By Andrew Nurse
You Are Here: Seeing Sackville through the Owens Art Gallery Collection explores the landscape in and around Sackville, NB through images in (or, connected to) Mount Allison University’s Owens Arts Gallery. It is an online multimedia exhibition created by Emily Falvey, Lucy MacDonald, Rachel Thornton, and Jane Tisdale, all of whom are members of the Owens curatorial staff. You Are Here describes itself as “an alternative guide to Sackville, New Brunswick” and was created in response to Covid-19. It highlights the way in which virtual and physical space can interact, complement each other, and stimulate consideration of the history and meanings of place. While focused on Sackville and its immediate vicinity, the exhibition draws in the broader Tantramar Marshes that stretch beyond the town. You can access the exhibition via this URL: https://www.youareheresackvillenb.ca/. It illustrates the kind of work that can be done when a gallery’s normal operations are disrupted.
To be clear: You Are Here is impressive. The PDF guide that accompanies the exhibition highlights twenty-two artists who work in a range of different media. It also includes reproductions of archival photographs, details, and reproductions of preliminary studies through which different artists worked out their own representational ideas. The physical exhibition that accompanies on the online virtual exhibition can be viewed only by appointment and, currently, only by the Mount Allison community. It includes both the works reproduced in the guide and online and a second gallery that connects You Are Here to other vistas and conceptions of landscape. The online exhibition invites “community views;” that is: community members can submit their own contributions that are added to the virtual exhibition. Because of this, You Are Here is an unstable exhibition that changes with additions from the public.
You Are Here raises a number of important issues and could be read as a curated visual intervention into the representation of place and its history. It asks important questions: where is here? What does here mean? How has it been represented by artists? And, most importantly, how can we think about the meaning and implications of here in an age of post-colonial historical practices? You Are Here does not overtly identify with a specific approach to post-colonialism cultural criticism, but it has been clearly and deeply informed by contemporary considerations of place and the political history of colonialism and Settler society. It aims to challenge the way in which its audience thinks about the character of “here” and its representation. In my view, You Are Here raises three key issues.
First, “here” is complicated and contested. Different artists see the Sackville area in different ways. This is not surprising. But art can also become part of an historical process of erasure that constructs the town and marshes as a visual terra nullius: a place devoid of Indigeneity. You Are Here challenges this perception. The first work in You Are Here is a recent addition to the collection:
“Wabinaki/People of the Dawn” by Pauline Young. “Wabinaki” is a flag, “the first in a new series of commissioned acquisitions created for the Owens’ exterior flagpole. Featuring two figures in a birchbark canoe paddling from sunrise to sunset, the flag represents the Mi’maq territory of Mi’kma’ki as a living, relationship between land and sea in the artist’s words, “Land and sear, from sunrise to sunset, it is all Mi’kma’ki.” (1)
Said differently: You Are Here begins by intentionally complicating the narrative the Owens’ own collection can tell. “Here” becomes a place that carries not simply layers of meaning but is also a palimpsest, through which we have to look to see the marks that have been erased. As an intervention into art history, You Are Here seeks to address the weaknesses of the collection – and the processes that built it — that make little space for Indigenous art, voices, and conceptions of place.
Second, You Are Here highlights the shifting nature of the environment. Two works by Edward Burtynksy, included in the physical exhibition, connect You Are Here to the ideal of the Anthropocene as a matrix through which to consider the implications of epochal change. The Anthropocene is a contested concept. It suggests that the natural landscape at which we look is anything but natural. The land we see is not a land that existed but the land as it has been remade. What is interesting is that the very vistas that draw attention to Sackville and the region around it – pastoral farmlands and salt marshes – are fragile elements of this change. Hundreds of years of dyking, farming and landscaping have remade here in fundamental ways. This begs a question: as we admire this landscape, what is it that we are admiring? Do we admire nature, or do we admire a human reconstruction of nature and, if so, what does that say?
Third, You Are Here problematizes the location of place in that it links the “here” of Sackville to a series of cultural, social, ethical, and political processes. “Here” is embedded in – and interacting with – a cultural, artistic, and economic network that extends the scope of what happens in the specific local space. For instance, Colville’s well known The History of Mount Allison, connects Sackville to the great post-war education-oriented redevelopment project that looks to build a better society. “Here” is not just a small town but a place intimately connected to the economic and developmental aspirations of post-World War II modernity. In Tom Forrestall’s Foundry at Sackville, NB (1956), here is part of an economic network driven by the rise of middle-class consumerism. Today, the Owens is part of a cultural network that brings experimental art to Sackville and which is, in turn, linked to other galleries. In Dan Steeve’s Crossing a Threshold, here is a place of hope connected to wider ethical and value considerations. It is a space where eternal conflicts, in this case between good and evil, are worked out.
You Are Here revisits well known themes. As it has developed over time, the character of the Owens’ collection ensures that specific representations of place gain permanence. It is not surprising that Colville is well represented or that pastoral landscapes eschewing Indigeneity occupy so much space in the institutional collection. The great merit of You Are Here is that it looks for a way beyond its own institutional boundaries. In so doing, it challenges old and easy tropes that die a hard death under the dizzying cultural context of late modernity. One can see their appeal. It is nice to think of a small town as a pastoral community. It seems to provide certainty in a disconcerting world. The problem is that this is not all Sackville is nor, depending on one’s perspective, its most important characteristic. You Are Here presents an image of a small town and its history that is complicated by historical processes with an uneven – and perhaps open ended – self-image. In my view, this is a more accurate conception of place that tells us more about the lived and culture of here than stereotypical small-town imagery. For this reason alone, viewing the exhibition is well worth one’s time.