The journey to Rebecca Belmore’s Wave Sound in Banff National Park in Alberta required considerable effort. Located on a promontory called Centre Point on the shores of Lake Minnewanka, a cerulean blue glacial lake flanked by tall subalpine mountains, the work was more than two hours from the nearest city. A winding road on the last leg of the trip brought intrepid viewers closer to the land with each passing kilometer.
The Banff sculpture was just one of four Wave Sound works that Belmore created for LandMarks 2017 in celebration of Canada’s 150-year anniversary; the others were located in Pukaskwa National Park and Georgian Bay Islands National Park (Ontario) and in Gros Morne National Park (Newfoundland). (Three Wave Sound works are currently on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.) Each sculpture was designed as a listening device that offered viewers a way to hear the land. At Banff, a cone-shaped aluminum form, made from a cast of the rocky point on which it was installed, blended into the landscape, camouflaged by wind-scribed slate. Viewers had to get very close before the piece became recognizable as a distinct object.
Curator Kathleen Ritter relied on Belmore’s commitment to Indigenous rights, particularly land rights, and sovereignty to make this project resonate on different levels. Wave Sound picked up from Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother (1991–96, 2008), a sculpture and performance in which Belmore (who belongs to the Anishinaabe people) traveled across the country with an over-size, intricately crafted wooden megaphone and invited people to speak into it. The voice of each speaker was amplified in literal and metaphorical ways, bringing the power of storytelling back to the land. Speaking to Their Mother honored the importance of oral tradition in Indigenous cultures and acknowledged the damage caused by a residential school system that forbade children to speak their mother tongues.
At Banff, Wave Sound was installed on a historic site where archaeologists had uncovered arrow- and spearheads. Pre-contact, the Nakoda, Blackfoot, and Samson Cree First Nations all hunted and fished along the shores of Lake Minnewanka, which has a mysterious, eerie presence. In the 1930s, the land was flooded as part of a dam project; water levels rose to such a height that the buildings of Minnewanka Landing are now underwater and viewable only by scuba diving into the frigid waters. Urban legends about this underwater city and the lake have proliferated, stirring up ghostly presences from as far back as the areas’ original inhabitants, who are said to emerge from the water’s edge.
In order to engage with Wave Sound, you had to lower yourself to ground level. Crouching down, you could see the delicate cast of an ear, its rounded and subtle curves inviting you to bring your own ear close. A small detail that could be overlooked, this ear became significant in terms of humanizing the work. Installed outdoors at an unusual height, Wave Sound permitted engagement through direct physical contact; its temperature and surface became intimately familiar. Leaning in to listen with ears touching, it was difficult at first to separate the sounds originating within the piece from those of the surrounding environment. To achieve the clearest sound, it helped to roll your ear and cheek around the opening to create a seal; wrapping your arms around the form allowed an even closer and more human connection, as the sound of the water began to come into focus and a new world opened up.
Listening to the waters of Lake Minnewanka through Wave Sound was like putting your ear to the opening of a conch shell to hear the ocean captured within—you seemed to be hearing the past itself. Wave Sound became an apparatus through which the land could be heard, distant time and space translated through its hollowed tunnel. The sculpted ear transformed Belmore’s work into a kind of prosthesis, not unlike an artifact described by Gustaf Sobin as one of the earliest known anatomical apparatuses—an artificial ear carved from a seashell. (Sobin’s essay “The Skull with the Seashell Ear” appears in the exhibition catalogue Noghwhere Bodili is Everywhere Goostly: Jason de Haan, 2014.)
Belmore’s “concha” (the anatomical term for the external ear) extended the viewer’s hearing in very special ways. Across Canada, four conchate devices could be used, just as Sobin speculates about his Neolithic device, “to decipher, say, the opaque messages emanating out of rocks, or even likelier, out of water.” Sobin goes on to conjecture about the woman who owned the seashell ear, describing her as “a medium of sorts…one, that is, whose very powers had arisen out of some initial impediment.” Listening to the haunting whispers emanating from Belmore’s work, with eyes closed or open, then wandering the jagged shore while gazing at unreachable mountain peaks, it was as if the veil between past and present had drawn back ever so slightly to reveal the voices given back to the land through Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother and restore them anew. Wave Sound continued a theme but also closed a cycle, linking humans past and present and redrawing connections to the environment.