Uncommon Idiom

Weather Vane: curated by Marian Butler
December 12 – December 15, 2001

a response to the exhibition by Alissa York

“What’s it like out?” we ask. And, literally speaking, the weather is just that — out, the prevailing conditions beyond our bodies (and our buildings, those bodily extensions within which we dwell).

But we all know there’s more to it than that.

Creatures of context, we can’t begin to understand or even to experience weather, except in relation to ourselves. On the physical plane, we know heat when the temperature of the air exceeds that of the body, know humidity when atmospheric moisture hampers the skin’s ability to sweat. Comfort is what we feel when that which surrounds us best mirrors that which we carry inside.

Of course, the physical is just the beginning. Our relationship with the weather is serious, committed — it colours our loftiest notions, the darkest chasms of our souls.

Mystics and physicists alike assure us there are no actual boundaries, yet we continue to insist upon drawing a line between inner and outer reality, all the while chafing at the inherent discomfort of denial. No “primitive” ever needed to be told that lightning was dangerous, or that a warm rain was a great blessing, or that forms couldn’t be trusted in a fog.

For the truth, look no further than the common idiom — a stormy relationship, a breezy manner, a sunny disposition, a sultry glance. In French, “it’s raining” means “he cries”. We are the weather.

Weather Vane was comprised of twelve short videos created by diverse artists and shown at Winnipeg’s Cinematheque, as well as four longer works installed at ace artinc. As considerations of space preclude a full treatment of every piece presented, I offer a handful of work-specific responses:

In Trans(e) Bleu, Marie-France Giraudon and Emmanuel Avenel have created a spellbinding portrait of the North. We’re on a journey, following a shifting map, a pair of trudging boots. Soon, we’re enveloped in a living collage. Layered transparencies evoke winter pelts, weathered skin, the intimate structures of snow. Images come into focus briefly, some baffling, some tantalizingly familiar — a migrating herd, the flight of a snowy owl.

What could be more appropriate to a land with no horizon, where blowing snow and endlessness are forever playing tricks with the eyes? This is the realm of shape-shifters. Hands cupping a candle suggest a myriad of forms. Ice fog assumes the contours of a wolf’s head, leaps open-mouthed at the viewer, and dissolves. The face of a phantom hare appears momentarily in a steaming cup.

The soundscape too is in constant flux — an icy skitter, a sighing blast, the whoosh of a collapsing drift. At times the chorus becomes human. Laughter bleeds into a growl, into the laboured breath of sex or pain. Listen closely. You can hear the shaman evolve.

For grown-ups, a Canadian winter can come to mean nothing more than sidewalks to be shovelled and windshields to be scraped, dangerous driving and the high cost of heating a home. O Canada by Sister Dorothy offers a sweeter perspective, reminding us of a time when we thrilled to the word blizzard, when we stood in awe of winter’s transformative power and revelled in the malleable beauty of snow.

Dancing to the tune of a decidedly Caribbean-ized Canadian anthem, Sister Dorothy twirls in a yard blanketed with white, alone but for a few trophies, toys, and wooden birds, some of which are partially submerged in snow. A lone apple bobs on a barren limb, innocence suspended against the odds. The music may be tropical in flavour, but the dancer is defiantly northern — muffled in winter clothing, she’s an impish celebrant waving a Canadian flag. Hey, she seems to be saying, remember playing? Remember when winter (or life, for that matter) was fun?

Tom Elliott’s a front passes documents an installation that took place for two weeks in a McDermot Avenue vestibule (an ideal no-man’s-land kind of space within which to explore an intangible and often overlooked phenomenon).

A crowd of electric fans oscillate to the rumble of approaching thunder. Now and then there comes the glassy crash of something breaking, perhaps an ornament shaken from its shelf. Pale scraps of paper abound — some rattling quietly as they cling to fan cages, others riding the air currents like tiny, restless birds. Light broken by fan blades mimics the flickering of an uncertain sky, evoking a sense of exhilaration and panic, the small madness we feel in anticipation of a storm. The fans feel it too. They shift nervously — an eerie, robotic herd.

The effect is deeply unsettling. And yet, as the thunder recedes and the fans come to rest, we feel not relief, but an echoing sense of loss. After all, the work isn’t about a breaking storm. It’s about the one that passes us by.

The stars are always above us, but we require darkness to perceive their light. So too with the light of the subconscious — it comes to us when we close our eyes.

In Sleeping by the Railway by Tim Phillips, a nocturnal sky mirrors the mysteries of the wisest mind. The narrator dreams he’s about to kill a bear for simply being. Realizing at the last moment that it’s actually a man in a bear suit, he shouts, “How stupid can you be?! I almost shot you!” The man/bear says nothing, staring as though the narrator is the one with the problem.

In a second dream, a vagrant helps himself to the narrator’s expensive slice of cake, slobbering all over it as he eats. The narrator’s initial reaction is one of anger — until he notices the bum is “really enjoying it — just — just as much as I would.” A transformation occurs. “Well, call me Jesus!” the narrator declares, and he lets the bum finish the cake.

Dream number three finds the same bum holding out the precious cake, offering to share. The narrator accepts: “I take a little, and it’s not so bad. It’s actually kind of good. So we finish it. We finish it together.”

From a state of disconnection and violence to one of communion in three nonsensical dreams. Quite a journey for a single night beneath the stars.


These and other onscreen messages appear during the course of Window by Nelson Henricks. Cette place is the portion of the world framed by a single urban window — in effect, the view that window affords. Only there’s no such thing as a single view, and the artist reminds us of this by returning to cette place in all seasons, and by constantly shifting his (and our) gaze. The brushstroke line of a budding branch, the green skirts of leaves, human traffic hunched against the cold — the possibilities are endless. It’s a question of paying attention. Do that and any space, no matter how defined, becomes infinite.

Of course, the lesson applies to more than space:


Nicole Shimonek’s Winter functions as a powerful minimalist play. Half a dozen dried seed pods huddle together on a spare, white plane. If screen space defines the world offered for consideration, then the hand which appears must be mighty indeed, for it takes up half the given sky. It too is miraculously clean and spare — not a scar, not a hangnail in sight. Yet, like any hand, a well-manicured one can seem clumsy, even dangerous, when it begins prodding at something delicate and small.

Remember, these vessels contain next year’s spring.

On the first pass, the great index finger merely reorders the pods, nudging them one after another to the far side of the screen. Any sense of reprieve is temporary, however, because on the second pass, the finger takes a harder line. It plays with the first seed pod a little. Then crushes it. In short succession, all six meet the same violent end, some scattering their cargo beyond the scope of the screen.

Is this the hand of Mother Nature? Of Old Man Winter? Of God? Whatever we choose to name it, it remains a resurrectionist force, a giver of life through death.

Alissa York is an award-winning Winnipeg author whose fiction has appeared in various literary journals and anthologies, and in the short story collection,
Any Given Power. Her first novel, Mercy, is due out from Random House Canada in January, 2003.