How to Breathe Forever at Onsite Gallery is an exhibition that explores the relationship between contemporary environmental issues and their effects on the body. The show is simultaneously a beautiful display of artistic practice and a call to action to preserve the balance between nature and humanity and to establish sustainable ideologies to maintain life.
The curator Lisa Deanne Smith, in the exhibition catalogue, describes the show as a response to the question, “can we breathe forever?” Through various forms of artistic experimentation she attempts to demonstrate the problems involved and propose some solutions.
While breathing is a natural phenomenon that is required for most organisms to live, this relationship between the body and the environment is far more complex than the automated process would imply. The quality of the air depends on the plants and phytoplankton. The quality of our land and water depend on the air. Mankind’s violent approach in harnessing those resources, dictated by the ideologies of Late Capitalism, set in motion the demand for constant economic growth at the cost of both natural and human assets. Ecosystems risk collapse, animals try to adapt to new modes of survival in the wake of scarcity and relocation and human labourers are subject to illnesses. The artists address many of these problems that disrupt the chain of events that allow us to continue to breathe.
Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa’s Concrete Poem Documentation (2011)and Cantos de Pajaros Extintos Previamente Desconocidos Por la Ciencia, Pero Recuperados Por El Espiritismo, 2 (Songs of Extinct Birds Previously Unknown by Science, but Recovered in Spiritualism, 2) (2015) is a series of five digital prints depicting bird-shaped designs of letters and words, accompanied by an audio piece of a person making bird-like sounds on a loop. The work attempts to commune with long lost animals through the performance of seances. The prints act as translations from these performances, depicting the phonetic sounds of extinct species. Through this spiritual method, the artist has attempted to breathe new life into these extinct birds and give them a chance to be heard again.
Mary Anne Barkhouse, Treats for Coyotes places sculptures of animals, indigenous to the area and the greater Boreal forests, juxtaposed against European colonial interior décor. The work speaks directly about the influence of colonial settlers on the habitats of Canada. When the settlers took the lands from the Indigenous peoples, they abandoned the forms of land stewardship in favour of the European tradition of domination. The work also addresses how certain creatures have found ways to adapt and thrive in the man-made world. Animals such as the urban coyote, coywolf and raccoons now live and thrive alongside us in cities and towns, having lost or foregone their natural habitats in favour of ours. The work seems to celebrate the resilience of animals to adapt to the unnatural world we have imposed on them, while simultaneously hinting at a darker truth that we have forever altered the ecological path of these species. Whether you see the installation as an idyllic scene from a Disney movie, where animals and people are in perfect harmony or a struggle to heal, there is an undeniable beauty and craftsmanship in Barkhouse’s pieces.
Elsewhere in the gallery, Barkhouse also exhibits three portraits of wolves in elegant bronze frames. The frames are traditionally used to hold paintings of royalty, a deliberate choice to try to depict the regal quality and status of these wolves. Within the wolf pack hierarchy, these three animals would be considered the king, queen and another sovereign figure.
Not unlike animals, humans also try to survive in their environments, as we witness in the work, I want to breathe by Li Xinmo in collaboration with Zhange Minjie. A small scale, close-up video portrays a Guangxi gold miner afflicted with silicosis as a result of dust inhalation. The piece is intimate and unsettling, as the figure repeatedly coughs and struggles to breathe for the entire looped duration. The ethical questions raised in the piece refer to issues surrounding both human rights and contamination of the land through mining practices. As technologies advance and demands for natural resources increase, it is easy to ignore the vulnerability of the human body. It is hard not to empathize with the pain the miner is going through, and the inherent desire for the body to keep breathing.
The single piece by Flora Wesistche in the gallery is a beaded tapestry of Caribou hide. The work depicts the Indigenous creation story of life spawning from the back of a sea turtle. The story behind the work is one of sustainability. When the artist’s father noticed the decline in caribou populations, he swore he would stop hunting and passed on this last hide to his daughter. The work’s story also involves the power of dreams, where listening and being in tune with the sleeping world can be creative and hopeful.
Two artists, Qavavau Manumie and Ningiukulu Teevee from Cape Dorset, Nunavut showcase their prints and drawings that each incorporate Inuit heritage and spiritual beliefs by depicting folklore and allegorical symbolism. They celebrate the culture of the Inuit people, and present us with an alternative way of life that cherishes the land and water, and believes in sustainability.
Maryanne Casasanta offers us refuge from our environmental catastrophes through a shift from patriarchal to feminist ideology. The process of capturing the image and the proportions of their contents are more important than the final outcome. The work appears gentle and humble, with no harsh criticisms of the world, but instead reminds us that approaching life with softness and delicacy, can provide solutions to our contemporary problems.
The works by DaveandJenn are the highlight of the exhibition. Their sculptures and installations transport audiences to a fantastical and tropical otherworld of hybrid creatures. They combine the elegance of precious treasures with a parasitic base, creatures that are deformed by the pollution that threatens our seas. These sculptures of imaginary adaptations are aggressive and violent, such as hermit crabs living inside decapitated parrots and sea monsters destroying ships – a real warning to us.
The gallery is also screening Weak Enough to Hear by Pejvak. The video features six acts showing the landscape of the Euphrates River in Turkey. Various characters including an engineer, an architect, some children, an Islamic leader and smugglers take turns discussing the history of the river from both human and geographic perspectives. Even the ground gives us impressions that help to paint a portrait of the river.
How to Breathe Forever at Onsite Gallery is a splendid exhibition that explores important issues surrounding wildlife, pollution and the future of both our health and the planet’s.
Text and photo: Nathan Flint
*Exhibition information: January 16 – April 14, 2019, Onsite Gallery, 199 Richmond St. West, Toronto. Gallery hours: Wed 12 – 8 pm, Thurs – Fri 12 – 7 pm, Sat – Sun 12 – 5 pm.