Depictions of wildlife are as old as art history itself, and discussions and debate on human interaction with — if not dominion over — the animal world date back to at least the time of the Book of Genesis. The fervent mind of Darren Aronofsky thought it worthy of renewed attention in his slightly twisted, socio-political treatment, Noah, a retelling of the biblical story recently in theatres. (Noah is a vegetarian, donchyaknow, worried God is upset with the predation of His animal creations.) And it’s in that spirit (minus the CGI bombast, though equally thought-provoking) that Halifax-based multidisciplinary artist D’Arcy Wilson brings her projects, Tuck and Fleshold, to the Forest City Gallery.
The two-part exhibit, presented together for the first time here, documents Wilson’s attempts to engage in a nurturing relationship with wildlife. With Fleshold, the artist hand stitched quilts to be used to comfort injured animals in a rehabilitation centre. Upon the animals’ release, these quilts were returned to the artist, in some cases partly chewed and scratched, on display here hanging from the gallery ceiling. An accompanying video, in split screen, shows the artist assembling quilts on the left, with specific colour, pattern, and fabric she felt appropriate for each recipient animal (skunk, fox, or raccoon), displayed on the right.
Tuck is a little more creepy: This video documents Wilson’s visit to the Banff Park Museum National Historic Site at dusk, singing lullabies to the century old taxidermy collection of big horn sheep, bears, and birds. And yet, as she moves from one group of animals to the next, singing with a calming lyrical voice and shutting out the lights on her wards, it’s strangely compelling. “Lullaby, and good night, let my baby sleep tight,” she coos to mounted buffalo heads, “Close your eyes now and rest, may your slumber be blessed.”
The intentional absurdity here is perhaps symbolic of all human effort, or gestures, to find a benign or harmonic relationship with our fellow critters on the planet. “It was essential to this project, as in my other works, that this gesture be one of nurturing and comfort,” Wilson said in an interview earlier this year. “In all my work, I seek to have a positive role to play in nature, and in particular, one that is rooted with my place in the world as a female. Our relationship to the natural world in Canada has a rich and, at times, problematic history. Furthermore, this is mostly a male history of hunting, capture, colonialism, and seeing the natural world as a resource for the taking. In my work, I question whether or not as a female, I can have a different connection to nature—one that is rooted in stereotypical female roles as caregiver, nurturer, and mother. But, as is evident in this exhibition, these roles are also problematic, and my idea of nurturing does not necessarily translate for a wild animal.”
Wilson noted with dismay that even the simple gesture of providing “comfort” to these mammals with a blanket was perhaps misguided. “When I gave the quilts to the wildlife in the centres, they were enthralled with them—they smelled them, licked them, bit them, and dragged them out of view. At first I was shocked, and thought they actually liked them! But later I realized that my scent on the blankets was a major invasion of their space. Throughout this process, I strove to be respectful to the wildlife, careful not to commoditize them through my art piece; nevertheless, in the end this was perhaps unavoidable.”
This kind of work is obviously not everyone’s cuppa. “It’s one of those exhibitions that asks a lot of questions, but doesn’t necessarily present concrete answers,” says Forest City Gallery director Jenna Faye Powell. But Powell notes that is its strength, provoking questions for viewers of how and why collections like the taxidermy, with grandiose animal ‘poses’, came to be.
While words can’t quite do the show justice, this viewer was pleasantly surprised by its quiet power to evoke, in no small epiphany, just how limited we are in our ability to live in a nurturing relation to wildlife — never mind a Garden of Eden harmony. It’s something we may all be familiar with on the domestic pet front. Hey, I’m not even sure if I’m nurturing my cats, or if they are nurturing me.
Tuck and Fleshold, on display at Forest City Gallery until June 20
For excerpts from the Tuck and Fleshold videos:
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