Reframing Natural History at the MAC LAU
In the foothills of the Laurentians, one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, in the town of Saint-Jérôme, Quebec, the Musée d’art contemporain des Laurentides (MAC LAU) regularly presents some of the most enticing programming in the province. Natural Stories is the second in a three-part series of group exhibitions that the independent curator Aseman Sabet has developed at the museum around representations of nature. Following the success of Through the Forest in 2018, this most recent iteration of Sabet’s project is a visually rich and materially intriguing reflection on the narrative and conceptual extensions of natural history. Through the works of Maryse Goudreau, Caroline Monnet, Celia Perrin Sidarous, Joseph Tisiga, Sally Tisiga, and the duo Sarah Wendt and Pascal Dufaux, the exhibition provides a deeply sensorial display of the intersecting aesthetics, politics, and sociality of nature, culture, and contemporary visual arts.
In the first gallery, Perrin Sidarous’s installation Nacre (2019–20) sets a scientific tone. Taking inspiration from conchology, the study of shells, Perrin Sidarous constructs a natural history museum environment that testifies to humans’ insistence on classifying and organizing nature. Two display cases containing carefully assembled magazine clippings, conches, and sculptural casts accompany a series of large, crisp close-up photographs of shells on differently coloured observation surfaces. Using a combination of photography and sculpture, she reassembles the different terminologies, hierarchies, and structures that underpin the empiricism presented by institutionalized chronologies, definitions, and other so-called objective representations of the “natural world.” This includes responding to deeply rooted patriarchal tropes in life and physical sciences, such as the common association of the shell with archetypes of femininity. A wall text about shell names, their origins, and definitions makes this point by drawing attention to the anthropomorphic, often sexualized language used to name shells through analogies for women’s body parts and emotions or by employing the names of mythical female characters. Perrin Sidarous’s methodical, collage-like installation is aesthetically concise and striking within the eerie silence of scientific knowledge filling the room.
Walking into the main exhibition space, the works by Sally Tisiga and Joseph Tisiga, who are mother and son, make a strong pairing. Sally Tisiga’s three small sculptural figures Grandmother Wind The Messenger (2020), Grandmother Bear Protector of the Four Legged Ones (2020), and Grandmother of the Oceans and the Lands In Between (2020) are inspired by conversations with an Elder from the Kaska Dena nation during a visit to Tisiga’s community in the Yukon. On a small plinth in the middle of the room, these three entities demonstrate exceptional craftsmanship, intricate traditional beading patterns, and an engagement with Indigenous knowledges as a means of convening with, understanding, and being in nature. Made from paper clay, acrylic paint, wire form, horsehair, feathers, cloth, and glass beads, the three differently scaled sculptures ask questions about our increasingly disembodied relationship to nature. Behind them, Joseph Tisiga’s painting I was told it was here but it isn’t (2020) pushes viewers to think about tropes of First Nations iconography as they have been reiterated in Western and Canadian art history. He makes use of the central presence of a mythical creature that he associates with “spiritual anthropomorphism,” a being with a human eye and arm, abstract blue body, elongated nose, outstretched tongue, and other reptilian features. The oil-on-canvas painting challenges associations between Indigenous traditions of communing with nature and scientific or anthropological theories of animism that have appropriated, abstracted, and transformed distinct cultures and peoples into monoliths.
In the complex age of the Anthropocene, in which a flattening of human activity and climate/ecosystems often simply spells out bold disaster, the exhibition and its artists offer nuanced, intricate, and thoughtful ways of experiencing our changing habitat.
Taking up an important part of the exhibition space, Sarah Wendt and Pascal Dufaux’s Études ectoplasmiques (2021) is partly composed of an evolutionary-like wall diagram with sculptures, videos, and a matrix of lines interconnecting all of its adjacent parts. The installation echoes some of the previous themes on view throughout Natural Stories, including the categorization, collection, and public display of nature meant for mass consumption or entertainment. Verging on science fiction, the wall work deploys a sculptural vocabulary of organic structures and shapes, mirrors and refractory surfaces, and short dynamic explanatory videos on small imbedded monitors meant to convey action, movement, and nature’s forces at work. A single-channel video projected in a darkened back room accompanies the installation. The film mixes archival footage of various viscous, oozing, and emerging ectoplasms with newly created performative sequences by the artists, echoing the explosion of autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) home videos that have recently taken over online video streaming platforms. Completely mesmerizing, oddly satisfying, and deeply visceral, Études ectoplasmiques is both playful and critically incisive in its multisensory depictions of the chemical, elastic, and bulbous transformations of the inorganic and organic substances that surround us.
Fluctuating between a relatively calm, serene, and composed exploration of the narratives of natural history and the urgency of underscoring the cultural and socio-political implications of “objective representations” of nature’s knowledges, Natural Stories strikes a careful balance between conceptual rigour, aesthetic pleasure, and material invention. In the complex age of the Anthropocene, in which a flattening of human activity and climate/ecosystems often simply spells out bold disaster, the exhibition and its artists offer nuanced, intricate, and thoughtful ways of experiencing our changing habitat.
CURATOR: ASEMAN SABET
ARTISTS: MARYSE GOUDREAU, CAROLINE MONNET, CELIA PERRIN SIDAROUS, JOSEPH TISIGA, SALLY TISIGA, SARAH WENDT AND PASCAL DUFAUX
MUSÉE D’ART CONTEMPORAIN DES LAURENTIDES
JUNE 3—OCTOBER 3, 2021