig Mainprize, Joseph Muscat, Gunnel Hag, Marcel O’Gorman, Frances Patella and Sarah Moreau.  Bradd’s photograph Untitled (Hole), although small, records a much bigger story about resource extraction and how the holes we dig and mine can never be replenished. Becker-Segal’s concrete Coca-Cola also speaks to the permanence of material transformation in addition to symbolizing the material strength and permanence of large corporations and their industrial affiliations. From concrete to asphalt, Cazzola’s Constant State of Becoming: Between Surface & Form offers an interesting assemblage of different materials to unmake assumptions that light and thin objects might be more ephemeral than thicker and heavier industrial artifacts. 

Gorman’s Treachery video of a burning video game presented inside a newly re-constructed wood housing playfully screens how “stuff” is iterative and yet his burning of the video game on land located at the edge of suburban sprawl, serves as a caution to the ongoing unmaking of agricultural spaces for residential ones.  Patella’s archival work Grounded also foreshadows or speculates about a future where we will only be able to access nature through photography.  Almost true to scale and amalgamated atop a polished concrete floor, with each step the viewer is forced to recognize that this is already a reality within the space they stand. Allowing visitors to add to the installation by unmaking another stack of photos, the interactive aspect of the work allows audiences to help unmake the concrete or the excess of images she has accumulated over time. 

Eloquently narrating how we often do not know where “things” end up or how they are behaving once out of sight / site is the photo story by Muscat. Stemming from an earlier work entitled Fil d’Ariane, the viewer is presented with documentation that shows the gradual disappearance of a large textile installation, first through the acts of nature and then mysteriously at the hands of humans. Hag’s Leslie Spit Revisited rust painting similarly brings to the surface how materials continue to be “lively actants” constantly changing and informing the space in which they reside long after we thought they were gone

To address the longevity of immaterial things, Boothia Uplift by Craig Mainprize, seen traversing the centre wall of the gallery, architecturally reconfigures his personal library to point to how language and texts can become physical and psychological institutions within our day to day lives.  Three other works that offer us examples of how text/s have lasting impact on space and bodies and how we might begin to “unmake the harm and distance” they have caused are the works of Emma Chorostecki, Janice Turner and Denise Holland.  Turner’s piled paper stones, created from Christian bible pages, visualize how even if torn, burned or defaced, the contained ideas and beliefs continue to have weight within individual and collective lives.  94 Calls, a large paper work in which Holland wrote the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action backwards with her non-dominant hand, offered the artist a way to acknowledge her position as a settler and unmake or unlearn the limited perspectives of a Colonial history.  Also a way of expressing her venerability within this place and time, I read this gesture as a sign of hope that settlers and Indigenous communities will begin to work together to undo the distance strategically placed between them through political agendas and racist conservative media sources. 

Pulling from a similar perspective, Chorostecki’s The Peacemaker, uses form, function and method to craft a firm critique of the creative storytelling firmly seated within Canada’s Colonial past and present that often covers up the many ugly truths about our nation’s true identity.  Although only symbolic and not nearly representative of the trauma and destruction manifested by colonial, settler mentalities, in some way Chorostecki’s small gesture of unmaking her carefully crafted replica of a colonial chair acknowledges we all have a role to play in redressing and reconciling Turtle Island’s past. 

Accentuating how things can’t be thrown away and unmaking our notions about what should be discarded salvagers Kim Wilke, Laurie Skantzos, Theresa Passarello, Sarah Carlson, Andres Vosu, Justin Cosman, Ben Benedict, Doris Purchase, Paul Cade, Caroline Popiel and Dori Vanderheyden all use detritus as their muse.

Mining her studio excess, Wilkie’s Paint Rug, entitled as “in progress”, immediately unmakes the notion that what we encounter is fixed and finished.  Formulated from dried out sludge she finds at the bottom of her water buckets or on her studio floor, the artist’s twisting and stitching of waste into what might seem like an early colonial, settler, braided rug, reignites interest in the knowledge, skill, labour and resourcefulness often required in early, traditional craft. Within Chrysalis I, Carlson uses hand weaving and knotting techniques to cleverly transform reclaimed, retired, rock climbing rope into large pod like entanglements that reference human, plant and animal forms all at once.  

Skantzos’s layered and intimate work Pink Stitching delightfully demonstrates how to reconsider the promise that lies within the partial and undo the mentality “it’s all or nothing”. This is also true of Passarello’s Ivory Tower in which the artist extracted piano keys from an unmovable, unstorable and unsaleable piano to unmake unpleasant sounds and arrive at a striking vertical construction that serendipitously, through its materiality, also comments on the social hierarchies that predetermine access to and sustainability of material wealth.  Caroline Popiel’s whimsical Couch Creature Cuddles also show us how we unmake the whole to arrive at new forms of support and comfort.

Saving the container rather the contents, Vanderheyden’s exquisitely small assemblages housed in old perfume bottles playfully explores how our bodies, emotions and sexuality are often attached to other material. No Strings Attached and Dying Flame of Desire also help us to unmake the belief that “bigger is better” displaying how the monumental and the sublime can come in the tiniest of packages.

Another container, this time seemingly unmaking itself, is found within the work When a Basket Lets its Hair Down.  Simply reclaimed and turned on its head, Vosu shows us how in simply letting something come undone we can arrive at something we could never have arrived at through imagination or rationale. By flipping the arrangement of things, Purchase’s Piece Unmade re-centres what we might consider the subject or surface while subversively unmaking hierarchies that remain in the world of fine art.  Forcing us to look to the inside of things is Cade’s Unmade Bed. His pulling back the covers and encasing reveals how taking the time and energy to deconstruct things might lead to a new aesthetic or an excess of raw material.

Cosman’s and Benedict’s harder edged assemblages of found architectural elements, beyond putting us all at risk of turning into hoarders, point to the potential of that which is considered broken or not worth saving.  I Ruined the House for You and Prairie Construction also nudge us to unmake or redefine what might be considered beautiful.  

Unmaking the accelerated nature of our hyper-connected existence are works by Jacques Descoteaux, Jessica Slip and Claire Bartleman.  I Read the News by Descoteaux uses collage as a method to extract headlines that need more attention than given to them by the fast paced and capitalist driven media sources. Slipp’s Becoming Rock video reminds us that as land of the future, we are part of a much longer ecological era, emphasizing that what we do on earth has a lasting impact beyond our own existence.  Bartleman’s Did Grandma Make This?, created through the slow removal of threads from a found painting, offers physical evidence of how we can unmake the increased rate at which we create.  

william boyd fraser, Megan Green, Pamela Nelson, Brian Groberman, Steph Cloutier and Dagmar Kovar unmake the idea that we can speak on behalf of, repair or represent the complexity, force and beauty of nature.  Both looking at fire as a medium and burning as a method, Green and boyd fraser allow the affected materials to communicate their truth. Untitled Spirit 1 & 2 poetically draws attention to the preexisting form and life of the trees cut down. Green’s preciously presented melted plastic, salvaged from the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires, dismantles any preconception that we might be able to control or prevent the wrath of the elemental. 

On the other side of this narrative, Cloutier’s video I Try and Try dramatizes the anthropocentric mindset that persists even while trying to save the planet / nature.  Repetitiously and unsuccessfully trying to cover up the roots of Cottonwood trees with soil on Toronto Island, the futile gesture highlights nature’s resistance to human intervention whether during destruction or repair. Capturing a past performance, Nelson’s large Untitled floor work of strangled clay and twisted rope simultaneously reminds us of the agency of natural materials within a non-human landscape as well as their fragility and disappearance at the hands of humankind.  

Offering hope of how the elements and processes of nature, if given the time, can undo the industrialization and over population of an environment is Groberman’s haunting photo Immanent Danger II. This message is also delivered through Kovar’s Unexpected Poems, in which carefully presents bound stones unmake our limited understanding of language and communication, encouraging us to pay attention to that which cannot be put into words. 

In coming to a temporal close, I am once again extremely grateful for the opportunity provided to me by the Propeller Art Gallery and membership whose volunteerism and administrative support has ensured UNMADE’s success as a generative research-creation project that demonstrates how different methods of unmaking help to undo our attachments to familiar ways of consuming, making and seeing.  Although only partially addressed, I am also extremely thankful to all the artists who chose to participate in the curatorial call and exhibition so that we could work together in illustrating how acts of unmaking help to arrive at the unknown, new resources, innovative ideas as well as the unmaking and remaking of ourselves.  

Please be sure to follow UNMADE’s artists through their online platforms and take the time to read more about each artist’s work as presented through their artist statements on the wall and in the online catalogue. 

Jill Price

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