“Survival Guide” for the Contemporary Age: A Review

by Srosh Hassan

How does the idea of survival change over time? As the problems we face evolve, whether borne by geographic, social, personal, economic or political stresses, so do the ways we seek to survive in those environments. The Art Gallery of Alberta’s newest exhibit, Survival Guide, focuses on how contemporary artists are addressing survival strategies and features the different ways people adapt to challenges to their stability and welfare.

In the words of the exhibit’s curator, Kristy Trinier, “Survival Guide relates artworks that demonstrate the action of transferring knowledge from one individual to the next, as part of a collective survivalism.” This can be understood as the ways that we interpret the teachings of those before us, how our lived experiences of ever-shifting societal circumstances cause us to adapt the knowledge we use, and the lessons we leave for those to come. Many exhibit pieces symbolize this idea as well as approach it from the perspectives of the individual surviving in changing climates.

At the entrance of the exhibit, we are met with Santiago Mostyn’s Delay; a short film that illustrates his experience as a person of color in Stockholm, Sweden. In the film, he challenges the idea of what tolerance looks like in his city by experimenting with the principle of avoidance referenced in Susan Sontag’s 1969 essay “Letter from Sweden.” Sontag criticizes the facade of Sweden’s tolerant and accepting neoliberal culture as pathological, stating that its people don’t touch or connect in any real way. In the artist’s’ written statement in the museum, he asks himself, “How to come to terms –  not only as an artist but an artist of color – with my place in this society that I will call home?…The connection that I simultaneously spurn and desire, this nebulous “belonging” is more nuanced than anything a clenched fist can precipitate.” Mostyn demonstrates how one can survive in a city that creates disconnection between its citizens, and explores how comfort in one’s skin can affect one’s wellness.

Patrick Cruz is a Filipino-Canadian artist working between Vancouver, Toronto, and Manila, Philippines, who creates from his interests of cultural hybridity, biopolitics, and the paradoxical effects of globalization. He interprets the notions of ornament and patterning as a strategy for destabilization in his ongoing site-responsive and architecture-adaptive piece, Landscape Painting, version 5. Since he began its creation in 2010, it references his research interests from Modernist periods and cave drawings to modern graphic design aesthetics. Cruz depicts the landscape as rough and degrading and inserts patterns and figures that represent Filipino myths and stories into his work as a political statement on how he feels people adapt in response to outside pressures. The Philippines, as having been subjected to colonialism from many groups over the years, has caused its people to retain its culture only by adapting to these external forces. Cruz describes his experience as an immigrant as “being displaced, but also how time and space never settles quite accurately,” similar to the notion of “anachronism.”

Patrick Cruz_Landscape Painting, version 5, 2010-present. Acrylic on canvas, dimensions variable.

“The meaning for me was secondary,” Cruz states, “the more I thought about landscape, the more I thought about geography and geopolitics. Being an immigrant, I think of home and shelter and the idea of how culture circulates around a globalized world…perhaps the next versions of landscape paintings will be different because of the political atmosphere.” In regards to the idea of survival, Cruz replies that much of his art is reflective of the ‘excess’ that is familiar to existing in a contemporary capitalist society. “My way of approaching art is to democratize its experience…For me, the act of making is a form of resistance,… a means of survival amidst a lot of hegemonic ideologies.”

Artists challenge the idea of collective survivalism by questioning the reliability of the information we deem factual. Zimbabwe born and Netherlands’s local James Beckett’s is an artist whose piece Khevsurvite Derivative was inspired by the historical narrative of Christian Crusaders that became trapped in the Caucasus Mountains. They handed down their customs and artifacts through generations, preserving a tangible history through their geographic isolation, becoming the ancestors of the Khevsur people of Georgia. After thorough research to acknowledge what the Crusaders would have been carrying, Beckett constructed faux-utensils to fit the conditions of this remote landscape, demonstrating methods of survival as well as menial chores in his set of hybrid objects. In his piece, he both re-imagines how one could survive in harsh climates in contemporary contexts, and questions the historical authenticity of objects found in museums and exhibits.

2 SG_Beckett  James Beckett, Khevsurvite Derivative (potential instruments) (detail), 2011. Ski poles, wooden spoons, bayonets, varnish, string, metal tubing. Courtesy the Artist and T293, Rome. Photo © Maurizio Esposito.

Liz Magnor’s Camping Portfolio is a series of portraits created between 1991 and 1997 that present actors staged in historical re-enactments in the lower mainland of Vancouver, illustrating the superficiality of how false historical narratives can be formed. The constructed images lead the viewer to question the authenticity of the narratives we create to to perceive our own past. Magnor’s Burrow, a sculpture of a casting of a tree with a sleeping bag inside, plays with ideas of natural and synthetic. The cast of the natural cedar log also exists with the synthetic idea of shelter, showing how one could find shelter in an urban and natural environment.

Brendan Michal Heshka is an artistic researcher focused on performativity and scenography in the visual arts who works in the creation of spatial narratives that perform in reality and other dimensions. In The Psychoculpture, he takes psychoanalysis away from the field of pseudo-sciences and re-contextualizes it in the domain of art. The work materializes in the form of private sessions with project’s participants – either from the public or someone who might be in distress – to talk to an artist as a performance wherein the conversational moments become the ephemeral art. The piece is inspired from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in which shelter; food; warmth; and water are the base needs for human survival, while social connection; social welfare; and psychological wellness are to be achieved after the achievement of the prior stages. The work introduces the idea of what happens if one’s psychological wellness is challenged, therefore inverting the stability of the hierarchy. Heshka believes that “the construction of the self is our most essential creative act in the face of the collective task of building a new world.” 

Finnish artist Antti Laitinen’s Bark Boat is a 19 hour long performance – condensed into a film for exhibit visitors – of the artist sailing across the Baltic Sea from the Finish peninsula of Pokkala towards the island of Naissaar on a sailboat he built from ancient pine bark from the floor of the Finnish forest. This work joins a series of performances where he embarks on personal journeys, pushing the boundaries of his physical endurance, intervening with, and reconstructing, elemental forces of natural environments, often in extreme circumstances that put his life at risk. It is one of the key works in the exhibition because it exemplifies the idea of nature versus man and the conflict of how to survive, yet demonstrates what we are able to accomplish through collective survivalism. This is seen in how knowing how to make a boat out of bark in a contemporary age can almost only be done so through the knowledge and experience of others: the skill of survival is crafted by one generation to be inherited by the next. This performance references famous Finnish tales and cultural imagery, including a childhood game that the name of the piece is taken from. Said game would have pieces of tree bark used as rafts, and children would imagine their miniature boats sailing to faraway lands, not knowing they were learning about how to survive on the ocean. Laitinen’s performance is a clear example of how survivalism is both transferred and performed.

1 SG_Laitinen Antti Laitinen, Bark Boat, 2010. HD video still. Courtesy of the Artist.

Endling is a term used to describe the last remaining member of a species that will soon become extinct. Scott Rogers’s Endling is a conceptual installation piece that examines how culture and ecology adapt, drawing from three different narratives. The first includes excerpts from cultural anthropologist Shirley Lindenbaum’s writings on the subject of kuru, a neurological disorder spread predominantly through the consumption of human brain matter. Particularly, this affected the South Fore people in Papua New Guinea in the first half of the 20th century in epidemic proportions. Rogers’s was interested in the tension in the story between the disappearance of the kuru disease and the change in Fore culture. Traditionally, cannibalism was a sacred practice conducted by the the women in order to free the spirit of the dead into the afterworld. As the Fore people were subjected to many colonial, religious, scientific, and anthropological groups that tried to change their practices, they adapted their traditions and taboos to the contemporary world, no longer practicing endocannibalism, which led to the disappearance of the disease. Concentrating on Lindenbaum’s fieldwork with the South Fore, the text considers the links between epidemic and cultural change, particularly in relation to colonialism.

The text itself is presented on the wall of the gallery in the Doves Type font, a typeface made recently well-known after its rediscovery during a dredging of London’s River Thames. It was originally thrown into the river a century ago after a dispute between its two owners over its copyright. Both a method of communication and a story, information can be lost and recovered in certain extraordinary circumstances. Now, the font has been shared using digital reproduction. The third facet of Rogers’s installation is a handcrafted replica of a decoy Passenger Pigeon. While they were once the most numerous bird species in the world, they became extinct in the early 20th Century as a result of reckless over-hunting and habitat destruction by European settlers in North America. The pairing of the pigeon decoy and the extracts from Lindenbaum’s work exposes many tensions regarding regarding the disappearance and transformation in Endling. While the pigeon had a very finite end, the South Fore people adapted to colonial pressure. Although parts of their culture disappeared, they retained much of it by developing a dual culture in which they see themselves as having two religions that can simultaneously exist. Rogers’s draws connections between the three narratives and poses questions surrounding colonialism, ecology and biopolitics.  

Scott Rogers_Endling (details)

“Being a sort of “settler” in Calgary,” Rogers’s states, “I’m contending within the work because my culture is implicated in the culture that colonized the Fore. It has made me self-reflexive.” Rogers’s explains the priority of being respectful of stories that are not his while telling a story that’s nuanced and complex. He recognizes that “traditional cultures don’t just go extinct, they go extinct in certain ways, but there’s also ways that they thrive and develop and we shouldn’t think about them as closed single units that aren’t dynamic. Culture changes all the time….I think the Fore were incredibly resilient and I’m reminded of the First Nations cultures in Canada and my own Jewish heritage. In regards to the idea of survival, I think of how I’m surviving as an artist, and how dependent and inter-connected I am in that much of my survival depends on the support of others and the privileges I have for being able to do what I want to do.”

Collective survivalism can be effectively passed down through the efforts of those keeping the knowledge alive. Canada’s first independent Inuit film and video production company – founded by Zacharias Kunuk, Paul Apak Angilirq, Pauloosie Qulitalik, and Normal Cohn – produces community-based media to preserve and enhance Inuit culture and language. Nunavut (Our Land) is a 13-part dramatic television series based on true stories from present-day Elders acted by contemporary Inuit actors. It depicts the continuing story of how Inuit in the Igloolik region lived in the Canadian Arctic and follows the lives of five fictional families who recreate the traditional nomadic lifestyle during the 1940’s.

Bushcraft expert Mors Kochanski collaborated with Edmonton based artist Nickelas Johnson to create illustrations of how to survive in the Boreal forest. The prints include many skills like creating shelter, starting fires, dressing for the cold, tying important knots, managing wounds, and critical techniques on how to stay alive during the first 48 hours of a survival event. They feature major lessons out of Kochanski’s wilderness training programs and are available on the backs of exhibit information cards for visitors to take and learn from. The memorable visual depiction of these strategies aims to allow the reader to recall them and use them in harsh conditions, exemplifying Kochanski’s familiar saying that encapsulates the exhibit; “the more you know, the less you carry.”

3_SG_Kochanski-1Mors Kochanski, Wilderness Survival, Ink on paper. Courtesy of the Artist.

The exhibit is open daily at the Art Gallery of Alberta from January 28th through May 7th.

Photography courtesy of the Art Gallery of Alberta and Lynda Vang.

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