meromictic, at artLAB Gallery 

meromictic’s title wall, hand-painted using a spectrum of natural pigments.

In the last days before the spring of 2024, the artLAB Gallery at Western University presented meromictic: an exhibition curated by Dr. Kirsty Robertson’s Museum and Curatorial Practicum class. At the conceptual centre of meromictic is Kionywarihwaen, meaning: “where we have a story to tell.” It is the Wyandot name for a small lake cupped in the palms of the Niagara Escarpment, although growing up as a settler in the nearby town of Milton, Ontario, I knew it by its colonial epithet: Crawford Lake. Of all the stories which have been told at Kionywarihwean, a new one has been forming since scientific research began there in the 1970’s. It is the story of how humans have imposed our presence on the geological record, marking our deeply troubled relationship with the earth in the earth.  

Kionywarihwaen has the rare quality of being meromictic; its waters do not mix. Consequently, organic material builds up on the lakebed, forming a layered archive that reaches back over one thousand years. In the exhibition’s opening photograph of a lakebed core sample, pollens from Indigenous agriculture beginning in around 1300 are preserved just centimeters below plutonium fallout from nuclear weapons testing performed by the United States, Soviet Union and United Kingdom in the 1950’s. The International Commission on Stratigraphy proposed (but ultimately was not successful in designating) the lake as an indicator for the Anthropocene in 2023 because of this layer of plutonium, this distinct marker of human intervention. Kionywarihwaen is a literal scorekeeper of human damage, as well as a metaphor which presides over the rest of the show. The lake is an invitation to unearth what we have already deposited, and to consider what we are laying down for our future. Artworks by Janice Brant Kahehtoktha, Nico Williams, Simon Fuh, Tomonari Nishikawa, Stefan Herda, Lisa Hirmer, Greg Curnoe and Kelly Wood are placed in dialogue with scientific samples and archaeological materials. Together, they speak to the inherent enmeshment of the human with her planet, and the inter-perpetuating forces of colonialism, greed and negligence which threaten the survival of both. 

A work which plays a significant part in the show’s discussion of layers and time is Janice Brant Kahehtoktha’s Log Ring Printing (2023). This is a diptych of relief prints made from cross-sections of ash and oak trees. The works honour the trees that she used to create log mortars and pestles, reflecting her role as a caretaker of heirloom seeds and a cook engaged in Haudenosaunee food traditions. Each wooden nodule from the textured logs translates to a beautiful, dark bubble of ink on the page, the individual marks as mesmerizing as the compositions in their entirety. The dots conform to rings, and each ring records a year of growth. Gazing inward and outward through the trees’ bodies, I am gazing through time: from slender saplings to trunks wide enough to help feed a community, then back again. I am reminded that time and shifting climate write themselves in the fibers of tree bodies just as they write them into mine. More powerful than this dark reminder, however, is the beauty of how these organisms are presented on the page. The trees drew circles around themselves over many years and Kahehtoktha builds upon this artistry, forming a tender memory of their memory.

Janice Brant Kahehtoktha, Log Ring Printing (detail), ash and oak, walnut ink and acrylic paint on paper, 2023.

Across the gallery, Wan Ha Nii by Greg Curnoe (1936-1992) reflects upon the layered history of London, Ontario, where the show is hosted. These two works on paper made from watercolour, stamp pad ink, pencil and blueprint pencil are part of a series featuring translations of the words “I” and “me” into Ojibwe, Oneida, Cornish, French and English. These text-based self-portraits are exhibited alongside Curnoe’s posthumously published books Deed/Abstracts (1995) and Deeds/Nations (1996). Prompted by a property line dispute at the artist’s London home and his research into the area’s precolonial past, the first volume describes the history of Curnoe’s lot, and the second lists over one thousand Indigenous inhabitants of Southwestern Ontario from 1750 to 1850. Arranged around the books are copies of Curnoe’s research sources and artifacts from the Museum of Ontario Archaeology.  

In the context of these materials, I read Curnoe’s portraits as a linguistic excavation of his identity as a settler. To whose voices and languages does he owe? Which parts of himself and his relationship to the land does he owe to his European ancestors, and which parts does he owe to the Indigenous cultures which colonizers have attempted to eradicate, but which have inevitably left deep impressions on Canadian life? With the museum artifacts and a mention of Curnoe’s excavation of his property on the didactic, the image of an archaeologist with his trowel is summoned to my mind’s eye. I am apprehensive of the settler archaeologist, who has so often desecrated Indigenous sites and stolen bodies and objects in the name of historical discovery. I believe Curnoe’s research and artworks represent a more considered type of unearthing, and they make me question the ways by which settler artists and historians search for truth. Just as Curnoe’s artworks consider the many mother tongues which inform his sense of self, as we scrape back the layers of time to find what is hidden underneath, our efforts must be informed by a deep understanding of our relationship and responsibility to all the peoples ho have lived on this land, and who continue to do so. 

Left: Greg Curnoe, Wan Ha Nii, watercolour, stamp pad ink, pencil and blueprint pencil, October 10, 1991 – February 5, 1992.

Right: Greg Curnoe’s Wan Ha Nii exhibited alongside his books Deed/Abstracts (1995) and Deeds/Nations (1996), as well as documents provided by Dr. Neal Ferris (UWO) and artifacts from the Museum of Ontario Archaeology.

Making up roughly half of meromictic is scientific specimens, and they are arranged into compelling artworks unto themselves by the show’s emerging curators. I am fascinated by a series of rock core samples presented on wedge-shaped shelves made from white packing foam. This bold curatorial statement provokes me to feel both revulsion towards the plastic “garbage” as well as an uneasy aesthetic enchantment. The foam shelves almost sparkle like carved snow, and their lightness and ephemerality stand in contrast to the heavy, polished stones they support. I have the visceral compulsion to save the stones from falling from their seemingly flimsy perches, a feeling which to me is analogous to our ecological moment, with the fate of the earth borne precariously by our fragile social architecture of wastefulness and plastic dependence. 

The Museum and Curatorial Practicum class, Rock core samples (detail), 2024.
Samples provided by Dr. Patricia Corcoran (UWO).

Another compelling specimen exhibit is a collection of soil chromatograms displayed on a dim light table, which is held upright in the arms of a rusted bicycle rack. Through their arrays of earthy colour, the chromatograms reveal the varying levels of fertility of soil samples taken around London. Labelled by place name on scraps of white and yellow paper, the chromatograms give me the impression of sketched watercolour portraits. They are delightful, collaborative paintings between the soil and the students, and directly connect the actual soil on which the gallery stands to the exhibition’s metaphor of layered earth. The repurposed rack, one of two in the show, resembles a mid-century Minimalist sculpture left to decay. The racks are the show’s most impressive executions of its sustainable curating ethos, and cause me to ponder the inevitable consumption of the objects we make as artists by the forces of nature. 

The Museum and Curatorial Practicum class, Soil chromatography, 2024.

I find the most affecting work just outside the main gallery in Simon Fuh’s Transfiguration of the Antler River. In this site-specific installation, water from the Deshkan Ziibi (Antler River) which flows beside the building is transformed into condensation. The droplets cling to the corridor of floor-to-ceiling windows, gracefully underscoring the river’s perpetual presence, even outside the borders of its channel. As described in the show’s catalogue, Fuh wonders with this work whether the Deshkan Ziibi dreams of being elsewhere, just as settlers dreamed of elsewhere when they gave the river its colonial epithet: Thames River. I am provoked to wonder: what would happen if the people of this city regarded the river as a being which yearns? As a being which longs to be other than what we have made it? What if the river came before everything else in our line of sight, like droplets patterning the view through a window?  

For me, Transfiguration of the Antler River is the show’s stand-out work because it poetically breaches the skin of the gallery, a space which deals in metaphor, symbolism and facsimile. Here, the river is everything and everywhere, not just as a device to think through the Anthropocene, but a literal presence on the walls and in the cool air I breathe as I stand surrounded in the artwork. This installation teaches me that there is no place where the school, the home, or the body stops and the river begins. 

Simon Fuh, Transfiguration of the Antler River, condensation, 2024. Photo courtesy of Simon Fuh,

It is a real accomplishment for an exhibition dealing with environmental themes to leave me feeling something other than total loss. I come away from this show with dismay, yes, but with an attendant curiosity about the inner lives of lakes, stones and skies. I come away with a glimpse of the threads between all these things, eager to pluck them to hear their timbre, and feeling that it is my responsibility to do so. meromictic is a significant accomplishment by Dr. Kirsty Robertson and her Museum and Curatorial Practicum class of 2024, and I look forward to what the future holds for these emerging curators.   

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Reilly Knowles is a settler and visual artist living in London, Ontario — on the traditional territories of the Anishinaabek, Haudenosaunee, Lūnaapéewak and Chonnonton Nations. His criticism has been published in Femme Art Review, and he is the Community Engagement Coordinator for McIntosh Gallery at Western University.  Reilly is currently involved in a local environment art project, which has been covered in a recent CBC article. A new art exhibit takes you deeper into the history and ecosystem of the Coves in London | CBC News

Centred acknowledges the support funding of the London Arts Council for Reilly’s article, which is noted with sincere gratitude.

  

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