This installation is a reflection of a forgotten past. Newfoundland artist D’Arcy Wilson has brought to life a past history of Halifax, the city where she was born and raised, that mostly disappeared without a trace in late 19th century. Halifax was the home of the first public zoo in North America. Andrew Downs’s Zoological Gardens opened to the public in 1847 and closed its doors twenty-one years later in 1868. Wilson uses video, photography, painting, drawing and archive materials to recreate a magical past. Many times installation art fails to impress me where often the medium is not up to the message. That is not the case here. The artist displays her sense of humour in this exhibition, but there is also a poignancy in the work that reflects a lost Victorian world – a time very different from our own. It was a time, however, of a growing interest in the natural sciences brought on by the likes of Charles Darwin and to a lesser extent, his contemporary, Andrew Downs.

Nothing is left of Downs’s zoo, but a heavily wooded area in Halifax’s residential district of Fairmont except a lonely stone monument that faces a busy road. Yet, at one time his zoo took in one hundred acres. The site is documented in the exhibition by an evocative twelve-minute video by Wilson in which she interviews the current owner of the site, Shirley Hill, whose family has occupied the property since the 1940’s and is very familiar with its history. Hundreds of cars pass the site daily unaware of what was once there. Through her work, Wilson would like us to stop and reflect.

The artist is no fan of zoos. She understands the modern criticisms of these institutions, but she does not hector us about the evils of past practices. We are all doomed to live in our own era lock stepped in time. Downs, with his zoo, brought Victorian audiences live exotic animals in a little bit of urban nature at a time where they only existed in illustrations or as stuffed objects in dioramas. Mind you, Downs was a skilled taxidermist as well and hundreds of his stuffed birds, called skins, still exist in institutions throughout North America and Europe. The Memorialist is not a museum exhibition on natural history and zoo, but an art exhibition by a talented young artist. She wants us to see things through her eyes and ideas.

I was very moved, and at the same time amused, by a series of colour documentation photographs taken in a series of British natural history museums titled Museology by Chris Friel where Wilson, using an iPad as a source, shows the stuffed animals and birds, images of nature from which they had been removed by their premature deaths. The artist, with a deadpan expression, is clothed in what appears to be a dark blue uniform with the word ‘memorialist’ embroidered on her jacket who appears totally engrossed in her task. Very droll. Oh, if those glass eyes could see, would these stuffed animals long for the nature from which they were so violently exiled? The exercise is helped by the excellent quality of Friel’s photography. Why I sometimes have problems with installation art is that it often foregoes quality for earnestness. The visual is important in visual art. I was helped in the three visits I had to The Memorialist in that I was alone in the gallery. Cold wet maritime days likely helped my solitude. Standing by myself in the two rooms of the exhibition, I was able to be absorbed in Wilson’s fantasy world.

The artist has built a sixteen foot long, multi-media, three dimensional, diorama (etching, watercolour, gouache, coloured pencil and birch supports on a wooden base) that portrays her fanciful interpretation of what Downs’s zoo might have looked like in all its glory. It resembles an oversized children’s pop-up book and is quite a beautiful object. 

A successful installation needs to be seen as a whole rather than in its parts. Normally, in a painting or sculpture exhibition, even one with a theme or a solo, can be viewed in its parts moving from one work to the next, liking a work and rejecting the next. Often parts of an installation fail to stand on their own, and, of course, everything is in the presentation. The Owens’s presentation of The Memorialist, with it skillful use of lighting, is excellent. I do know that the artist worked closely with the gallery’s staff to make sure that everything was to her intentions. Often, after an installation exhibition everything disappears without a trace and that in the case of a mediocre exhibition might be a good thing. This, however, is a fine, thoughtful show and thankfully will be followed by a catalogue documenting the exhibition written by Felicity Tayler. It would be nice if The Memorialist toured, but it would be different show in another venue. I hope that if it does travel, it will look as good as it does in the Owens Art Gallery.

D’Arcy Willson: The Memorialist
Owens Art Gallery Mount Allison University, Sackville
4 November—11 December 2016