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A & E ART | Digging Deeper

The easiest way to explain ‘ephemeral art’ or “Earth art’ to the uninitiated is to start with British artist Andy Goldsworthy.  Goldsworthy is as close to a household name as any contemporary artist can hope to be. Images of his physics-defying practice of rock balancing, ice sculpture, and twig and leaf arranging have pervaded film, television, and coffee table books alike, to the point where he has become an icon of the environmental movement. If Ed Burtynsky’s epic photo-portraits of industrial ravage express the outrage of the environmental movement, Goldsworthy’s gentle, reverent intrusions into natural spaces point out the optimism. His compositions are all subject to the erosive effects of the earth, and some last for only the few seconds it takes to document them. Even so, his work has stirred the imagination of enough people to make him a household name, and he has championed a kind of art that symbolizes a feeling of hope sometimes missing from the environmental movement.

The statue of Goldsworthy is such that people sometimes forget that he is just a small part of a very active and international school of Earth and Ephemeral artists stretching back to the late 1960s, and including Robert Smithson (whose 1970 work Spiral Jetty is the earliest and most notable icon of the movement), James Turrell (whose Roden Crater may be the largest and most extensive earthwork ever conceived) and many more. These artists are bound by a very loose set of principles: Their materials they use are natural and as such are subject to decay, and the artworks are to a large degree indivisible from the landscape upon which they are made. Earth art therefore eschews the gallery space, and generally relies on remote, unspoiled tracts of land that are challenging, if not impossible, for the arts patron to visit. For the majority of people, their interaction with this art form comes mostly through photographic sources.

It’s something of a rare and very exciting opportunity for locals that the Royal Botanical Gardens will be offering its Hendrie Park to some of the best ephemeral artists from around the globe. This list includes veterans Nils Udo, Roy Staab, Bob Verschueren and Emilie Brzezinski, as well as established and emerging talents such as the UK’s Neville Gabie and Arthur de Mowbray, Mexico’s Yolanda Gutierrez, Poland’s Ludwika Ogorzelec, American Sharon Loper and Hamilton’s own Simon Frank. All of these artists work on site in both the cultivated gardens and uncultivated natural lands. The Earth Art Exhibition will provide a rare circumstance to not only see this kind of work, but to witness it being made, and to even interact with the artists themselves.

The Earth Art Exhibition is part of what hopes to be a long term relationship between the RGB and one of Canada’s most outspoken and regarded curators of ephemeral art, John Grande.  Grande has followed the Earth Art movement as it evolved in the 1970s and allied himself with the first generation of these artists.  He has written numerous essays and books, including the influential Balance: Art and Nature.

I spoke briefly with Grande and he expressed his excitement about this exhibition to me.
“The RGB is made for ephemeral art,” he enthused. “To have such a variety of cultivated and uncultivated land in such close proximity to an urban centre is truly unique.  Although it is an historic site, in many ways it is similar to the very contemporary, very progressive art parks designed for ephemeral art that I have seen popping up in Asia.  It’s really exciting. The RGB, if it wants to, could establish itself as a really cutting edge venue for this kind of art; it has the potential to be the best in Canada, if it wants to.”

Although he was not specific about what the precise nature of the art installations will be, it is compelling to imagine one of Nils Udo’s massive nests made from stones, branches and earth, occupying a quiet place in the woods. Or to think of what will be produced by Milwaukee-based artist Roy Staab, who often wades knee-deep in water for hours, using nothing but his hands to braid and bind stalks together to form serene and delicate sculptures. Yolanda Gutierrez, from Cozumel, Mexico, is part of a growing movement of artists addressing habitat issues in their work. Her sculptures often serve as habitat for birds, and she will sometimes work directly with biologists to create nesting structures that encourage native birds to reinhabit areas. Whether she has it in her to deal with the rampant populations of cormorants and red-wing blackbirds is yet to be seen.

“These are not plop-and-drop sculptures,” says Grande. “The artists have to come here, they have to work with materials that are indigenous to the site.  They may bring design elements with them, but ultimately the work arises from the site.  So the key to the exhibition is finding the perfect mix of artists.   You have to have a good level of energy, so I always make sure to include up and coming and regional artists. Regions often don’t respect their talent, so it’s necessary for me to include someone like Simon Frank in this show. He’s shown a real dedication to this form of art, and definitely deserves a shot at being shown alongside some of the international heavyweights. I like helping younger artists like Simon because they work hard.”

It’s true that this exhibition is an opportunity for Simon Frank to position himself within an international coterie of talent.  During the better part of the last decade Frank has been steadily solidifying a national reputation for himself as a land artist. A self-taught artist and poet, Frank rose into art through the practice of rustic furniture, but quickly developed an interest in more conceptual uses of natural materials.  A turning point in his artistic career took place in 2000 through two local exhibitions. The Gallery That Took a Walk in the Woods saw Frank attach 22 ‘meta-burrs’ – beachball-sized spheres of locally gathered burrs – onto the south facade of the Art Gallery of Hamilton. He then participated in Zone 6B, an installation of 15 national and regional artists set into the green spaces of the city.  The profile garnered by these two exhibits helped Frank secure representation through  DeLeon White Gallery in Toronto, a private gallery representing many of Canada’s best ephemeral and land artists. Since then Frank has been able to exhibit extensively with galleries and in green spaces throughout Ontario and increasingly across Canada.

“I’m excited about participating in this show,” Frank admits. “There’s a real mix of joy and panic.  In many ways, this is the biggest exhibition I’ve ever been a part of and it’s a great opportunity to exhibit on an international stage. But in another way, I’m still doing a show in my hometown, on land that I know like the back of my hand, the land that has formed the backbone of my work. So I feel a big pressure because I have this intimate understanding of the place. I’m going to have to dig deeper, and I’m going to have to pretend that I’m an artist getting off the plane, looking at this landscape with fresh eyes. It’s good pressure.”

What distinguishes Frank’s work within the genre is that it cheekily plays off perceptions of nature and culture, oftentimes satirizing both. In a recent exhibition at the McMaster Museum of Art for example, Frank parodied the 19th century practices of plein air painting by wielding a 12-foot cedar tree as his brush and smacking its paint-laden tip against a 10-foot square of canvas. It shows an urge that’s more playful than precious, and agenda to knock some of the romance out of both art culture and the mystique of nature. This may fly in the face of the almost mythological elegance that informs the majority of ephemeral artworks, but it’s a still a welcome voice, if only to suggest the many new directions that Earth Art can move toward.

“My work has always dug into the ideas of the Group of Seven, and I think we’ve all been so blessed out and tired by them that as a nation we haven’t bothered to continue that level of engagement with the landscape,” Frank says. “I’m not saying that artists don’t address the land. I’m saying that some of the urgency and tenacity is missing. So I think that for me the humour is not necessarily about telling a joke. The humour in the work is subtle and comes out of what I see as an absurd situation, this disengagement people have from the natural world.  Humans have mistaken ideas of culture and industry, and they use those notions to convince themselves that they have achieved a separation from the natural world.  But regardless of where they are or how deeply ensconced in civilization they have become, nature is still entirely inside them, pulsing through their bloodstream.”

Earth Art Exhibition
July 18–Oct 13
Royal Botanical Gardens
680 Plains Rd. W., Burlington

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