Hannah Claus, Patrick Mahon, Ellen Moffat, Joel Ong, Eeva Siivonen, Matthew Trueman
March 4 – April 17, 2021
It is hard to imagine what to expect in an exhibition of works based on tornado studies. As I discovered, Written on the Earth actually deals with a broad range of issues, inspired by interactions with the Western University Engineering research group, the Northern Tornadoes Project.
This is not the first collaboration between the McIntosh Gallery, Patrick Mahon, and the Northern Tornadoes Project. In 2018 the NTP research group asked Mahon to work with students and artists in response to evidence they had gathered on tornadoes in Canada. The resulting exhibition, Gust of Wind, included three of the artists here, and led to Written on the Earth.
For this collaboration, the six participating artists organized by Patrick Mahon, held a mini-residency with the NTP, where they learned about data gathered by the Project members relating to climate change and global warming. Mahon also invited indigenous knowledge-keeper Mike Hopkins to meet with the artists to discuss issues around land stewardship. The artists were given tours of special research facilities such as the Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel and the WindEEE Dome, that are used to test atmospheric effects on built structures.
The artists responded to the experiences and data through their artistic practices. Each work in the exhibition engages with a different aspect of our environment in sometimes surprising ways, demanding thoughtful participation.
The first work in the larger of the two rooms of the McIntosh Gallery, The Echo Keepers (2021) by Matthew Trueman, drew me in immediately. Sections of three tree trunks are arranged in a freestanding installation. Each is cut open and lighted within, so that one can peer in from the top or side. At first I was fascinated by the texture of the wood interior, and as I bent over to see more clearly I realized there was sound from speakers concealed in the trunks. Sounds of wind and trickling water seem to reference the connections that we know exist among trees and their surroundings. Small screens are placed inside, with shadowy reflections of branches swaying in the wind.
I was surprised at how moved I was by this work. The effort to engage with what we do not usually see, of trees taking water from the earth and releasing it into the atmosphere to form clouds, brought me up close to look and listen. The images, sounds, and ideas kept me circling around this grouping for awhile.
The second installation in this room is Hannah Claus’ evocation of a cloud (Untitled, 2021). A multitude of threads hang from the ceiling, each with small white ovals and circles attached at angles. The overall shape certainly relates to cloud formations and suggests the swirling movement we associate with clouds. There is also a lightness about this work, such that you begin to ignore the threads and focus on the scintillating circles and the overall spiral shape of this ‘cloud’. The whole comes alive with movement caused by air currents in the room.
A wall label informs us that Claus has a number of things in mind with this work. The Indigenous Haudenosaunee Creation teaching of the Sky World, and the way the community can work together, parallel the way particles accumulate to form clouds, or the structure of tornadoes. Even the state of the world during the current pandemic is reflected in this work: the way we all seem to be existing in suspension, apart from, and missing, our close contacts with family and friends.
Turning from Claus’ ‘cloud’ to Patrick Mahon’s two large graphic works installed on the wall, what I first see is an overall shimmering silver. As I come closer, each work coalesces into a landscape/townscape and I begin to recognize streets and shapes that seem to hover on the surface of the material. Alonsa Quiet #1 and Alonsa Quiet #2 (2021) refer to the town in Manitoba that experienced two tornadoes in 2018. Mahon used documentary photographs as the basis for these drawings. He carved lines and dots into mat board, then painted these with a ‘silvery’ watercolour, capturing the moment after the tornado has passed, a moment of intense stillness. What I sense is a moment frozen in time, as though the community waits to restart life, wondering if it will be safe and possible to do so.
Finally, I notice incised words in the wood frames and try to read them. Since the words follow the frame, they are not always easy to decipher, but they describe how people took shelter below ground but were exposed when homes were ripped apart. The quotes are taken from reports on the Alonsa tornadoes by the Northern Tornadoes Project, another form of documentation that the artist references for his imagery.
Like the installations in this room, these graphic images hold my attention as I try to really see and understand the depictions that are both beautiful and disquieting. That the images and the words require concentration to ‘see’ I take as part of the message here – a tornado moves quickly, relentlessly, and leaves the community breathless in that moment of absolute silence.
A smaller room at the back of this gallery houses the work of Joel Ong, Variations on Aeolian Dynamics: For Contained Winds (2021). Ong is a media artist who works with sound and physical space. His plan was to use the University’s WindEEE Hexagonal Dome (designed to test structures in extreme weather conditions) to film a dancer reacting to a simulated tornado that would be “distilled to movement and vorticity.” In 2020, Ong put together a team of specialists including in data visualization, graphic design and videography, who would work with the dancer in the Dome. Unfortunately, the Covid pandemic began before they could complete the work, and he turned to a group of dancers from York University to film individual videos of their improvised movements, which were then used in an audio-visual animation.
Ong experiments with the dancers’ improvisations, with notions of resistance and movement with and against wind, with fear engendered by the wildness of extreme windy conditions. The results are a series of videos that mesmerize. Videos on small screens present dancers responding to wind, and to smoke moving with the gusts. On one screen I watched a figure that seems to be composed of points of light, gesturing and moving around a small, darkened dome that references the WindEE structure. The space is dark, with one spotlight projecting upwards from the floor, enhancing the drama of the movement. (This is accompanied by very loud wind sounds: apparently it is very noisy in the WindEEE Dome.) The dancer looms above the dome, shifting against an imagined wind and holding poses in response to the thrust. That moving image has stayed with me, days after viewing.
The second gallery space at the McIntosh is dark, with two floor installations: 7 flat television screens interspersed with flat speakers. Eeva Siilvonen’s Fugitive Lifes (2021) and Ellen Moffat’s When the Crickets Hesitate (2021) are wonderfully complementary. I was first drawn to the images on the screens that were in slow, constant motion. Siilvonen describes her process: ink drops slowly disperse in puddles, combining with fragments of organic matter such as ocean sediment, rocks, flower petals, butterfly wings. Moving around the gallery space, looking down at each of these slowly transforming images, I was reminded of the old-fashioned kaleidoscope. Each image shifts, gradually fading and then renewing. They are all colourful and visually appealing.
At the same time, there is sound around me, and I realized the circular objects placed on the floor among the screens are speakers. The sound composition is somehow musical, but without instruments. Instead, Moffat uses field recordings from around southwestern Ontario that include insects, wind, water, birds, thunder, motors – as she puts it, human and non-human sounds. The artist manipulates these recordings such that we do not know where we are, and we try to identify what we are hearing. Her term for this is ‘sonic ecology’ and it fits so well with the screen images of human intervention in nature (how I interpret the idea of ink drops acting on natural elements).
Both these artists are clearly concerned with the interconnections of humans and nature. They worked independently, yet the sounds and images form a unity, reflecting how we can experience nature. Considering how Moffat and Siivonen work with beautiful images and sounds, I want to see this as positive, even in the face of all the harm I know we humans have inflicted on our earth that are suggested in these works.
The artists whose works make up Written on the Earth do challenge us to recognize the impacts of our actions. Each brings a focus to a small part of our world. We can connect with a tree, a cloud, a town, or the varied sounds of the landscape. It is as though they present data they gleaned from the research Project in forms that we can understand, that can matter to us. This is the nature of the collaboration between the Northern Tornado Research group and the artists. They both work with visual data/images. It is as though the artists translate the scientific information so that we can truly ‘see’ the realities and understand the implications.
But my question must be: will it matter enough to move us to positive action?
I leave Written on the Earth feeling hopeful, because of these thoughtful, powerful works.
Post Script: A panel discussion among the artists and lead researcher of the NTP took place during the exhibition and is available at youtube.com: Written on the Earth Panel Discussion.
Madeline Lennon Professor Emerita, Visual Arts, Western University
All images courtesy of the McIntosh Gallery