Get ‘woke’ with the art of Awakening

Randall Finnerty, Wounded Moose, 2004 / Charcoal. Courtesy Canada Council.

How, one might ask of an art exhibition about environmental responsibility that has travelled the world, did all that art get around?

With previous stops in Toronto, New York, Geneva and Bonn, the exhibition Awakening, now in Ottawa, must have travelled on carbon dioxide-spewing jets. Given the exhibition’s theme of environmental sustainability, isn’t that at best awkward, and at worst hypocritical?

I raise this point not because I agree with it, but because this supposed conflict — this red herring, this straw man — bugs the bejeebers out of me. I’ll bet that a few people who pass through the lobby of the Canada Council for the Arts building on Elgin Street will read about the exhibition’s ocean-jumping travels and dismiss the message of the art. 

Chih-Chien Wang, Yushan Carries Shaore by Lake #2, 2011 / Inkjet print. Courtesy Canada Council

As I looked at the art, in the Ajagemo exhibition space, I rather hoped that someone would stop and scoff and dismiss the environmental message, so I could say to them, “Hey, friend, sometimes you have to fire a gun to stop a war.” Or perhaps, “Did you know that firefighters often start fires in forests to stop forest fires?” 

Whew. I feel better for the rant. Now, as for the art . . . 

Awakening consists of 21 works by Canadian and indigenous artists, curated by the renowned Canadian designer and thinker Bruce Mau. The works “depict collisions between city and ecology, nature and nurture, consumption and conservation, ideals and actions,” a release says, all to “provoke thought and discussion about how we relate to the environment and the need for a more sustainable approach.”

Eleanor Bond, IV Converting the Powell River Mill to a Recreation and Retirement Centre, 1985 / Oil on canvas. Courtesy Canada Council

Mau, in text stencilled on the gallery wall, puts it more succinctly: “Now that we can do anything, what will we do?” Below the words is Chih-Chien Wang’s photograph of a person standing at the water’s edge, before them the limitless beauty of water and mountains, behind them a beach carpeted with human footprints. The text and photo are an effective juxtaposition. 

Most of the works are grouped by loose commonalities — wild creatures, or human development, or traditional practices, or by a sense of wide open spaces. Norval Morrisseau’s 1964 gouache painting of bear, fish and sun represents an eternal and “sacred cycle.” Next to it hangs Randall Finnerty’s 2004 drawing of a “wounded moose,” with the mighty creature’s midsection incongruously wrapped in a white bandage. 

David Morrish, Bird Box, 2001 / Photogravure (intaglio). Courtesy Canada Council

Kim Ondaatje’s 1973 lithograph is mostly open air, as grey and gloomy as the piles of slag beneath, and the titular Inco slag train. The human intrusion into nature is more subtly rendered in Takao Tanabe’s 1972 painting of a landscape where almost all the lines are unnaturally straight and “controlled.” More open to interpretation is Ken Danby’s 1974 silkscreen of a bikini-clad woman sunbathing in a backyard; is it obliviousness, or indifference, or perhaps an allusion to a common summer pastime that could, as the climate changes, become even riskier than it has always been?

There’s no such ambiguity in Edward Burtynsky’s 1983 photograph of a copper mine in Utah, an open-pit mess that made me think of an ancient, abandoned amphitheatre. Showing tonight, tragedy. 

But what of comedy? There’s a wry and dark humour in Joanne Tod’s 1984 painting Kiss This Goodbye. It appears to be a well-kept and welcoming park, all tall trees and shady glades. Step closer and see two small words in the centre of the canvas: “We’re fucked.”

One hopes not. Perhaps some thoughtful art, and the consistent refutation of idiotic calls for inaction, can save us from ourselves.

Awakening continues to May 18 at 150 Elgin St. Admission is free. 

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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.