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Joan Sullivan: 'Underlying all my work has been an interest in place’

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Marlene Creates: Places, Paths, and Pauses
By Susan Gibson Garvey & Andrea Kunard
Goose Lane Editions & Beaverbrook Art Gallery
$50.00   204 pages

In environmental art the natural world is both media and canvas, writ with and upon. It’s arguably somewhere in the genre of landscape painting; the work is not just a representation of a place but essentially interlinked into its systems and processes. The locale and materials are not static, not just because they are exposed to the elements but are undergoing their own growth and decay. And they are not framed and hung on a gallery wall but enhanced and inscribed in their own space in the world.

Much current environmental artwork is site-specific, and often sculptural. Thus it is not highly collectible, and can really only be sold through photographic archives. Some practitioners work in deserts and landfills while others concentrate on urban scenarios. It’s always ecological but of course there are many different kinds of ecologies.

Marlene Creates builds multi-source, multi-dimensional works, latterly including living imagery, spoken word, and on-site performance. This hefty square book collects a lot of examples, although it’s not an art book, per se, as the pages include lots of description, analysis, and contextualization of her work. Its half-dozen chapters come from a half-dozen authors, including Susan Gibson Garvey on the titular chapter, Don McKay on “Some Thoughts on Sleeping Places” (with a poem), and Robert Macfarlane on “Hollow Places and Wordcaves.” A biography, selected bibliography, and list of works are also included.

“From her earliest ephemeral gestures in the land to her latest immersion in the boreal forest that surrounds her home, (Marlene) Creates’ multifaceted, interdisciplinary practice had offered an extended meditation on, and active enquiry into, the layered experience of place.”

Susan Gibson Garvey

 “The natural environment — the land itself — has long been a significant preoccupation of Canadian art, and the work of Marlene Creates (pronounced “Kreets”) holds a unique position within the genre,” writes Garvey. “From her earliest ephemeral gestures in the land to her latest immersion in the boreal forest that surrounds her home, Creates’ multifaceted, interdisciplinary practice had offered an extended meditation on, and active enquiry into, the layered experience of place.”

Organized thematically, the book also unfolds somewhat roughly chronologically, although there are often overlaps between her work practices and concerns. The “Landworks” of 1979-1985 were, Creates says, “Works based on my responses as a visitor to places.” These probably most closely cleave to a general idea of environmental art — a line of white stones snaking across dark beach rocks, an installation of stones from Newfoundland and Ireland squared on a gallery floor. They are in colour, but their natural tones often present a palette of black and white.

Creates’ “Memory Maps” are like mini-biographies. She met people in Labrador, photographed them and a space or structure, and asked them to draw, and to share a memory of, that object (“That’s my home. Really home. Right different now.”). The texts are placed in between the photographs. Natural soil, wood, or fibre was positioned on the floor below these four panels, completing the assemblage.

Ecological works are almost by definition also political.

“In these respects, Creates’ work stands for me in absorbing kinship with other countercultural projects that aim to restore or reveal the detail of a landscape, and in this way leave it less susceptible to generalization and exploitation,” writes Macfarlane.

Creates has slept on the land and photographed the impression, photographed herself refracted by water, and photographed duets of her hand against tree trunks. She has immersed herself in varied environments and drawn from her own past — history and biography being recurring parts of her output.

Most of her work is in series, often quite ambitious and lengthy, not just in their physical form, but geographically. “Walking and No Walking Alberta 2000” derives from a road trip encountering many signs and fences and other barriers to “the most open, expansive terrain with the most inviting vistas,” Creates writes, while "Words Heard Here, Quebec 1995" both spells and interposes words in landscapes such as "source," "contact," and "passage."

Her “Boreal Poetry Garden” is adjacent to her home in Portugal Cove. Since 2002 she has offered a curated experience also much formed by natural systems and happenstance. It includes walking, poems, and performance.

And in “What Came to Light at Blast Hole Pond River, Newfoundland 2015,” an ongoing series, “I deliberately relinquish being the photographer and leave it to the trail camera, which is triggered by the movement of wildlife. I value the serendipity and off-centredness of these photographs, while realizing that wildlife move with intention.” These images are paired with astronomical notes, for example. “Waning gibbous Moon with Mercury in the morning sky” with the legs of a moose, and “Planet Uranus vanishes into the twilight” with a fox.

Creates’ “places” are open to poetic, scientific, amazing paths.

 

Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram

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