Even as the Nova Scotian summer finally heats up to a beach-worthy standard, there are still a few exhibitions worth checking out in the city. One you missed if you didn’t catch it before it closed last weekend was the Sub-Scotia Museum at Anna Leonowens Gallery. Last year, DIY explorers John Mathews and Dennis Hale constructed a log raft out of reclaimed wood extracted from a sculpture by Warren Homeniuk. They dubbed it the S.S. Rozinante and rowed it to George’s Island in the middle of Halifax Harbour (considering Halifax’s horrific lack of sewage treatment, this is quite the toxic feat). The artists founded a utopian region on the island called Sub-Scotia and formalized the event with a ceremony that identified key issues of colonialism, imperialism, and tourism while satirizing the building of empires and the ownership of nature.
John Mathews and Dennis Hale on the S.S. Rozinante
If you’re not brave enough to make the journey yourself, the gallery is hosting artifacts from the “museum,” including the raft, passports, homemade ropes and breadcrumbs from the founding ceremony picnic. Having just returned from an exhausting trip through the galleries of Europe, I was already familiar with how our understanding of objects and places changes as soon as they’re recognized by a museum or institution. We are taught right from our first school field trip not to question the contents of the diorama or its historical context. In a city that still hasn’t come to terms with its own history - official tourism plays up the tartan step-dancing but fails to mention Africville - this show hits particularly close to home.
Joan Backes, Stick House, 2007, installation view
Downstairs at Anna Leonowens, NSCAD artist-in-residence Joan Backes had exhibited Stick House, her poetic observation about our relationship with nature. Made of fallen branches, the large house has wide, open slats beyond which real leaves dangle just out of our grasp. Three paintings of bark patterns from various tree species were hung on the wall. A haunting soundtrack that collaged work by various international composers who were inspired by the sound of wind in trees was available on headphones. Backes seamlessly combines variously media to express her ecological concerns, suggesting - without preaching - that unless something dramatic changes, we are destined to observe nature from a prison-like distance.
Upstairs, the other American artist-in-residence, New York’s Rob Seward, is working in the gallery until August 26. Seward uses light, mechanics, technology and music to create devices that explore language, communication and their relationship to our modern emotional (particularly anxiety-ridden) lives. Across three black boards, small fluorescent light tubes spin, eventually slowing down to form a sentence. Eager anticipation turns to unease as, one by one, the words spell out “YOU WILL DIE.” And then, if you’re brave enough after that declaration of mortality, you can lie down and put on the nearby headphones and goggles. A steady beat of electronic music plays while colour fields appear before your eyes; the visceral sensation is like lying at the top of a hill on a clear day as the sky moves from blue to sunset reds and oranges. It’s easy to get caught up in this false world - my guess is that it would be a fun accessory for certain illegal substances (not that I would know) - but as the heavy gallery door slammed shut, breaking the peace, I became aware of my own vulnerability lying on the floor.
Poster by Yo Rodeo!
You might also feel slightly vulnerable walking into Utility Gallery - after all, it is in the lobby of a tattoo and body-piercing studio, and you can hear the zapping buzz of the tattoo gun even before you’re in the door. But Utility is the appropriate place to show poster work from screenprinting duo Yo Rodeo! (artist/musicians Paul Hammond and Seth Smith) whose reconstructed patterns, typefaces and animal motifs are synonymous with the city’s vibrant alternative music scene. Fans of Montreal’s Seripop will appreciate Yo Rodeo!’s technique, but the style is all Halifax: scrappy yet sophisticated, with plenty of kittens, birds and other wildlife.
Garry Neill Kennedy, The Colours of Citizen Arar, 2007, installation view
The latest extension to Garry Neill Kennedy’s series Garry Neill Kennedy: Superstar Shadow 1984 – 2005 at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia is a haunting documentation of the life of Maher Arar. As the media and politicians still scramble to lay blame for their role in the technology consultant’s wrongful incarceration and torture in Syria, Kennedy peels back the rhetoric with his wall painting, The Colours of Citizen Arar. The exhibition title is painted in floor-to-ceiling vertical stripes of orange, red, black, blue and yellow, all the colours that appear in Arar’s own story of torture; blue skin, black cables, orange prison suit. Accompanying the exhibition is a small brochure with excerpts from Arar’s website, his story in his own words. As I walked around the space, there was a small group of tourists sitting on a bench quietly engrossed in the text. For me, this was a clear testament to Kennedy’s longevity as an artist and an observer of human behaviour.
Sue Carter Flinn is a Halifax-based writer, editor and artist. Currently, she is an arts feature writer and editor at The Coast, Halifax's alternative newspaper, and editor of Visual Arts News, the only publication dedicated to visual arts in Atlantic Canada.
See website for current exhibitions.
Utility Gallery: 5224 Blowers, upstairs
Yo Rodeo! continues until September 15.
Garry Neill Kennedy: The Colours of Citizen Arar continues until September 2.