Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity
Rita McKeough’s exhibition “darkness is as deep as the darkness is” (on view through December 12, 2020) offers a captivating and critical perspective on natural resource extraction. Set in a mysterious realm, the show focuses on the unheard voices of flora and fauna—perhaps the most vulnerable inhabitants of the terrain exploited and destroyed by extraction industries. Throughout her career, McKeough has used large-scale installations incorporating sound and video to characterize the natural world. “darkness is as deep as the darkness is” captures the interrelated echoes of her themes, infusing them with pathos. Manifestations of the idea of “darkness,” both literal and metaphorical, appear throughout the works, which implore viewers to look deeply into themselves, and at their complicity in the continued destruction of the planet.
To explore “darkness is…” is to traverse a landscape. Visitors first encounter a stand of giant roses, mournfully singing: “Hey. Hey. Come closer. Come closer. We need to talk to you. We need your help.” Like keepers of a vigil, the roses act as harbingers of events to come. Turning away from them, viewers walk through a doorway into total darkness. As the eyes adjust, a series of underground spaces emerges from the gloom. Felt sword ferns grow in solid and shadowy form throughout this underworld. Mysterious presences in the dim light, they stand guard over animals sheltering in a burrow and in a triage unit, slowly recuperating from injuries. Projections on the walls depict an endless cascade of falling dirt, which serves as a background for images of animal species common to Banff. An audio track fills the air with a resonance that evokes the sounds of chaos. In creating her audio works, McKeough assembles fragments of sound, layering and modifying them to convey the deep sense of emotion that circulates fiercely within this exhibition and throughout her work. The voices of a bear and a cranberry bush can be heard conversing over the thrumming, their tones anxious and frightened: “There’s something down here in the dark. / I’m not sure what. I think it’s… / It might be oil. / It might be coal. / It might be food. / It might be us.” Their fear is made palpable, heightened by the tumultuous surroundings.
The back of the gallery, separated by a recycled wood wall, is eerie and even more dimly lit. Moving beyond the underground burrow, viewers find themselves in a space resembling an extraction field. Nineteen wooden towers, their tops at eye level, stand in four neat rows. Sword ferns, soldiers of the natural army, stand in battle mode, as mysterious forms appear to rise from the dark core of the earth. Ceramic claws—part organic, part machine—pierce through the surface, looming large among the ferns. In the extraction-field-cum-battlefield, the presence of humans feels unwelcome. This is eloquently expressed in the accompanying audio piece written and composed by McKeough, featuring cello and vocals by Audrey Burch. One refrain in particular captures the essence of the ferns’ battle cry: “[The machines] rattle and grind and suck up everything that is not them.” As the movement of the claws comes to a close, they descend in unison into the depths, disappearing, closing the loop for now. Having crossed this imaginary land, the viewer leaves with a sense of consciousness deeply infused with what could be called the ethos of Alberta.
The power of “darkness is as deep as the darkness is” lies in its complex intertwining of components harmoniously woven together to bring understanding and compassion to a ravaged natural world. Tender, filled with care, McKeough’s vision is also harshly critical—and unabashedly honest—in its address to humanity. It is through the viewer’s new-found empathy, and subsequent action, that the darkness can be transcended. After traversing McKeough’s incantatory dark world, one full of danger and the endangered, we return to our own world anew, recognizing the clues to our future and the fate that awaits us if we continue on our current path. In McKeough’s world, animals and plants can speak and sing, cry and pray, protest, defend themselves, and tend to their wounds; they can even rehabilitate the world. Our job is not only to feel their pain, but also to alleviate it and give them a fighting chance.