'How far afield?' examines the landscape and living things

'How far afield?' examines the landscape and living things
Tuesday, July 25, 2017 - 3:24pm
Chris Hampton

It’s best seen from the upper floors of the library. In giant block letters, flagged out and mowed into the grass outside the CCT connector, you’ll find the phrase: “It takes work to get the natural look.” The intervention by Chloé Roubert and Gemma Savio was originally produced on the lawn of the Bauhaus building in Dessau, Germany — a temple to Modernist design, if there were one. Now, with the help of a handful of work-study students and some equipment borrowed from the Department of Facilities Management & Planning, the artwork has been restaged at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

It Takes Work To Get The Natural Look is part of a series of campus interventions titled How far afield? curated by Blackwood Gallery’s Jayne Wilkinson and Alison Cooley. In response to UTM’s 50th anniversary — and the broader climate of commemoration around #Canada150 — the series represents a resistance to the more celebratory aspect of birthdays, opening instead a forum for reflection and dialogue by inviting artists and audiences to think closely about the land and the landscape that the campus occupies.

“When we celebrate a campus, what exactly are we celebrating?” Wilkinson says. How far afield? reorients the focus of our fêting back towards the earth. Located on the banks of the Credit River, UTM enjoys a special connection to the land, Cooley says. “We wanted to try to honour its physical space.”

There is considerable overlap, it struck the curators, between the language of education and the language of the natural world: kindergartens, growth models and academic fields. They wanted to investigate that metaphor.

glass jar containing soil, grass and sticksArtist Golboo Amani’s Garden Skool workshops approach the landscape as a powerful learning environment. For this session, titled “Soil On Which We Stand,” Melisse Watson led a skill-sharing seminar focused closely on the earth. The group passed around a dozen soil samples collected from around the campus and were invited to touch, smell and taste as they pleased. They noted their observations, sensibilizing small but seemingly important distinctions — the scent of mushrooms in one, the saltiness of another — in the practice, developing a finer appreciation of the ground underfoot and our connection to it.

“The landscape is our best teacher,” Amani says. “It gives us so much information. The workshop is about heightening our ability to glean that information, to give us the tools to tap into this abundant schooling that’s all around us.”

For the third and final intervention, Hamilton-based artist Abedar Kamgari began posed in the centre of the CCT connector with a droplet-shaped mass of hardened plaster weighing about 50 pounds. For the performance Finding words for the feeling, the artist dragged the object out the doorway, down the stairs, then around campus, through every setting and terrain, sometimes with grace and apparent ease and, other times, with visible toil. The plaster left a chalky trail on the ground, marking its long, circuitous journey.

“During the performance,” Kamgari says, “I’m almost always thinking about immigrant experience and belonging and also about interacting with people in a space.” Broadly, the work is about the politics of navigating space. “Not just this particular space at the university, but this province, this country, these cultural and historical spaces.”

The work was finished when the artist hauled the object into a waiting bus, surrounded by students leaving campus. The doors closed and the performance ended. But viewers were left considering the marks that they, too, leave behind them.