Canada: Where is Here

Where is Here is an exhibition framed by Northrop Frye’s analysis of the Canadian psychology against the physicality of the landscape. Referencing the theorist’s challenging riddle, Where is Here suggests a re-reading of Frye’s theorization of the Canadian experience and particularly of the “garrison mentality” against the rubric of emerging photography in Canada.

Northrop Frye first planted the seeds for understanding the Canadian experience in “Canada and Its Poetry,” published in The Forum in December 1943. By 1965, with the publication of The Bush Gardens, Frye had articulated the “garrison mentality”: an analysis of Canadian culture based on a description of its exceptional physical setting and climate, its location north of America, and the expansive distance between towns and cities. Here, Frye emphasized that the flat, sprawling northern landscape with its frigid winds and temperatures produces an alienating experience for Canadians from their environment. Within this, the outdoors has been presented as the ‘fearful other,’ compelling Canadians to pursue inclusion into the garrison — a sort of metaphorical fort — to provide warmth and shelter. While Frye’s breakdown of the Canadian experience is a more exaggerated and dramatic analysis, his writings have been elaborated on by both Margaret Atwood and Douglas Coupland; the latter having said, “What really links Canadians together is that we’re all far apart.”

For Frye, “Where is here?” is a question that pervades the Canadian consciousness replacing the normative crisis of “Who are we?” Canadians, as evidenced in our writers and artists — most notably the Group of Seven — cannot easily escape our natural environment. Together, the treatment of both the interior spaces and the outside landscape by the artists included in Where is Here call for a reconsideration of Frye’s theories in contemporary culture.

Dylan Hewlett’s Backlanes series neatly demonstrates the Canadian garrison in his images taken during the cold prairie winters. The dark back alleys, blanketed in snow, are nearly made colder when complemented by the warm light glowing in the neighbourhood household windows. In this vein, Natalie Ferguson’s dinner series suggests the kinship that pervades Frye’s fort-like mentality. To create these works, Ferguson cooked up huge meals, filling her table, for an invited group of friends and family. While the guests enjoyed her home-cooking, Ferguson photographed the plates and dishes around the table top. Afterwards, she printed the settings to scale and re-set her table with the photographs, inviting friends to re-enact the dinner while she documented their movements. The resulting images present a familiar (yet vaguely unfamiliar with their collage effect) scene in any Canadian household.

Noel Rodo-Vankeulen’s works reference the Canadian landscape both literally and metaphorically. The thick forest in Pagan hints at the sort of alienation Canadians experience from their surroundings as proposed by Frye and Atwood. While Pagan is a beautiful description of the common natural occurrences in our landscape, Rodo-Vankeulen has subtly included a foreboding or ominous quality with the two glowing lights peering through the trees. The image encapsulates the long stretches of darkness that fill the vast territories between our towns and cities. On the other hand, his more geologically-driven and star-filled space photographs are devoid of traditional landscape imagery but emphasize the expansive outdoors. Recalling Frye’s theories, he proposed that a focus on the distance is distinctly against the more academic or traditional artistic codes, remarking, “The sense of probing into the distance, of fixing the eyes on the skyline, is something that Canadian sensibility inherited from the voyagers.”

Like Rodo-Vankeulen, Sara Cwynar’s work contains landscape components; however, her collaged photographs closely resemble more deconstructed landscapes. In describing her work, Cwynar stated, “Through collage, I have been attempting to make ‘simulated landscapes’ or versions of reality that contain elements of real life but are perceptibly fake.”

Finally, Johan Hallberg-Campbell’s series Grand Bruit documents the final days of a small town in Newfoundland by the same name. With no access by road, the residents decided to relocate when the only ferry to the island was shut down June 30 2010. Separated by its watery, natural surroundings, Grand Bruit is now physically dislocated from the rest of an already expansive country. Frye’s description of the, “small and isolated communities surrounded [by] a physical or psychological ‘frontier,'” was nearly a prophetic warning marking the eventual detachment of this quaint, fishing town from Canada.

Where is Here does not mean to fit into Fryean theory, but rather to present a reconsideration of his analyses towards contemporary photography. By re-contextualizing these photographs with Frye’s work, Where is Here hopes to present a new understanding of the effects of the physicality of our country.

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