Human interventions in the environment as art experience

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Video still from the Memorialist, 2016. Image: D'Arcy Wilson

"I am a mammal!" professed artist D'Arcy Wilson during our interview. We were halfway through discussing her projects, which reckon with her estrangement -- and by extension, most of us in the Western world -- from nature and wildlife.

"I birthed a child. I lactate. No doubt, I have mammal attributes," Wilson emphasized. The Newfoundland-based creator, whose son is now 13 months old, was recently a recipient of the venerable Sobey Art Award. This year, organizers decided to bestow the prize to all the nominees instead of crowning a winner. 

Wilson's work zones in on how nature/wildlife has been controlled and utilized by humans, employing photographs, installations, actions and video: "I'm trying to understand where my body fits into the natural world as a participant of capitalist culture and a descendant of Europeans."

Indeed, it's also a concept that dovetails with the work of another Canadian artist, Oliver Kellhammer. Born in Waterloo, Ontario, but now spending his time between New York City and the coast of B.C., Kellhammer is fascinated with the issue of public land. His work involves direct interaction with the environment, a method Wilson also applies but in different ways (more on that later).

"For me, guerrilla gardening is emancipatory work," explained Kellhammer. "Back in the early '90s, I started this squatting project by planting a garden on the right of way of a road in the downtown eastside of Vancouver, which is still a very down-and-out area. I cleared it and planted buckwheat because it sucks lead out of the soil."

Pretty soon, he had elderly people, who were originally from China and grew up on farms there, asking if they could have a garden: "They showed me how to make compost of out tofu curds and also how to grow Chinese gourds and greens." Then, some of the First Nations people, many struggling with addiction and poverty, also joined in.

"It was a gesture which became a movement," said Kellhammer, who teaches first-year students sustainability at the Parsons School of Design at the New School in New York. "The city, which had been ignoring the neighbourhood, wanted to widen the road to allow more trucks. It tried to shut us down, but fortunately, we had some allies on council and it became the biggest community garden in Canada."

The Cottonwood Community Gardens is still thriving in Vancouver: "It's an autonomous zone where people can just build things. It has nothing to do with real estate or capitalism. It's an oasis from development." (Check out Kellhammer's return to Vancouver greenspace with Means of Production -- another self-sustaining, open-source ecosystem.)

'We can't escape contamination'

Kellhammer's fascination with how things grow in the midst of hardship comes from his childhood in the heart of industrial Ontario. His late father worked in a styrene factory and would take him to the factory on weekends when he did maintenance work. Kellhammer would play in the back, a place populated by weeds and piles of industrial waste. 

"I feel attracted to these spaces which are dangerous and contaminated … It's the lived reality of the Anthropocene. We can't escape contamination. It's already in you -- we have microplastics in our bodies, heavy metals in our hair," noted Kellhammer. "I think of the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek who talks about loving your garbage because loving someone means also loving their flaws. If you love the world, you must love the garbage."

A recent work that speaks to this is Plastivore, and it goes back to his styrene-imbued childhood. Kellhammer was jogging along the East River in N.Y.C., and noticed giant pieces of expanded polystyrene, i.e. styrofoam, everywhere. Since it's used as packing material and in food containers, it is ubiquitous during garbage day in the city.

"The smell of styrene is oddly nostalgic to me. It smells like my father," recalled Kellhammer. "I read an article about this girl's science project in China where she discovered that meal worms can digest the material. I tried it and saw that the Styrofoam left behind looked like a big Swiss cheese and then it reminded me of those big scholar's stones in Buddhist gardens. Everything has a life cycle. Even stone is ephemeral."

Galleries became interested and soon, the Science Gallery in Dublin, Ireland asked to exhibit the piece. It was a hit, and then another gallery, in Melbourne, Australia, requested to feature a bigger version of it. They created a vitrine where viewers could watch the worms turn the material into compost.

"The fact that these worms have developed the ability to digest plastic maybe tells us nature is smarter than we think!" asserted the artist. Speaking during the COVID-19 lockdown, Kellhammer adds: "Processes in nature are going to outsmart us. Life will go on, but maybe not ours. Look at this virus."

Oliver Kellhammer's 'Palstivore' at the Science Gallery Melbourne (Image: Photo by Nicole Cleary)









Oliver Kellhammer's "Plastivore" at the Melbourne Science Gallery (Image: Nicole Cleary)

Discomfort with zoos

As Kellhammer retakes and re-imagines spaces and materials, D'Arcy Wilson reconstructs and examines human interference with wildlife. Wilson, who teaches visual art at Grenfell Campus -- Memorial University, is concerned with grieving her "own disconnect from nature."

Wilson, who grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, has mounted works under the theme of The Memorialist. It stems from her discovery, while researching the Nova Scotia archives, about the first ever zoological gardens in North America, which opened in 1847. It was a public park devoted to the study of nature.

"I've always been uncomfortable with zoos," stated Wilson from her home in Corner Brook. "How strange it is to see a wild animal within a false habitat recreated for them. It's so off -- it's what Western culture desires from nature."

Wilson points out that the park was opened in a city that was surrounded by wilderness. The park's creator, Andrew Downs, was a member of the Zoological Society of London: "He created this fantasy world where he could be the caregiver to these animals. But through this process of caring, he was harming."

Wilson's pieces retrace Downs' research through Victorian natural history museums and preserves with hand-coloured and cut etchings of the Downs' Zoological Gardens, which spanned 100 acres at the time. In some of the series' photographs, one can see Wilson posed in business clothing, looking stern and stiff: "I implicate myself. I am retelling it in a critical light -- I'm having to unlearn these narratives handed down to me because of my heritage."

Another facet of The Memorialist features Wilson (again in business-like attire and awkwardly holding a tablet featuring nature scenes) in various European museums of nature including The Oxford Museum of Natural History and The American Museum of Natural History -- Department of Ornithology. The photos are performative and speak to her own incompatibility with nature: "How separate am I from other animals?"

Wilson's journey to The Memorialist has its seeds in earlier works dating back about a decade. In 2011, she created works under the title Gestures of Care, in which she wrote lullabies for the taxidermy animals at the Banff Park Museum. 

More recently, in #1 Fan, Wilson goes further to inhabit that disconnection. In a series of photos, and on video, she features in a beautiful landscape (in Western Newfoundland or Kananaskis, Alberta) dressed in brightly coloured outdoor clothing, alone and looking exuberant.

"I was thinking about eco-tourism and what happens when we use landscape as entertainment. I'm this girl character who is totally enraptured by the view … clearly dripping with desire to be a part of it, but she's totally missing out. I bought this vivid green, turquoise and purple activewear -- totally at odds with nature. So, it's about my conflicted relationship to the natural world."

Going forward, Wilson's next focus will be eco-grief, stemming from her recent research with museums and collections and early practices of preservation i.e., the extinct bodies of animals.

"I think all this work I do, that acknowledges what we've done to the natural world, is hopeful," she said. "It's about seeing the broken connection and the identity crisis that comes with knowing that. We must take the steps, the labour, to reckon with this."

Meanwhile, Kellhammer has forged ahead with his land art. His Neo Eocene projects has him planting trees that normally grow in warm climes in northern regions. In researching earth's history, he discovered that 55 million years ago -- in a time period known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum -- increased volcanic activity created massive amounts of carbon dioxide. As a result, according to his findings, palm trees were growing where Alaska is, and the interior of B.C. was home to redwood trees.

"Forests are changing due to the heat and rise in temperatures, so I decided to plant trees that are from California in an abandoned clear-cut near where I live in B.C., on Cortes Island," said Kellhammer. Starting in 2008, along with some hired help, he began planting groves of gingko, metasequoia and coast redwood trees in a clearcut.

"The redwoods are now growing better than the Douglas firs," observed Kellhammer.

Kellhammer is also part of a collective of three artists of Dear Climate. Their project encourages people to write letters to the climate to deal with their emotions about the environment. There are posters, which you can download and print, calling people to "Retool your inner climate."  Some posters declare: "See the sea levels," "Go feral" or "Relish the dandelion."

As Kellhammer puts it: "We need to turn toward it -- warts and all."

June Chua is a Berlin-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for

Image: D'Arcy Wilson

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