Sympathetic Magic

Sympathetic Magic
Mendel Art Gallery
To Sept. 14, 2014

Before I spoke to Troy Gronsdahl, curator of Sympathetic Magic, I wasn’t familiar with the term terra nullius. This term argues, to quote Joseph Trutch, BC’s first Lieutenant Governor, that First Nation peoples had never owned land and could be simply ignored. Now, it seems pervasive.

That may be because the ideas that Gronsdahl posits in this exhibition all have contemporary play outside the gallery space. The exhibition’s opening coincided with the PMO’s approval of the Keystone Pipeline, and issues of resource extraction, Idle No More and the social capital narrative (myths – or lies, edit as you will – we tell ourselves about ourselves and our world) are daily ones in Saskatchewan. We’re just Canada in small right now, dealing with frictions that other regions must soon. Where We Were Is No Longer Where We Are And Where We Will Be Is Not Yet, warns Raymond Boisjoly in massive black text on the gallery wall. This piece doesn’t dominate the space physically, but the sentiment behind it suffuses the environment.

The Mendel often engages in “responsive” programming, to external touring shows, such as how Shaping Saskatchewan answered The Automatiste Revolution. Geography, even by allusion, is always a defining factor here. Gronsdahl admits the seed for Sympathetic Magic came from the concurrent exhibition of the Canadian Group of Painters, their relation to the Group of Seven, and their legacy (positive or negative) in shaping the Canadian imagination’s relationship with landscape. The romantic “ideal” of artists trekking into the wilderness, especially the North, is part of the canon of Canadian art. A bastion of the original Mendel bequest is Lawren Harris’s Untitled (Mountains near Jasper), which even a good acolyte of the Petro State, like Premier Brad Wall, must appreciate for showing “Canada is rich in natural beauty, abundant in resources, and open for business.”

But Gronsdahal was less interested in a show with overtly specific depictions of the “land”, but in creating a space to think about these issues without literally looking at it. Sympathetic Magic aspires to be “a meditative, contemplative exhibition about landscape that didn’t reinforce the usual tropes.”

The aforementioned Boisjoly, along with Adah Hannah, Ryan Schmidt and Ken Lum, is all about “positionality…how your social and political landscape affects how you view the world and understanding of the world, and how that can change depending on the circumstances you find yourself in, and so, in that way, you’re always kind of changing and becoming.” This uncertainty of being in a process, without knowing how it will end and not being able to return to where you came from, offers a more contemporary dialogue about Canada than a Harris, but like a Burtynsky, offers no safe space to “stand.”

Adah Hannah’s The Russians are video portraits originating within the documentary tradition, and its professed depiction of the “Other” with a veneer of impartiality. But, the subtle movements of the subjects − for example, a young woman who sometimes shyly meets our gaze, sometimes self-consciously looks beyond us −  speak to the palpable nature of this fracture. And, one can’t see images of Russians − especially the soldiers, here −  without thinking of the current geopolitical “landscape”, and the warnings of Putin wanting to be the next Tsar, or Stalin. With works by Kevin Schmidt bracketing Hannah (Wild Signals or A Sign in the Northwest Passage) here privileging “North”, and that space as a site of potential resource riches, we’re back to the race for the Northwest Passage, and we are again where we once were.

Schmidt’s Sign documents a large sign installed near Tuktoyaktuk with local assistance, incised with text from the Book of Revelations, all end of days, fire and destruction. Sign may not even be there anymore: it may have already floated away in the seasonal melt, aggravated under climate change. A doomsday proclamation, but will anyway see it? Can there be a more appropriate analogy for the debate regarding petrol states and global warming?

The title of the exhibition references James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, where “under the umbrella of Sympathetic Magic, Frazer identified two foundational principles: the Law of Similarity and the Law of Contact or Contagion.” The latter stipulates, “Things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed.” He makes another compelling statement: “Things can physically affect each other through a space which appears to be empty.” There is a poetic resonance in his text that lends itself to this particular exploration of nationhood, culture and identity in Canada.

Regrettably, Sympathetic Magic may be ignored by visitors to the gallery in favour of the more palatable Canadian Group of Painters show in the same way we don’t shrug off old ideas with any degree of ease. This exhibition seriously challenges the stories that dominate the national narrative, but perhaps that’s where Ken Lum’s Cheeseburger comes into play. The sitting figure suggests a brief respite from never-ending labour, and the prevalence of the menu items as the most important language for the worker indicate that we need a well-trained, more than well-educated, workforce, in the future – and in the landscape – that awaits us.