WEATHERVANE II: Curated by Marian Butler
July 18 – July 28, 2002

a response to the exhibition by Allisa York

Weather. It’s only natural that the word should present itself first in the role of noun — it surrounds and affects us constantly, after all. In the process of responding to part two of the Weather Vane project, however, I found myself dwelling on the idea of weather as verb. “To expose to or affect by atmospheric changes.” Or, even more compelling, “to come safely through, to survive.” Life marks us. Learning to speak Italian (or Cantonese, or Swahili) forges new synaptic pathways, lines of language laid indelible on the brain. A broken heart can knit like a bone but will remain forever vulnerable along the seam. Bodies record (and often recount) the essential narratives of life — foreheads creased in fury or in thought, shoulders rounded in shame, hymens torn, bellies stretched until they stripe. “Look,” a woman might say, touching a fingertip to her thigh, tracing a smattering of glassy scars, “here’s where I hit a gravel patch and felt my first bicycle betray me. I remember, I bit my lips while my dad pressed tweezers into my flesh and plucked out every stone.”

To give up the mark would be to give up the memory, and with it, some small measure of a father’s love. Of course, not every cicatrice carries with it such a gift, but there’s no denying that significant and/or traumatic events demand transformation in much the same way the elements do. In braving them we become acclimatized. The act of withstanding teaches us how to stand.

As a noun,weather speaks to the constant state of flux in which any given self struggles to take shape. As a verb, however, it addresses the struggle itself — complete with outcomes, both intermittent and ultimate — a process which might best be understood as an ongoing dialogue between the circumstance of a life and the particular soul doing his or her best to live it. The investigation and documentation of this dialogue yields great punishment and reward. When fortune smiles, it yields that which we know as art.

With Weather Vane II, curator Marian Butler has gathered together eleven works of art that inquire into weather’s many roles and functions through the medium of the video short. While diverse in both form and content, these videos can all be seen to comment on the interplay between interior and exterior spaces, between inner and outer worlds. As the scope of this piece prohibits a complete exploration of all eleven works, I offer a brief comment on each, followed by three in-depth work-specific responses below.

My Heart the Meteorologist by Deborah Van Slet examines the capricious nature of climate, and in the process presents an oblique lesson on the modus operandi of the emotional self.

Jennifer Stillwell’s Losing the Scent explores the barriers that come between humanity and the natural world. A faceless woman sows seeds on a gleaming wood floor; feet are swept, mopped, powdered and adorned with flowers in an attempt to obliterate their scent; that most animal of our senses, smell, is reduced to an absurd mechanism that features a rotating sculpted nose.

Dock-Watch-Bay by Alex Poruchnyk portrays the uneasy, at times violent relationship between city/civilization and the chaos of the wild. Wind tears mercilessly at protective awnings; a mother jogs desperately at the helm of her stroller alongside a noxious river of cars; a helicopter hovers ominously between treetops; an empty raft bobs helplessly amid crashing waves.

In The Weight of the Sun and the Moon, Yudi Sewraj documents the creation of a modern altar to two of our most ancient Gods, an act rendered tragicomic by accompanying audio excerpts from the moon-landing signal and the vaguely Chaplin-esque body language of the would-be worshipper. Videobut by Joanne Bristol begins as a testimony to the physical hardships of video-making, an activity that is “the furthest thing from the erotic.” Ironically, the narrator goes on to recount a collaborative/tutorial editing session that took place indoors during a snowstorm and resulted in the two artists “making dubs.

Dennis Jackson’s Journey Through Fear is also a journey through space and time — it relates the story of a specific landscape and its history via one man¹s foray into the wilderness in which he no longer feels at home.

Room 704 by Heidi Phillips contrasts two seemingly dissimilar environments — a sparse interior dominated by the clock-like revolutions of a ceiling fan, and scenes of blowing snow and howling wind. The common theme is one of rest, a state into which we must “enter diligently” in order to be restored. In Somewhere, Angela Somerset populates an interior space with a host of miraculous forms indigenous to the “outdoors”, evoking everything from birds and fish to falling rain and scudding clouds. Party favours account for the greater portion of materials used, and when the artist’s eye does venture outside into winter, it carries with it these glittering emblems of celebration — birthday candles adorn a snow-cake, drifts bristle with sparklers, balloons dance on barren trees.

Blue Liquid by Launi Davis looks into the nature of water in relation to living forms — both those that are “in their element” and those that are not. While carp roil sensuously in a pool of soft, almost luminescent green, a woman experiments in the shower, pouring artificially-coloured water down her leg into a glass, then lifting the glass to her lips and forcing the strange blue beverage down. She is drenched, bewildered, her understanding perhaps no greater than when she began. The carp, however, seem peaceful, in direct communication with the water around them, secure in all they ever need know. In Phantom Lake, Gail Brown isolates and defines the state of bliss that is summer by spinning at the center of an idyllic space.

Laura: 1898-1990 by Lorraine Oades and Mark Pounds elegizes its subject though a series of photos that document the farming life — a life lived primarily outside. Filmed in the negative and bathed in a wash of red, these photos resemble nothing so much as the after-images we discover when we close our eyes — an effect that is both moving and appropriate, given that the woman whose life we are witnessing had to cope with going blind. The intimate tone of the narration (taken from letters written by Laura) transports us even further into that most interior of spaces — another person’s head.

My Heart the Meteorologist by Deborah Van Slet centers on the dominant image of a lone window and its view of tree limbs silhouetted in ruddy light. This image functions as the heart of the work in visual, as well as figurative, terms. Bare branches evoke arteries and veins, while the window’s four panes hint at the configuration of the chambered organ — two smaller square panes (atria) atop two deeper rectangles (ventricles). Audio completes the metaphor, with sparse, repetitive piano providing the pulse while a wind track mimics the rush of pumping blood.

As a voice-over narrative informs us that “it’s impossible to predict the weather because of chaos,” we cut to the viewpoint of a driver in a storm and see lightning rend the sky to strike the road ahead. It’s a potentially terrifying notion — something so powerful, so equally creative and destructive, and our chances of ever comprehending it are nil.

As if in compensation, we learn that a butterfly flapping its wings in Venezuela can alter atmospheric conditions in Montreal. Such a minute movement actually creates a modicum of wind, which in turn effects other wind, and so on down the line, or in this case, across a continent or two. Fear gives way to wonder as we witness a brief shot of wind moving through grass. Weather is beautiful too, we are reminded, often achingly so. It moves in mysterious ways.

But what of the meteorologists, those venerable experts in the field? They too are “frequently humbled,” the narrator claims — and why? Because “no two days are ever the same, never,” and so forecasting based on past trends is “sadly, doomed.” All the experts can offer are “patterns and trends and probabilities and possibilities, and these percentages allow people to decide for themselves how much risk they want to take.

As the final spoken line, the above brings us full-circle to the work’s title (as well as to that stunning window-heart). Substitute “emotion” for “weather” throughout, and the narrative holds perfectly true.

Dennis Jackson’s Journey Through Fear uses claymation to tell the story of a First Nations man’s experiences on the trapline. The iconic simplicity of the medium feels entirely appropriate to the spinning of a modern myth, and while immediate settings and props are built to scale, the greater background consists of actual northern landscape, a juxtaposition that serves to heighten the drama of one small man in the wild.

The story begins at sun-up, in a land that is quiet but for the low, impatient howling of the trapper’s two dogs. Speaking in his mother tongue, the trapper recounts his tale in voice-over, the narration beginning as we watch him wake. “Aagh, wake up!” the first sub-title reads — a phrase that will come to have great meaning by the end of the work.

Looking out his cabin window, the trapper pronounces it a “good day to trap.” This is irony on a cosmic scale — the signs of nature are no longer reliable, something sinister having garbled the language of earth and sky.

The trapper has been out on the land for four months now, and has little to show for his efforts. “I remember when I trapped with my father in the South,” he tells us, “and every trap was good.” It becomes clear that he’s living the story of indigenous peoples the world over — forced to the barren perimeter by colonial forces, caught in the chasm between new ways and old. “Today . . . tourists, towns all over. That trap line is gone now.” He might just as well say that life.

Before long, the trapper comes upon a dead moose, robbed of its “rack” and left to rot. It’s the third he’s seen since snowfall, a potent symbol of the waste and ruin white people have brought with them to the North. Next he finds a trapped rabbit struggling in its own blood. He puts the animal out of its misery by cracking its skull against a tree, but the action only serves to remind us of the suffering the rabbit must have endured before the trapper arrived. As disquieting as the incident may be, it hints at the overwhelming complexity of the situation — the history of the fur-trade, exploitation disguised as co-operation, the relentless erosion of the First Peoples’ independence and connection to the land. A brief respite comes when the trapper draws a full net of fish up through a hole in the ice, but only until a bear appears. “Hunger woke his spirit up,” the trapper explains. The animal tilts its head inquisitively, a moment of communication between two species, but more importantly, between the spirit world and this one. “A bear in winter is not a good sign.” It’s yet another indicator that all is not well in the world, that something is in fact profoundly wrong.

As the bear charges him, the trapper realizes his gun is in the sled, several yards away. He runs for the supreme symbol of native/colonial interaction, but just as the bear threatens to overtake him, a shot rings out, the bullet dropping the animal in its tracks.

The trapper turns to find three white hunters, at their feet a rich pile of pelts. Their plane hulks on the ice, flying the red-white-and-blue. The trapper has been delivered by the very force that is destroying him by degrees. Not surprisingly, he feels not gratitude but sorrow, realizing he was “meant to die that day.”

The piece closes with a desolate, frozen landscape and the whine of the white hunters’ plane. They leave the land as they came to it — too far from the ground, too fast and noisy to engage with nature in any meaningful way.

In Phantom Lake, Gail Brown offers a brief glimpse of paradise through the eyes of an innocent. We’re gazing at a flawless sky, riding a red merry-go-round of industrial proportions in a playground beside a lake. The only sound is the rumbling harmony of the mechanism itself, an echo of the machinery of the mind, the idyllic memory hauled up like a bucket of cold, sweet water from a well. A hazy shot of a child astride one of the merry-go-round’s spokes provides context, anchoring us in the scene before returning us to the child’s revolving point of view. A maternal figure glimpsed briefly against a bright set of swings, reeds and scrub softened to a painterly wash, the human structure of a shed (reminiscent of those simplified houses so central to children’s art), light glancing off the lake, the lake’s rippled imprint in sand. The footage is dizzying in the best sense of the word, a slow-motion blur that mimics the physical sensation of the ride while simultaneously capturing an unspoiled perception of the interdependent nature of all forms.

As with any Eden, the work ends abruptly, the artist casting us out before we’re ready to leave. But how dearly we prize that which we have lost. How much keener the sensation in a phantom limb.

Alissa York has lived all over Canada and now makes her home in Winnipeg. Her prize-winning short fiction has appeared in various literary journals and anthologies, as well as in her first book, Any Given Power. Her first novel, entitled Mercy, was published by Random House Canada in January 2003.