Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island
Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmens have been making art together for over 20 years. They think a lot about the land, about the particular form of covetousness imported to the New World from the Old. Now, as water tables dry up and breadbaskets burn, as floods and tornados and blizzards lay waste to swathes of fenced and allocated and appropriated lands, the question is less about what we brought here, but how we’ll stay. We transplants are now in the position of the original inhabitants—we’re trying to survive.
“Land is not a mat to be rolled up and taken away” (on view through May 21, 2023) is an ongoing project, which began as an exhibition and residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Nebraska. This iteration adds new work derived from a residency on Prince Edward Island (PEI), Canada, in the Atlantic Ocean’s Gulf of St. Lawrence. The title, with its poetic evocation of the fundamental absurdity of land ownership, is nonetheless ironic. I am writing this in a part of Nova Scotia where the farms that surround me grow grass. Each spring, verdant green fields are rolled up and taken away to become lawns in housing developments. It’s absurd, yet somehow normal. Sylvie Fortin, the curator of “Land is not a mat to be rolled up and taken away,” writes that the project challenges us “to critically reassess our shared history and to imagine our fate with care.” Ibghy and Lemmens prompt us to do just that by highlighting, through sculptures and videos, the absurd but normal ways in which our culture interacts with the land and its other inhabitants.
Absurdity lurks behind all the works in the exhibition, perhaps nowhere more so than in a series of videos recounting human interactions with birds. Some of these document human efforts to study and understand birds, capturing, banding, counting, and confining them. In Cleaning the Atlantic Puffins, Tufted Puffins, and Common Murres’ Exhibit (2019), for instance, we see the daily activity of a zoo worker who maintains the environment constructed for these assorted sea birds. While the human scrubs the fake cliffs, the birds paddle alongside in the fake sea. Feeding Birds in the Aviary (2019) shows mealtime at an outdoor aviary, and we see birds from around the world trooping up to be fed. Such diversity could only exist in a controlled environment, but chaos is introduced by hardy transplants from Europe, starlings, who fly in to help themselves to the buffet.
The toy-like constructions of the “Futures” series—tabletop sculptures made from brightly colored blocks and rods that three-dimensionally re-create graphs and charts representing various types of land use, pricing, and other agricultural tracking data—evoke a bunch of kindergartners let loose on the floor of a commodities exchange. Movement of Spot and Futures Market Prices for Agricultural Commodities (2005–2012) (2019–ongoing), for instance, consists of rough wooden blocks, seeming offcuts from a wood shop, some painted with the bright colors familiar from pie charts. Seen from one side, the sculptures’ ever-ascending progress implies a kind of optimism, though moving to the other side of the table reveals a precipitous fall. It’s all in one’s point of view.
La grande appropriation (2020–ongoing) addresses the bureaucratic details of colonization. On an immense table, dozens of small, brightly colored geometric constructions depict land grants and town plans from the original settlement of Québec (where the artists live) and from other parts of Canada. Individually, they are two-dimensional renderings of map information; but together, they become a chaotic and vibrant three-dimensional history of the appropriation of lands and cultures. Each small unit is labeled with the name of the seigneuries (French royalist land grants from the 17th century) or British settlements of the 18th and 19th centuries, many of which are now familiar cities and towns.
In response to their stay on PEI, the artists made Ain’t never been there, they tell me it’s nice (2023), an installation of hanging paper cutouts showing the 67 lots on the former Isle Saint-Jean (now PEI) that were arbitrarily drawn by British mapmakers after the conquest of French Acadia and allotted by lottery to absentee landlords in London. Depicting abstractions (there are no boundary lines on the land), the forms become all the more abstract as they twist and curl in the slowly moving air currents of the gallery.
Humor lurks alongside the absurd in these works, particularly in four shed-like sculptures that set up systems of exchange and support for the birds and small animals that also depend on the land. Community Toolshed for the Birds (2021), based on the now familiar form of outdoor lending libraries, is stocked with tools that birds are known to fabricate and use for everything from foraging to playing. Each carefully labeled tool is made from both organic and human-made components. Browsing through this “library” offers informative insights into the inventiveness of birds, and the pervasiveness of our trace on the land.
Ibghy and Lemmens leaven the exhibition’s didacticism with humor, its anxiety with optimism, and its facts with imagination. Viewing this show is a learning experience, but we really learn about ourselves. The artists challenge us to live, as Fortin writes, “as one amongst many species on a shared, wondrous, and endangered planet.” “Land is not a mat to be rolled up and taken away” presents a sort of map for that mode of living, and it beckons us to follow.