Art & Ecology: Three Canadian Sculptors

Irene F. Wittome, Musée des Traces, 1989. Mixed media, room-size installation.

“Do you ever wonder what happens to those little pieces of soap left over when you leave your room?” asks a voice on a Toronto hotel’s closed-circuit television channel. “Well, we at the Royal York recycle them!” The video goes on to describe other steps the Canadian Pacific Hotel chain has taken to become more environmentally responsible. If guests are willing to forgo daily linen changes, I’m told, it will reduce the amount of chlorine and detergent that might eventually trickle into the ground water. All over the city, it seems, ecological consciousness is at an all-time high. A notice posted in the ladies’ room at downtown’s Metro Hall boasts about an on-site project that composts all the paper towels used in the building. Compartmentalized recycling bins are everywhere, with holes precisely shaped for paper, glass, metal, or mixed waste. “It’s not garbage!” another sign advises.

This concern for Mother Nature has found its way into much of Toronto’s public art. A local, two-person collective called Fastwürms has transformed the city’s mostly underground Convention Center into a simulacrum of the natural world. A 100-foot-tall industrial steel and glass structure, Woodpecker Column, leans at an angle in the outside plaza, and provides a perch for a pileated woodpecker and a yellow-bellied sapsucker. Descending a series of escalators into the bowels of this cavernous space brings into view Turtle Pond, a terrazzo floor swimming with sea turtles, frogs, and lizards, watched over by a raven. A few blocks away, the craggy cliffs of Anish Kapoor’s Mountain rise up against a backdrop of skyscrapers. A walk through even one of the dankest underground passageways reveals inlaid metal fish underfoot.

Fastwürms, Woodpecker Column, 1997. Steel pipe and glass, 6 x 100 ft.

While much of this public work is relatively recent, the result of intensive municipal redevelopment, there are a number of area sculptors who have spent years making artwork about what is now a “fashionable” topic. Sometimes using materials that complement their subject matter, sometimes materials that appear antithetical to it, they’ve managed to construct a dialogue about issues of ecosystem fragility, of modern industrial encroachments, and of how human beings are inexorably linked to the fate of the natural environment.

Anne-Marie Bénéteau is an artist who, over the past 20 years, has employed everything from bark to burlap to botanical specimens in order to voice her environmental concerns. Born in 1956 in Windsor, Ontario, she received her BFA from the university there, and now lives in Toronto. Her large, sculptural installations often rely upon text and a juxtaposition of highly evocative images and materials.

In The Perfectionist (1989), a cross made of four birds with interconnecting beaks was hung above a series of tiny wooden blocks, each painted with an image of a different type of bug, and laid out on the gallery floor in a pattern resembling insect wings. A stenciled phrase, “To perfect our complete range of products, there are thousands of little things left out” added what seemed to be a marketing slogan—but with an enigmatic twist. Which products? What was left out? To whose benefit? Has something indispensable been inadvertently forgotten? If the bugs have been left out, what will happen to the birds? If the birds have been left out, what will happen to the bugs? What will happen to us?

Anish Kapoor, Mountain, 1995. Waterjet aluminum, 20 x 10 ft.

Questions like these can lead to sleeplessness. Bénéteau’s room-size installation (12 by 23 feet), Insomnia (1994), included handmade versions of 50 types of moths, referenced to an identifying list. Each hovered over a red votive candle; the resulting church-like atmosphere invited prayers. With the proximity of the moths to the flames, however, one had to wonder: will they be consumed? Is this a warning sign of dire things to come?

Both Site Fidelity (1995) and Les Insects du Monde (1993) attempted to hold onto things as they are now—through meticulous cataloguing and cross-referencing. In the first, a huge representation (8 by 15 feet) of an insect was affixed to the gallery wall, its wings constructed of botanical specimens sealed in wax paper. The second piece arranged bird feathers and number-embossed papers into a grid; the numbers correlated to an index of insects. While the record-keeping aspects of both these works evoked a Victorian obsession with collecting and numbering, the mixing of flora and fauna intimately connected with one another—insects, plants, and birds—expanded the dialogue to a consideration of the fragility of the balance of nature.

This type of interdependence played a central part in L’esprit blessé (1993), a 6-by-16-foot installation made up of 1,700 hand-stitched and hand-drawn birds fashioned from birch bark. Each bird poked its head out of a tiny cylinder of bark, blurring the boundaries between plant and animal. The dangling threads seemed to imply that, if tugged upon, all would become unraveled, encouraging reflection upon just what strings we humans might be pulling.

Anne-Marie Bénéteau, L’esprit blessé (detail), 1993. Birchbark, ink, and thread, 6 x 16 ft.

Bénéteau’s most recent work, shown at DeLeon White Gallery in Toronto this past summer, is a series of throw pillows decorated with ink drawings of insects on handmade bark paper. Their rough surfaces, appliquéd with the scratchy bark and long, hairlike threads, subvert the usual use of such cushions; one would be loathe to rest one’s head upon them. Such a response mirrors most people’s gut reaction to bugs. (Bénéteau has admitted her own skittishness about insects.) But through the casual genre of living room pillows, we are reminded that insects are indeed everywhere—and that we should be able to coexist with them with comparable ease.

Claire Brunet, born in 1957 in London, England, received both her BFA and MFA from the Université du Québec in Montreal, and studied foundry processes at the Johnson Atelier in Hamilton, New Jersey. She divides her time between Québec (where she lives) and Ontario (where she teaches at the Ontario College of Art). Although she works in a variety of sculptural genres, her small-scale metal sculptures speak most eloquently of humanity’s impact on nature. Plants and animals, bottles, cans, and plates are cast into aluminum and bronze assemblages and frozen into eternal poses.

Unlike Bénéteau’s choice of materials, which often blend seamlessly with her subject matter, Brunet’s bronze and aluminum sculptures at first seem to contradict their own imagery. But thought of in geological terms, molten metal is the stuff of planet earth.

Caracas Throw Pillows (detail), 1995. Handmade bark paper on pillows, approximately 14 x 14 in.

In Dorade en péril (1995), a fish rests upon what looks like a pristine segment of ocean floor—that is, until we notice the crushed aluminum soda can a few inches away. Her translation of this scene into aluminum is witty and telling: the substance of the can has been virtually unchanged by her casting process, but the fish has been forever transformed.

Brunet’s technique of casting from life (or “still-life” as the case may be), imbues her sculptures with a haunting sense of irony. The fish, turtles, snails, sea horses, cherries, bananas, and plant life seem alive—despite their fossilized state. On the other hand, the refuse of modern society—aluminum cans, glass bottles, and ceramic plates—seem indestructible in such solid metal form. How will these throwaways ever decay in the landfill?

La tentation du reptile (1995–96) depicts a turtle climbing onto a plate and moving towards a fish sandwich, albeit an unusual one—a whole fish, complete with head, tail, and scales, lying under a piece of bread. As it approaches the fish, the turtle turns its head aside, in a gesture of…what? Confusion, fear, disgust, embarrassment? Is it about to become turtle soup? Is it checking to see if anyone is watching? Perhaps it is tempted by this slice of life resting under a blanket of Wonder Bread. Even nonhuman animals appear to like processed foods. Even “nature” can be co-opted by “civilization.” Bears, raccoons, possums, and squirrels all prefer to raid suburban garbage pails rather than forage in the wild for nuts and berries. The turtle in L’écume du temps (1995–96) also seems to experience conflicting emotions. It looks up at an unlikely chain of events balanced on its hard shell. A bunch of grapes clings to what appears to be a wine bottle spilling its contents onto a fish, and, in the process, dissolving the edge of the plate on which it is set. There is a traditional belief among some native peoples that the world is carried on the back of a turtle. In the case of an earth beset by overflowing landfill sites and toxic waste dumps, however, we are asking this turtle to carry an awfully heavy burden.

Irene F. Wittome, Curio, 1994. Mixed media, room-size installation.

A native of Vancouver, British Columbia (b.1942), Irene F. Wittome studied at the Vancouver School of Art and at the Hayter Atelier in Paris; she has been teaching at Concordia University since 1968. In her 30-year retrospective last year at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, images of turtles, shells, and eggs segued into images that reflected the human form (physical and mental), and materials found in nature took their place alongside those made in factories. Wittome has chosen yet another way to enter into the ecological discourse. Rather than focusing upon the fragility of animal and plant life as Bénéteau does, or blatantly contrasting the natural and the artificial as Brunet does, Wittome instead presents the world as a continuum. Animal and human natures are intimately related; body, mind, and spirit are unified aspects of one existence; and, as part of the universe, everything deserves to be examined on equal terms.

Wittome’s Illuminati was a monumental installation created in 1987 for the group exhibition, “Elementa Naturae,” which used both the interior of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal and its surrounding garden. Located outdoors, the walkway to Illuminati’s entrance was lined with broken pieces of cornice molding, as if it were a recently unearthed archaeological site. The structure itself lay partly underground, its form reminiscent of an Egyptian mastaba. Inside loomed a giant effigy of a turtle. Was the turtle enshrined or entombed? And who was being illuminated? An almost identical turtle appears in Le Musée des Traces, which in 1991 was permanently installed at the Ontario Museum of Fine Arts in Toronto. Arranged like an exhibit in a 19th-century natural history museum, the installation also included two smaller turtles, a variety of artifacts and photographs, and invited scrutiny of both the individual items and their relationship to each other. In Curio (1994), a lone turtle stood atop a scholarly tome placed upon a graceful, wooden pedestal. Around its base lay an assortment of large, egg-shaped, hollow forms; in some, small holes were plainly visible. Displayed this way in a spotlit, glass museum case, Curio placed the elements of nature, learning, birth, and creativity on equal curatorial footing.

Claire Brunet, La tentation du reptile, 1995–96. Bronze, 42 x 48 cm.

In her catalogue essay for the Montreal retrospective, Josée Bélisle calls the turtle Wittome’s “mythical alter ego.” This linking of the self with the wider issue of the natural world and how human beings interact with it makes sense, and it occurs in later installations—even where the turtle has burrowed underground.

Like Bénéteau, Wittome is drawn to the Victorian collecting impulse. Besides invoking the museum display format, she repeatedly uses Latin—that “dead” language still prescribed for classifying species—either in titles or as part of the work itself. (In Creativity; Fertility [1985], she painted on the pages of a Latin/English dictionary.) The Victorians saw the methodical process of collecting, labeling, and displaying as a way of conquering the natural world through knowledge: if it could be named, it could be understood. If it could be understood, it could be controlled. If it could be controlled, it could be perfected.

What are the ramifications of this approach when applied to human ecology—that is, to the way humans interact with themselves? Wittome’s Gymnasium: Outfit of the Soul (1997) considered the contemporary quest for bodily perfection. The installation included an assortment of weightlifting and exercise equipment placed along three walls of a rectangular room in an oddly aesthetic arrangement. On the far end hung a corsetlike, armorlike (turtle shell-like) breastplate covered with oval forms, calling to mind the multi-breasted Ephesian goddess of fertility. Nature or nurture, nature or artifice…where does the line get drawn?

Claire Brunet, L’écume du temps, 1995–96. Bronze and aluminum, 60 x 38 x 32 cm.

While Canadian sculptors are not the only artists on the globe addressing issues of ecological concern, their work is drawing both wide public attention and art world acclaim. Whether this is due to the large number of artists involved with this subject matter, or to the arts funding structure in Canada, which until recently had encouraged the exhibition of works like these (some of which are heavy on content and light on salability), or to a heightened awareness of the natural environment among Canadians in general, it’s hard to say. And, as with any type of art that tries to effect societal change, it is impossible to predict what, if any, impact such sculpture will have upon the future of this planet Earth.

Virginia Maksymowicz is a sculptor and an adjunct professor at the Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia. She has been following Canadian art since 1981, when she lived in Detroit and began to venture over the border to Windsor on a regular basis.