July 22 to October 9, 2005
Artists are sometimes equated with shamans, and art museums with temples. In this exhibition of new work by Peter von Tiesenhausen from Demmitt, Alberta, this is an apt metaphor. When asked to do a project for the Two Rivers Gallery he caught immediately onto a similarity between the exhibition space and an oil painting by Emily Carr from 1929 called "Indian Church". The painting shows the flattened faade of a white church surrounded by a forest of conifers. There are distinct resonances with the gallery. Seen in cross section, the gallery walls correspond well with the sides and roof of the church, while a skylight suggests the belfry. For the purpose of this project, at least, the Gallery is transformed into that church, becoming the site where Peter von Tiesenhausen's Requiem is played out.
Peter von Tiesenhausen's exhibition spans both gallery spaces. As we enter the first gallery we are confronted by a band of black panels that circles it. On close inspection it is clear that these have been burned. Looking above the entry portal into the North Gallery a charred pine tree has been mounted on the wall. If you look on the floor underneath the tree, you may find a dusting of debris. These are seeds that pine trees release only after being burned. Ironically, fire - however threatening we might find it - is an integral part of the lifecycle of the pine forest.
This tree provides a prompt with which to interpret von Tiesenhausen's panels which he calls his "fire paintings". These plywood squares were cut from larger plywood sheets as part of the plywood mill's routine quality testing. Broadly speaking two images appear on them: flames and trees. The images of flames are made by burning each panel with a torch and then using both a chainsaw and an axe to cut the image in. The trees are painted with a nearly transparent whitewash solution: made of salt, lime, alum and water. Effective not only as an inexpensive paint, it is also used as a fire retardant.
Almost immediately after applying the solution the artist trains a torch on the panels. As they burn, the whitewash dries and turns white while the unprotected surface of the panel blackens. Almost like a Polaroid the image appears to develop before your eyes. In making these tree paintings von Tiesenhausen imitates the process of renewal and regeneration that fire brings to the forest. Through fire, there is the possibility of new trees. Significantly the artist has called this body of work Acts of Resistance evoking the forest's capacity to endure that which we consider devastating.
Walking into the North Gallery, we are confronted by a wall of blank pulp sheets suspended from the ceiling by strings, and held in place by small broken sticks of wood, they rise five high from floor to ceiling and four wide. Reminiscent, in their placement, of church pews the drawings are angled to point at a work called Requiem on the gallery's end wall, drawing attention to it and pulling the viewer further inside the Gallery. Walking towards it, more drawings of pine trees emerge on the phalanx of pulp sheets. These are ash paintings made using a medium of pine-tree-ash and gum-arabic that produces a grey, ghost like image, giving an ethereal contrast to the white sheets of pulp onto which they are painted.
Ash is widely associated with funerary rites, death and rebirth; one has to wonder whether these trees are the souls for which von Tiesenhausen's Requiem is played. Like many Northern BC residents, Peter von Tiesenhausen has been touched by the death of large tracts of forests due to the pine beetle.
Pine beetles naturally occur within pine forests. Normally their presence is less threatening, however human disruption of natural cycles in terms of climate change, forest management practices (including the suppression of forest fires), have exacerbated the problem. Some people believe that the Pine beetle epidemic facing our country is a smaller symptom of a much greater tragedy: a failure of effective environmental stewardship.
Progressing through the North Gallery to the end wall we discover that what we once assumed might have been text: an artist's or curator's statement perhaps, are a series of human figures. These have been individually etched into charred and whitewashed wooden panels. The figures are 'written' in a linear fashion with gaps where there might be spaces between sentences, and indeed the artist refers to these as his "text piece". While scratching the figures into the charred wood, the artist meditates on the world around him forming sentences and phrases in his mind which are then transcribed into these forms. There is meaning here, a call for action, a prayer or a lesson perhaps, but it is for us to individually decipher our own meaning.
By the time we reach this "text-work" we have experienced hundreds of trees in the Gallery. We must be touched to learn that if the widely accepted prognosis that by 2013 80% of BC's pine forests will have succumbed to the beetle, the blank sheets interspersed among the drawings provide a sobering illustration of the proportion of trees that may survive. As large tracts of forest succumb to the pine beetle and die, many of them will be harvested, mitigating the economic disaster for the forest industry. Those that are not harvested quickly will dry, some will rot and it is inevitable that fire will take its toll.
These possible fates are represented in the gallery. An exploration of the suspended images reveals many of them to be held in place by match heads. Like the plywood in the flame paintings, the pulp of the ash paintings and the matches themselves, these trees may become products of the forest industry: spent as we consume them. Equally, however, the promise of renewal and regeneration lies within our forests, as it does within us all.
Our experience of these trees, and the message they relay, has the capacity to change us tempering the impact we leave upon the planet. Just as von Tiesenhausen's meditations, based upon his experience in the world, have invested his inscribed figures with meaning, so too has meaning been imparted to us. This requiem, however, much a mournful song, is also one of empowerment and hope. There are messages for us to hear in the world around us: changing climates, exhausted resources and disrupted ecosystems. If we listen to these messages we have the capacity to make a difference. If not, we must remind ourselves that, above all, this silent requiem - like all requiems - is for those who are unable to hear it.
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