"And yet we still remain, going around, and again in dominion's plot...", Lisa Hirmer: Dirt Piles, Landscape/Displacement
For well over a century, the Canadian landscape has been an extensively manipulated one, dramatically transformed by industry, agriculture, and urban development, yet it continues to be read, and often labelled as, wilderness. Post-clearcut Algonquin Park, the managed forests of British Columbia and New Brunswick, the vast wheat fields of the Prairies, are all prime examples of irreversibly altered terrain layered over with a skewed narrative of nature, one that remains nailed to the wall in many exhibitions, runs through tourism promotions, and underscores populist political speech. This idea seems deeply imbedded in interpretations of the iconic landscapes of the Group of Seven, Emily Carr, Tom Thomson, and their peers, descendants and followers. Unsullied terrain, a pristine untrammelled wilderness, a resilient pure nature, is believed to be still out there.
Central to this exhibition are selections from the on-going photographic series titled Dirt Piles by Guelph-based artist Lisa Hirmer. Her images capture the extracted earth of engineered building sites that loom on the fringes of new construction: heaps of exhumed soil, rock, and plant material which are left to be absorbed back into nature, and eventually become part of the ‘natural’ landscape. More than simply documenting a marginal aspect of the built environment, Hirmer’s subtle iconic framing of these fabricated features evokes the signature images of Group of Seven member Lawren S. Harris: his mountains, islands, and icebergs of the 1920-30s, paintings that project a cold, empty, unpeopled, and distant place that he believed was the real Canada, a place all true Canadians could identify with, although most would never go there.
Alongside Hirmer’s photographs, this curatorial project by Andrew Hunter, the Fredrik S. Eaton Curator of Canadian Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, presents reproductions of photographs taken by Lawren S. Harris during his trips to Canada’s Eastern Arctic, and a selection of works from Dalhousie Art Gallery’s permanent collection, including historical images of landscape and the built environment, as well as several stark, minimal process paintings by Gerald Ferguson. Seen together, these seemingly disparate representations question our notions of nature, wilderness, and the iconic North, and challenge the mythic narratives we adhere to of the enduring, unchanging landscape.