For the coral: Sarah Hatton presents tip of climate change spear

Chelsea's Sarah Hatton finds her Tipping Point in the Visual Voice Gallery in Montreal.

Sarah Hatton grew up in Barbados and considered herself to be “somewhat of an expert” on the coral reefs that surround the Caribbean island. Then, years later, she read her daughter’s Grade 6 science fair project titled Why is the Coral Dying?

“The current scientific facts of the matter totally floored me,” says Hatton, who lives in Chelsea, Quebec these days. “The accelerating death of the reefs are the bellwether for a kind of change that is irreversible and devastating. Coral death is far beyond the canary in the coal mine — it puts the rest of the ocean ecosystem on notice, and the other pieces fall rapidly in sequence.”

That phrasing led her to think of dominos, and that led to Tipping Point, which is the title of Hatton’s small, powerful exhibition at Visual Voice Gallery in Montreal. Once again, Hatton has used ordinary objects to make an eloquently simple statement about a complex issue.

This piece by Sarah Hatton is called Point of Order (Show of Hands) and it features 40 white hands taken from plastic mannequins. It is inspired by Staghorn Coral.

Tipping Point includes three installations that resemble a particular species of coral. Point of Order (Show of Hands) is 40 white hands taken from plastic mannequins, and inspired by Staghorn Coral. They’re arranged in a tight group and reach upward, as if agreeing to some action, or, perhaps, as if grasping for air while sinking below the surface of rising seas.

The titular installation, subtitled (Domino Effect), represents Common Brain Coral, a type that strikingly resembles the human brain. Hatton’s brain coral is about five feet across and its surface is covered in about 7,000 dominos. The plain, white blocks are arranged in a meandering, lobe-like pattern, each block representing the many natural factors that, once triggered by our neglect, will fall in cataclysmic sequence.

Tipping Point (subtitled Domino Effect) is made of thousands of dominos arranged to look like Common Brain Coral.

The installation that best demonstrates Hatton’s willingness to tackle mind-numbing minutiae is Breaking Point (Last Straw). Inspired by Great Star Coral, it’s made of tens of thousands of white plastic straws — “approximately 53,100, give or take a few,” Hatton says, who earned a repetitive-strain injury while making the piece. “I never want to see another plastic straw again.”

It’s essential to Hatton’s conceptual art that it be made of common objects that are central to the crisis, in this case the unchecked production and disposal of plastic. Previously, she recreated the night skies over First World War battlefields using brass fasteners pulled from the records of more than 600,000 Canadians who fought in the war. She set thousands of dead honeybees in clear resin to recreate exotic but naturally occurring patterns, such as the Fibonacci spiral.

Breaking Point (Last Straw) is inspired by Great Star coral. It’s made of tens of thousands of white plastic straws — “approximately 53,100, give or take a few,” Hatton says.

This makes art that is relatable. It’s high concept but never inscrutable. Hatton isn’t interested in the enigmatic. She wants to telegraph a clear message to viewers, to trigger profound thought about the state of our planet.

In Tipping Point, banal bits of plastic become intricate, vulnerable corals. Hatton says, “The fact that people can see it as beautiful underscores how little we comprehend that bleached white coral is extinct coral.”

Tipping Point continues to March 7 at Visual Voice Gallery, in the Belgo Building at 372 St. Catherine St. See more at

More in Montreal

While in Montreal, there’s a highly entertaining slate of exhibitions at the Musée des beaux arts.

One shows six Egyptian mummies. The exhibition includes the ornate sarcophagi and the ancient bodies wrapped in many layers of linen. X-rays and other modern technologies projected on video screens peel back the layers and allow viewers to see into the bodies, and often the gold ornaments with which they were entombed thousands of years ago.

Six mummies in a row at Montreal’s Musée des beaux arts.

Also showing is About Face, with photographs by Laurie Simmons, Rachel Harrison and that woman of a thousand faces, Cindy Sherman. Next to that exhibition is another that shows just how delightful an exhibition can be when based upon the idiosyncratic tastes of an individual collector.

For Every Atom Belonging To Me As Good Belongs To You is all art that belongs to Bruce Bailey, the Toronto investment banker turned avid and canny collector.

To say it’s eclectic is an understatement. On one wall there are prints by Dürer and Goya, while on another there’s Robert Mapplethorpe’s photograph of the punk high priestess Patti Smith, and a self-portrait of the actor James Franco in drag.

There’s no thesis here, beyond whatever insight one can find into the aesthetic ethos of Bailey. (“I just decided to collect with my eyes and my heart and not listen to the critics,” Bailey says in an interview published in the museum’s magazine.)

Cindy Sherman. Untitled no. 581, 2016, dye sublimation metal print, 3/6. Carol and David Appel Collection.
Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.

Lawrence Paul

So, there’s a portrait of Saint Anthony by Tamera de Lempicka and a typically gruesome etching of a wounded German soldier by Otto Dix. Look up and there’s Christopher Wahl’s  hilariously incongruous photograph of Queen Elizabeth II enjoying a hearty laugh. Look the other way and there’s Eric Fischl’s small painting of a man bathing.

There are works by Peter Doig, Attila Richard Lukacs, Shary Boyle, Richard Avedon, Marina Abramović and a host of others.

There are a few blockbuster pieces, such as Norval Morrisseau’s acrylic painting Norval As Shaman Telling Stories and Legends, or Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s large, vertical acrylic painting of natives playing in an epic forest of totem pole-like trees.

The entire back wall is given over to Alabama-born Kerry James Marshall’s huge, untitled woodcut. Its focus is a group of black men relaxing in an apartment, and the scale is impressive. It’s approximately six feet high and 50 feet long, and made of 12 framed sections. It is easily the biggest woodcut that I’ve ever seen, and Marshall made effective use of that horizontal slice of urban life, as the viewer’s eye moves across it like a movie camera panning the landscape.

The exhibits at the Musée des beaux Arts continue to March 29.


Kerry James Marshall. Untitled, 1998-1999, 12 woodcuts. © Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.