Our co-existence with nature can be by turns fragile, tense, sublime and fascinating. Unfortunately, it rarely provides mutual benefit. Oil spills, overbuilding and overpopulation stand as evidence of the negative effects humans are having on the environment. “The Last Frontier,” curated by Sarah Fillmore at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, examines these relationships and tensions between culture, nature and built environments.
Before entering the main portion of this exhibition, one encounters Akousmaflore by Scenocosme (a Lyon, France–area duo) in a gallery hallway. This hanging mass of plants responds to human touch through a digital interface, each plant “singing” its own “song” when contact is made. Even a gentle brush of the tip of a leaf produces a sound; when a crowd of visitors walks through, a cacophony of beautiful tones fills the air. As outstretched hands explore and interact, they manipulate the plants in a way that “tames” them, turning living organisms into vessels for aural activity. As one continues to interact, another question arises: Are we being just as manipulated as these plants?
The Erudition, a new video work by Kelly Richardson, pushes the tension between humans and nature into the realm of science fiction/reality via a barren, computer-generated landscape. The video shows a fixed-lens view of a field where flickering holograms of large pine trees periodically tremble and fade. This suggests a sense of narrative in the work, namely that the trees may have once existed in this landscape. The title evokes knowledge, and perhaps foreknowledge, of environmental destruction—offering not a solution, but rather a bold warning.
Mark Bovey’s new work provides a more personal perspective on the theme. It’s based on an old family ledger; Bovey has enlarged and manipulated its fragmented bits of handwriting and numbers and etched them onto large sheets of Plexiglas. Images of changing clouds and sky are projected onto these sheets, moving and morphing as traces of industry and humanity remain still. These works hang ominously in the gallery, acting as grave markers from an early industrial past.
To create his 1968 work Nova Scotia Fires, David Askevold used the beaches of Nova Scotia as a backdrop, lighting gasoline on fire amid the sand and pebbles and filming the results. It’s interesting to make a connection between this work and tar-sands debates—one of many current events evoked by this show. At the same time, the work is mesmerizing and quietly meditative; it’s easy to imagine these beaches still alight only an hour’s drive away from the gallery.
“The Last Frontier” could have easily been heavy-handed, but the work presented is a balance of warnings and subtle proclamations. The balance allows viewers to come to their own conclusions. However, at a time when environmental crises are urgent, much of the work doesn’t express obvious concern, taking a more passive role of acceptance and examination rather than one of activism.