Peter Von Tiesenhausen is an ecologically-minded artist, who salvages to create. His extraordinary ‘Relief’ (above) is a mountain-scape sculpted from the clapperboards of an abandoned community hall. It conveys beauty and sadness in equal quantities and is going to stay in my mind for a long time.
Meanwhile, downstairs in the Art Gallery of Alberta, Sara Mary Blake’s ‘Falls in the Middle Fork of the Old Man River’ instantly transported me to the great Canadian outdoors (a good job too, because it is far too cold to actually venture into the mountains). Visitors to the gallery get to enjoy some of her canvases, but like the wonderful Ms Markontour, Blake also liked to paint the walls of her frontier home with landscapes, so that inside became outside.
Blake’s work is part of a retrospective exhibition ‘Undaunted: Canadian Women Painters of the 19th Century’. The key protagonists appear to have been mostly British women chronicling the final conquering of new lands. Frances Anne Hopkins canoed across Canada for a decade accompanying her Hudson Bay Company executive husband. Her evocative paintings show both the beauty of this vast landscape and how native Americans were co-opted into Europeans’ incessant drive to reap/rape nature’s bounty. You can’t help wondering what the Chippewa guides in her ‘Canoes in a Fog on Lake Superior’ are thinking as they steer their ancient craft in search of yet more fur.
Also painting scenes of exploration was Ishbel Maria Marjoribanks Hamilton Gordon (surely the longest name in art), who simultaneously penned ‘Through Canada with a Kodak’, an evangelistic account of the Scots divine destiny to rule new-found lands if the excerpt on display in the gallery is anything to go by.
Today there are still new frontiers in Canada, but they are below ground and the subject of male Canadian artist, Peter von Tiesenhausen’s, work. ‘Terms of Consequence’ is a dystopian take on fracking, comprised of 900 oblongs of scrap metal from a frack tank – the mechanical beasts sent to smash their way through shale in order to release trapped natural gas, and wreaking untold havoc on eco-systems essential to human life along the way.
I’m usually a bit squeamish about conceptual art, but Tiesenhausen’s exhibition had me transfixed. ‘Earth 2018: peppercorn’ comprises a blacked-out corridor with a single dot of light at one end. Upon tentative investigation, the light turns out to emanate from a tiny, up-lit planet Earth astride a black pyramid. It doesn’t need a footnote to say how small and insignificant we are in this great big universe.
I needed to lie down after that and almost drifted off amidst the surround-sound ethereal music. “There is geometry in the humming of strings”, said Pythogoras, “There is music in the spacing of the spheres.”. And there is great beauty and thought in the Art Gallery of Alberta. If, like me, you are out here for the IPCC Cities and Climate Change Science conference, make sure you take an hour out of deep discussion about the future of humanity to visit.