About an hour’s drive north of Toronto, Ontario, the city of Barrie (pop. 103,000) is a place that seems to exist for the benefit of any reason other than itself. To some people, it’s little more than a bedroom community for Toronto-bound commuters. To others, it’s an unofficial “gateway” to the relative wilds of northern Ontario. And to still others, it marks the beginning of an area known as the Muskokas, a region of innumerable lakes that has long been a summer and winter playground for those who can afford it.
Barrie is, in fact, all of those things. But it is also a long-established community in its own right, one that celebrated its sesquicentennial in 2003. As part of that celebration, the McLaren Art Centre in Barrie organized “Shore/lines: Responding to Place,” a major exhibition of site-specific artworks situated at 15 different locations scattered throughout the city between May and October. Thousands of years ago, this area was part of the shoreline of a large, glacial lake; in more recent history, it was a stop—one end of a long portage between lakes, actually—along a route used by the native (or First Nations) inhabitants and, later, European explorers and fur traders. Appropriately, then, the 18 participants in “Shore/lines” included regional, First Nations, national, and international artists, all of whom were asked to respond to the environments—ecological, social, and commercial—that now form this small city in Ontario set along the shores of Kempenfelt Bay. Works were mounted by Betty Beaumont (U.S.), Bill Vazan (Canada), Gilles Bruni and Marc Babarit (France), Derek Martin (Barrie), and Mike MacDonald (Canadian First Nations), among others.
Location, as they say, is everything, and when the aesthetic dust settled it was two separate works—one by Alfio Bonanno, a Denmark-based artist who was born in Italy, the other by John McEwen, a prominent Canadian sculptor—that posed the most interesting responses to the relevance of site-specificity and the meaning of “responding to place.”
With his installation Between Land and Water (2003), Bonanno chose to work with a section of living shoreline in order to explicate the relationship between land and water in this transitional zone. While scouting a location for his work, Bonanno made an aesthetic link between the pods of common milkweed plants he found littered around the shorelines of Kempenfelt Bay and the burgeoning growth of non-indigenous zebra mussels, which are progressively destroying the natural freshwater ecosystem here and throughout a large part of eastern North America. (The mussels were introduced into North America 20 years ago by freighters discharging ballast waters in which they were stowaways.) Bonanno’s investigation of site resulted in a series of five large pod-like forms—each several meters in length and made of woven saplings weighted down with a ballast of small stones—installed in a line that runs from the top of a sandy ridge overlooking the water, down along its slope, and finally out into the water itself.
Bonanno’s pods carry other baggage, starting with likeness. There are obvious formal and material resemblances to watercraft, such as the reed watercraft common to several cultures. Perhaps the pods even reference the craft constructed of papyrus that Thor Heyerdahl sailed across the Atlantic in 1970 (from Africa to the Americas) to demonstrate the possibility of such voyages—and perhaps even migrations—occurring well before Columbus. With the specter of mobility and migration raised, Bonanno’s exploitation of the tensions between indigenous and non-indigenous has an powerful applicability that goes far beyond simply the regional issue of invasive mussels and into areas of ethnicity and national identity. Between Land and Water transcends its site-specificity while firmly rooting itself in the local.
The flip side of all of this was McEwen’s Babylon and the Tower of Babel (1991). It’s not a new work, nor was it ever intended for placement along the Barrie waterfront. But, as part of “Shore/lines,” it has found itself right at the very edge of Kempenfelt Bay in a popular waterside park, paralleling a biking/walking path and situated directly opposite two small rocky islands. There’s a history here that needs telling. Babylon and the Tower of Babel began its aesthetic life as an outdoor installation at the McMichael Collection of Canadian Art, located just north of Toronto in Kleinberg, Ontario. It’s home to a large and renowned collection of early 20th-century Canadian landscape paintings originally assembled by collector Robert McMichael and donated to the province of Ontario in 1965. McEwen’s work was permanently acquired by the collection in 1993 after having been shown on site for two years. When McEwen made an addition to the work, a crisis ensued. Robert McMichael, who had been increasingly alarmed by the collection’s focus on the acquisition of contemporary works of art, launched a lawsuit (eventually settled in his favor in 1996), asserting that the collection had strayed too far from its mandate. (McMichael died in November of 2003.) McEwen’s work, among others, was out.
Cut to Barrie, seven years later. The new setting for Babylon and the Tower of Babel—albeit, a temporary one—is far more high profile than its original siting at the McMichael Collection, where it was located along the very edge of a long curving driveway, which made it difficult to step back and see the piece in its entirety. Here, set on the waterfront with downtown Barrie just on the other side of Kempenfelt Bay forming a backdrop, the entire work can be seen either close up or from a distance across a wide expanse of grass sloping gently upward from the waterfront toward a road that demarcates the edge of the park: a series of seven rusted metal pedestals in which the letters of the word “Babylon” are formed as interior voids. Mounted atop one pedestal is a large urn set at a tilt, and atop another is one of McEwen’s trademark images: a steel silhouette of a wolf seen in profile. Just offshore on the rocky islands is another wolf silhouette and a small sculpture of a satellite dish (the Tower of Babel portion of the work, and the addition that sparked the McMichael crisis). Though both wolves and satellite dishes co-exist in this part of North America, Barrie itself can hardly be likened to an ancient Mesopotamian city.
But then, neither could a tree-lined, landscaped driveway leading up to an art gallery in a large log cabin in Kleinberg, Ontario, so literalism obviously has no place in the interpretive scheme of things. According to McEwen, Babylon and the Tower of Babel finds metaphorical locale in the song Rivers of Babylon and in Psalm 137 in which the ancient Israelites mourn the loss of Zion during the period of the Babylonian Captivity. It is the story of a homeland lost. How ironic, and yet, how singularly appropriate. Though it makes for a jarring recontextualization of a popular grassy waterfront park, as well as an unexpected frame for a view of downtown Barrie, set here in exile on the Kempenfelt Bay waterfront McEwen’s work speaks—perhaps even sings—of the aesthetic and social meanings (and price) of expulsion and banishment. Dislocation too can be everything.