The artists in Detritus Ecologies Griffith Baker, Twyla Exner, Mae Leong and Troy David Ouellette take waste, the occurrence of our excess and turn this into artistic statements, thought provocative projects that raise awareness to the tragic amount of stuff our lifestyle(s) generate. The works in this exhibition reach beyond any form of didactic that may be mistaken for guilt inducing messages. Rather they are subtle processes that utilize the creative process of contemporary practice and dialogue to grapple with a subject that will affect our culture, its means of production, sustainability and stability. Archeologists will attest that humans have always been creating waste, but never to such as degree and with such widening consequences.
The material used for the construction of objects can be as powerful conveyor of meaning as the form of the object itself. Griffith Baker’s The Raft of the Doldrums is part of his bottle cap series, works that are essentially constructed from used plastic. The work is inspired by Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault, a painting in the Romantic genre that embarrassed the French monarch due to the incompetence of one of its Generals resulting in a large number of deaths. The raft in the painting was constructed from the ships (Medusa) wreckage and proved to be ineffective in saving the lives of those who counted on its stability. Culturally, we count on the ability of our creations and discoveries to sustain us, just as those adrift on the raft. How would a contemporary artist call attention to a perilous situation – today a painting would be ineffective, instead he/she may create a piece such as Griffith Baker's Raft.
In relation, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean floats an island of plastic debris that is about the size of Quebec, and an estimated 3.5 million tons of trash. It is an unexpected, absurd physical realization of lifestyles and attitudes that disregard the unseen result of our castaways. Creating work out of discarded materials made from petroleum products is a contemporary twist on the toxicity of materials once plant, sand (glass) and animal based. Ironically, some of the objects such as syringes, laundry and water bottles and so on are carriers for liquids created to clean, heal, and nourish now have the opposite affect, poisoning our environment. Indeed, Baker writes “Instead monumentalising this raft, afloat in the permanence and reality of the manufactured material condition of our time, reciprocates Géricault's painting both in its pyramidal composition and political engagement.”[i]
Twyla Exner is another artist whose interest in materials informs her practice. The works Circuit City, Alternative Context for Science and Technology II, & Outgrowth for Imput provide an account of disjointed inventions gone astray. Exner’s drawings, like some kind of madcap blueprints, successfully examine technology mixed with organic shapes. Perhaps both could be understood as fragile living things, but one is the creation of the other, in effect its God. In the western sense, is the all seeing and knowing ‘God’ replaced by technology with the ability to create life? Technology, like ‘God’, now has the ability to simultaneously peep at virtually many realities and actions that were once private. Lines are blurred and crossed, when does our technology mimic natural processes – as in this case and take over biological responsibilities? Technological creations spring from human consciousness, her works not only resembles biology, but technology manifested and imagined, if these things themselves were materially self-replicating. There is the belief that our demise is inevitable because it is part of the organic, natural process. Extinction of our species is part of its destructive nature and the inability for long-range planning.[ii] Exner’s work realizes that the distinction between nature and society is an illusion, invented by us as part of the culture making process, indeed this simple binary opposition, is too elementary.
The amount of waste generated through consumption is called to mind in Mae Leong’s Barcode + Sound: Traces of Invisible Codes. The work is constructed from barcodes collected from items that Leong purchased over a one-year period from common products whose sources were global. The fluxus nature of the work is furthered by the musical sound the work generates. She creates a new type of music that usually forms part of the unacknowledged part of the purchasing process. It is a novel type of creation, a futurist possibility in the way that we may be forced to create art, to see the value in stuff that was once discarded. She writes that the process of creating the work, long hours of tedious construction, reflects the assembly line nature of those whose labour is used in mass production. Globalization when linked with consumerism is never an equal process, most often those most affected are the most vulnerable, in this regard those whose labour is cheapest to exploit and lands easiest to denigrate.[iii]
Leongs’ Barcode is similar in thought to Troy Ouellettes The Politics of Trash and Trade. Both artists reference international trade using garbage to examine the lack of the local in our consumption. On a map of North America, Ouellette traces the source of trash he collected to its found location in Windsor, Ontario. As individuals, our actions may seem small, and many times the choice of consumption is left to the higher power of who controls the market. But as a critical mass our actions may be reversible. The collection and movement of consumer products, many that can be produced locally is within our power as individuals acting as a critical mass. Ouellette’s work further offers awareness, “One couldn’t imagine product packaging reading: this item was not union made instead it was produced with materials from an important watershed made from sweatshop labour under a totalitarian tyranny with genetically modified organisms from countless hours of animal testing and undetectable nano technologies.”[iv]
The artists in the exhibition follow a legacy of creating critical works from found objects beginning with Duchamp’s urinal.[v] The artists Baker, Exner, Leong, and Ouellette, offer hope, the excess materials, say garbage that we generate, can be turned into something interesting, and move us forward to consider possible solutions while hopefully propelling us past stark awareness. Therefore, possibly the acts of imperialism and globalization may or may not turn the whole planet into a macrocosm of Easter Island.[vi]
Curator Leanne L’Hirondelle