One fine summer day we were driving the backroads of PEI in search of a shortcut, which I had known as a teen but had, it turned out, forgotten. So we pulled into a dusty, rustic gas station, where the only person in sight was methodically dropping quarters into an ancient pop machine.
“Excuse me,” I asked the thirsty woman, “can you tell me where we are?”
“Well,” she said, as she stooped to fetch a cool bottle of Seaman’s Orange, “that depends on where you’re trying to be.”
I’ve never decided whether the reply was simply inscrutable or a bon mot of homespun wisdom. Perhaps it’s a kind of mapping, of knowing that we can’t be where we want to be (or have what we want to have) without knowing where we are (or what we have).
I was chewing this over as I walked through Collective Record, the group exhibition in the new Gallery Annex in the new Ottawa Art Gallery. Each of the six artists interprets the theme — “the notion of mapping” — in their own way, looking forward, backward, at the nearest moment, in an effort to find something meaningful. History, geography, identity, personal experience; the questions, and the answers, are open to interpretation.
The artists are Rémi Theriault, Colin White, Alexandre Laquerre, Juliana McDonald, Jenny McMaster and Barbara Gamble. While the starting point of curator Stephanie Germano’s theme is “the use of mapping to geographical plotting out a place,” it also suggests mapping as “a tool to reconstruct lost memories from a traumatic event or utilized as a form of record-keeping.” Hence my memory of the thirsty lady long ago asking where I was trying to be.
Any visitor to the new gallery space, which is attached to the new gift shop, will likely see their own route/path through the art on display, reflected in images of land or city, or through the artists’ chosen media, or through personal experience. Where are we, and were do we want to be?
Personal experience is most vividly mapped in the photographs of Rémi Theriault, a once-and-again Ottawa resident (and PEI native, incidentally) who spent a couple of years in Vancouver. There he was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident — damage to his arms and legs and “a brain bleed that luckily stopped after a day or two.”
Four smaller photos were taken while he was in hospital, or outside of it. On the sidewalk in front of the hospital he sits in a wheelchair, with both arms bandaged, his right foot in a cast and his left leg in another cast to the knee. There are cuts on his forehead and his left eye appears to be swollen shut. His expression is a mixture of pain and pensiveness. His presence on the sidewalk seems incongruous, as if he’s both out of place and in the best place he could be.
His injuries are like features on a map, and his expression is one of searching for answers — what had happened to him, where the experience would lead him and, surely in some way, change him.
One year later, it led him back to the scene of the accident, on a strikingly beautiful stretch of highway. One of three large photographs of the return shows a highway sign indicating the distance to the communities of Lytton, Hope and Vancouver. “The road leads where it’s led,” goes a song by the Secret Machines, and one imagines Theriault is still on that road, leading it, and being led. He has lingering, minor injuries from the crash, he says, and adds, “I still ride.”
Jenny McMaster’s mapping is literal, in that they are maps of Almonte and Ottawa past or present. But I wondered if the journey was not through streets and rivers but through McMaster’s medium, which is handmade paper. The surface has texture, depth, and a character all its own quite apart from the stories stitched upon it. What experiences, what ideals, what knowledge and goals and dreams were a part of that paper’s journey from raw material to (still quite raw) finished craft? What can the commitment to that craft reveal about where this artist is, and wants to be?
Juliana McDonald and Barbara Gamble also created maps, in very different ways. McDonald’s collages muse upon the fate of the Monarch butterfly, which lives in an ecosystem that’s being intersected by Ottawa’s LRT project.
Gamble’s map is an abstracted painting, titled Interrupted Landscape #2, its topographical features blurred to segments of colour, it’s lines seeming to bend with the weight of disruption. That’s where we are. Is destruction where we’ll be?
It’s a contrast to the precision of drawings by Colin White and Alexandre Laquerre. White draws “lost buildings” of Ottawa with an attention to detail that speaks to true feeling for those old structures, and for the neighbourhood, and the community, they represent.
The drawings of Laquerre, an engineer, may initially seem so precise as to be antiseptic, but there’s also feeling in his architectural drawing of Parliament. After all, what building in Canada better demonstrates where we are, and where we’re trying, collectively, to be?
Collective Record continues to Aug. 5. All the artworks are for sale.