I spend a lot of time at a nearby beach on Lake Ontario, drawn by wind and wave, and especially by the rocky shingle of the shoreline. More often than not, I begin re-arranging stones, sometimes walking the beach’s length (about a half-mile or so) placing larger stone markers amidst the smaller stuff at the very edge of the surf.
And I do this because of Marlene Creates (www.marlenecreates.ca). She’s a Canadian artist who has exhibited throughout Canada, the United States, Europe, and China and who is currently the subject of a career retrospective that will tour Canada through 2019 co-organized by the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick and the Dalhousie Art Gallery in Halifax. Much of her practice is photo-based, and she’s made a career-long enquiry into our experience of place, and how we reshape it with and in memory. Since 1985 she’s been based in Newfoundland, one of the country’s two island provinces. The other (Prince Edward Island) is all mud, no stone. Newfoundland, on the other hand, is all rock.
And it was rocks that brought me to a first-hand encounter with her work. In the mid-1980s, I met her as she was preparing to install a site-specific work along the shoreline of Lake Nipissing, a large, shallow body of water a couple of hundred miles north of Toronto. She was having an exhibition in the lakeside city of North Bay at artist-run centre, and was using the nearby shoreline as a place to make something new. She installed a series of carefully selected rocks in a pattern that echoed overlapping waves washing up onto the shore at one very particular place.
It was temporary, of course. The sands would shift, the water would inevitably flow and wash upon the shore in a slightly different direction, someone would probably move some of the rocks just because they could. Entropy would inevitably show up in varied, and sometimes entirely unexpected, ways.
All as of course it should be. I watched over Creates’s work for some time after the exhibition, making drawings of the changes as they accrued, until I moved away from that place and went to another.
I’m trying to be vaguely poetic here for a reason: Creates’s work is intensely poetic, all because of something akin to the Hippocratic Oath. You know, that oath sworn by doctors, which is remembered by most of us for the words “first, do no harm.”
It’s actually not there in that form, but the import of those words certainly is. And Marlene Creates took that into the aesthetic arena to create site-specific works that inflicted no lasting change on site. So for the series Paper, Stone and Water (1979-1985) she employed a roll of paper within a landscape, draping the wet stuff across seaside stones. Or wove it through the standing stones of a Neolithic burial chamber in Wales. And in one of my favourite of her earlier works, she carried seven stones from the ocean shore to the top of a headland in Newfoundland and photographed them there.
Doing no harm.
Creates’s work is, in many respect, the antithesis to the invasive machismo of much of what we celebrate as land art, or earth art, or whatever we call it. Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and Amarillo Ramp required massive amounts of machinery to enact, wreaked change upon their landscape (at least with Spiral Jetty and a permanent work done in the Netherlands, Smithson was working in degraded environments already deeply scarred by industry and technology). And another of the pantheon, Michael Heizer dug monumental gashes into the sides of a mesa in the American southwest for his Double Negative. As much as I love these works (and I truly do), their aesthetic is that of a kind of despoilment, a brutal subsuming of Nature to the imperatives of Art, in many ways replicating at another, more artistic level what we’ve always done to our home planet in the name of politics, money, what have you. And I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that.
But I do know that I come back, time and again, to Creates, to an aesthetic approach to the natural world – to place – as something other than a site of exploitation of any sort (even emotional). To place as a site of integrity and wholeness. I come back to a work like, say, her photographic series Sleeping Places, Newfoundland (1982), a sequence of 25 b& images of sites where she slept in the open, all places of matted, trampled grasses and a disorder of the most temporary sort. It’s an intensely personal work, intensely sculptural, built upon the aesthetic imperative of the human body and its absence. Or I come back to Fire and Water, Nova Scotia (1985), a gallery installation of wood charred and blackened, and wood found at the water’s edge, softened by long encounter with the elements.
I’m talking, obviously, of older pieces here. Creates continues her ongoing exploration of place and memory, focussing increasingly on her own particulars: the six acres of forest she owns where she lives in Newfoundland. Larch, Spruce, Fir, Birch, Hand, Blast Hole Pond Road, Newfoundland is a photo-based work begun in 2007 and still on-going. Creates makes the particulars of place intensely personal, photographing her hand in the intimate gesture of touching the trunks of a number of trees. We might see a forest, but Creates sees the trees, individual and unique.
This is relationship, and in relationship, first we do no harm.
By Gil McElroy