Canada has two provinces which are islands unto themselves. Newfoundland, the larger, directly confronts the North Atlantic, but the smaller, Prince Edward Island (PEI), is in a somewhat more sheltered locale along the north shore of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Its location, and its famous rich, red soil, made it ideal for farming, earning it the nickname the “million-acre farm.” PEI became the equivalent of Idaho in terms of the celebrated, near-mythic status its potatoes have achieved (so naturally, there are even songs about it).
It all, of course, comes with a heavy price: a deep dependence on chemical fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides… Run-off from agricultural fields pollutes waterways and kills fish and other marine life. The “topping” of potato plants – spraying the potato vines with herbicides to kill the above-ground growth, permitting the rooted potatoes to develop thicker skins for better storage and longer shelf-life – leaves fields blackened and ugly, not to mention badly polluted. The situation has, of course, stirred activism. It’s also stirred the making of art.
That’s of course where Gerald Beaulieu comes into the story. While he’s lived in PEI for almost thirty years, he’s a “from-away,” a transplant from his native Ontario. He’s also a graduate of the Ontario College of Art & Design in Toronto who has shown his sculptural work in solo and group exhibitions throughout Canada, and in the United States and Europe. In the past few years, his work has begun to specifically and pointedly address ecological issues, and the role corporate agriculture has played in damaging ecoystems.
Corn is one way. Cornfields seem like benign things, symbols of the rural world, harbingers of late summer feasts. But really, it’s not like that at all on the larger scale. Corn is increasingly industrial, and the ripening fields running in neat rows to the horizon now denote a corporate approach to the environment. For corn is grown less, now, for human consumption; less, now, for animal field; and more, now, to power our contemporary world via the ethanol (produced from it) that is a significant fuel additive for vehicles. Corn has become a chemical.
Beaulieu’s response to this was Field, an installation comprising a number of corn stalks each mounted on its own plinth and the whole arranged in the kind of grid formation akin to the real thing. But Beaulieu’s pieces are anything but. Artefactual and 1:1 scale, they’re made of wood and aluminum, and coated with a thick, noxious layer of tar, black and glistening beneath gallery lights. This is about as far from food production as you can get yet still maintain meaningful visual referents. Off-putting at virtually every level (including and especially the olfactory), Field is clear in its targeted meaning (as is a related work in which individual stalks of wheat emerge from an array of disturbingly multi-colored test tubes). Beaulieu isn’t messing around.
The same can be said for Blue Ribbon Bantam. It’s a gorgeous (and at almost five feet in height, decidedly not 1:1 scale) sculpture of a rooster. But its orange feathers, sweeping beautifully back and terminating in a flurry of blue at the back end, are in fact made of hundreds of disposable syringes, testimony to the widespread use of antibiotics and growth hormones in today’s hyper-corporate agricultural world where time is of course money, and the sooner a product can ship to market the better the profit. The barnyard rooster strutting about is a nostalgic relic of the past, for today chicken is grown largely indoors under controlled settings, in a way as artefactual a thing now as is Beaulieu’s savagely critical homage.
Prince Edward Island is, of course, entirely surrounded by the sea, and its maritime locale and the industries that have long been built around harvesting the resources the ocean has for so long proffered haven’t escaped his notice, especially in the light of damage that’s been done to such ecosystems by overfishing and pollution. Tuna is a hugely valuable catch (fetching big bucks on the international market), and Beaulieu has created a permanent outdoor sculpture in his home province of a 1:1 scale Bluefin tuna using hundreds of stainless steel spoons.
Beaulieu’s bluefin speaks to the depletion of natural resources, to scarcity and loss as a species is monetized and consumed. Drift addresses the horrors of massive environmental change and degradation. Another installational work, it’s a garbagey looking piece, stuff suspended from a gallery ceiling at various heights and densities. They’re jellyfish (again, 1:1 scale), and are made of plastic (the long dangling tentacles of the real thing) and unwholesome-appearing coloured gels (the main bodies). Beaulieu, here, takes on the twin catastrophes of our massively polluted oceans full of our waste plastics drifting across the planet, and the issue of invasive species destroying whole ecosystems. It’s aesthetically pointed work, a sharp tip straight into the conscience.
What Gerald Beaulieu does best, out there on the million-acre farm.
By Gil McElroy