by Elisabeth Hill
Walking into Garden Gossip, a recently opened exhibition at the Walter Phillips Gallery in Banff, I am slightly self-conscious. I must have arrived not long after the artist’s talk because there are still a few groups of people gathered in the gallery and just outside the entrance. I hope that I look like I belong and know what I’m doing, with my notepad and attentive note-taking. Soon the last people in the gallery disperse and I gradually realize the source of my anxiety – indistinct sounds of laughter and conversation, which I took to be from the lingering group of people I passed on the way in, but which are actually from a recording playing near the entrance. As I work my way through the exhibition I am followed by the sensation of people talking, literally behind my back.
Garden Gossip includes new commissions and existing works by Tiziana La Melia and Maryse Larivière, and was developed during a residency in Visual and Digital Arts at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. It is curated by Peta Rake. La Melia is based in Vancouver and Larivière in Montreal. Both are described as “artist and writer,” which is evident in a video piece that includes different feminine voices reciting poetry and vignettes. An interest in language is also evident, at a more abstract level, in the concept of the exhibition itself, which is to “[cultivate] form through reflection on the language act of ‘gossip’.” This form is articulated mainly through ecological means. The various works, which are all unlabeled, make use of images of plants, insects and animals and materials such as dried plants, cut flowers, water, bronzed fruit and rot which at this early stage in the exhibition is more incipient than actual.
Garden Gossip is a multi-sensory experience. Sound and scent augment tableaus and installations which incorporate video, sculpture, textiles, and painting. Scent was not a dominant part of the experience for me, but buckets of flowers in water invite a decay and rot which promises to release new scents over the course of the exhibition’s run, which is September 29 to December 22. The auditory aspect of the exhibition was stronger for me. In addition to the recorded voices and laughter that was audible throughout the space, the video’s soundtrack incorporated more laughter and voices, poetry, and music. A discretely placed plastic dome focuses and augments a recording of indistinct whispers directly over where the visitor stands to read the introductory panel outside the exhibition.
As I reminded myself that the laughter I heard was a looped recording, I reflected on the dual nature of laughter. Most people’s first associations with the idea of laughter are positive – humour, joy, happiness. But as my mild anxiety reminded me, the first response to the sound of actual laughter is often much less positive. Laughter is a means of connecting and bonding, but when we are not in on the joke even the most benign laughter can trigger an instinctive fear of being left out. A moment later, though, a scene in the film brought me back into the in-group as I laughed at an image of artificial pansies holding (and spilling) wine glasses as they moved and laughed like they were having a girls’ night.
Like laughter, gossip has a connective power with a dual nature.The mainstream connotations of gossip are typically negative: gossip is mean spirited or at least inappropriate communication about matters that range from trivial to prurient. The focus is often on its power to create and victimize outsiders, rather than its power to define and strengthen social bonds and networks. The ambivalent laughter throughout the exhibition space hints at the darker side of gossip, but La Melia and Lerivière seem more interested in the the constructive and even subversive power of gossip that underlies its stigma.
According to the statement at the entrance of the exhibition, “gossip” originally meant “female friend” and it was during the late medieval and early modern European witch hunts that the term took on negative connotations. This period is generally characterized by increasing repression of women and women’s knowledge, so it is unsurprising that female friendships and communication between women would become stigmatized and feared. If we take “gossip” to refer the private communication between women, or communication typically gendered as properly feminine, then it has the powerful ability to form subversive networks of knowledge sharing. Gossip is supposedly concerned with the trivial matters of the private domestic world – but this is a world that encompasses important realms of life experience, including family, sex, love, child rearing and caregiving. In a society where the public institutions repeatedly fail to protect individuals of all genders from abuse in the private realm – domestic violence, emotional abuse, sexual assault all being shrouded in the protective veil of privacy – gossip can be life saving and the only available tool to hold abusers accountable. Gossip in this sense is queer and feminine and a tool of resistance.
In Garden Gossip, gossip is feminist, but also complex and organic. La Melia and Lerivière take inspiration from nature’s communication networks. The complex “whisper songs” of birds, the underground networks of anthills, animals’ tunnels and tangled tree roots. Even more subtle, the wind itself carries communication (gossip) in the form of pollen and seeds. The garden theme is most evident in the gazebo-like structure that dominates the back of the room, and the video which is filled with flowers and grass, and even a praying mantis. The eight works are unlabeled, so while they appear to be individual works, they are received as an interconnected whole, like a garden.
The stand out works for me are the gazebo, the film and a small tableau hidden behind the video. These three works seem to speak most clearly to the theme of garden gossip. The film is a collage of garden imagery, including plants, an insect, and someone recording a video of a daisy on an IPhone. The similarly collaged and fragmentary soundtrack includes laughter, whispers and music, but the most striking fragments are recited poetry that speak to sex and desire in terms that reference ingestion, secretion, decomposition and abjection. One voice recites an account of a relationship that begins “nectar, nectar/we got involved/in one another’s lives/you sucked me dry/I didn’t know if I would survive” and goes on to reference eating unripe fruit, sweet secretions and “the world jizzing in my lungs” (tying together ecology and sex in the form of pollen, perhaps?). Another voice later refers to “sinking, rotting, pushing the dirt” and “crawling in the compost.” In the video, a sprinkler squirts to accompanying moans.
Where the film evokes the sexual and reproductive activities of nature, the gazebo feels playful and recalls the experience of girlhood relationships and childhood exploration. The brightly painted structure is hung with painted silk panels and plastic bowls with images of animals, plants and abstract shapes painted inside. I normally hesitate to describe any art work as “childlike”, as it is too close to the dismissive sentiment “my child could do that!”, but the butterfly painted on one of the silk panels is so recognizable as a quintessential child’s drawing, with it’s fat “B” shaped wings and curly antennae that I can’t help but use the adjective.
Behind the video screen, I find a hidden tableau that seems to bridge the playful feel of the gazebo and the earthier sexuality of the video. Assorted ceramic fragments, dried plants, a plastic frog and dust from the dried plant matter are scattered across a carefully folded blanket. One of the buckets of water on a wrought iron frame that are found throughout the exhibition holds yellowish water and unidentifiable black leech-like objects. The whole scene feels distinctly private, hidden behind the screen and lit by a spotlight. Here the theme of decay feels strong and there is a ritualistic quality to the scene, but it also recalls memories of playing in the dirt, collecting and arranging objects that take on secret significance among playmates.
The other works make an interesting contrast to these three pieces. They are less earthy, but the bronzed fruit placed on three table-like structures hints at rot and other ecological interests. The use of textiles, including quilts and ribbons, connects the works to classic feminist art-making. An enigmatic fabric cube on narrow legs invites viewers to peek inside a neat hole cut into one side, perhaps suggesting ideas about privacy and secrecy which are further explored with the tableau behind the video screen. Although rot is listed as a medium alongside painting, sculpture and film, and the idea of decay is clearly present, I am intrigued by the many little signs of “neatness” in these works, which contrast with the overall organic quality of the exhibition. The carefully cut circular hole in the fabric cube, the neatly folded quilts and precisely placed objects on the tables. The folded blanket behind the video screen has a similarly careful quality. For me, this neatness evokes a sense of ritual, which fits with the eco-feminist themes of the exhibition.
Garden Gossip is a lush and intriguing exhibition filled with detail and is well worth exploring, running from September 29 to December 22.
Photography courtesy of the writer, Elisabeth Hill.