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Marlene Creates: Orientation

By Gil McElroy June 15, 2002

Marlene Creates: Orientation Marlene Creates: Orientation review by Gil McElroy Agnes Etherington Art CentreKingston, Ontario March 30 - Sept. 2, 2001 Much of Newfoundland-based artist Marlene Creates’s early work bears a passing resemblance to that of Richard Long, Hamish Fulton, and Andy Goldsworthy in that it exists as after-the-fact photographic record of impermanent artistic phenomena we have not been privy to see firsthand. Her pieces from the early 1980s, for instance, include photographs of ephemeral, short-lived intrusions into the landscape, like rice paper unrolled between the stones of an ancient British megalith, or the arrangement (and subsequent rearrangement by the tide) of stones on a beach. Though the camera remains her primary means of expression, in more recent work Creates has centered her interests around less ephemeral phenomenon, around intrusions—social, political, ethical—not of her own making. In the large scale series “Places of Presence: Newfoundland kin and ancestral land, Newfoundland 1989-91,” black and white photographs, texts, hand-drawn maps and found objects recall the long-disappeared coastal communities of isolated Labrador filtered through the memories of those who grew up in them, as well as Creates’s photographic recording of the little that now remains. When first shown the work accrued a timely political and social depth: the decline of the East Coast fishery that occurred at about the same time has forever altered the social and cultural landscape of Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as our reading of Creates’s piece. For the exhibition “Orientation,” Agnes Etherington Art Centre Curator Jan Allen brought together recent (though by no means new) works by Creates to interpret the titular concept of orientation as the development of a sense of place within unfamiliar surroundings, and the point at which, according to Creates, the “land” becomes a “place.” The most recent work in the exhibition, Questions about the Place, Nova Scotia 1998, took Creates from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia to create a piece that dealt with how geographic and historic places and identities are given shape and cultural meaning. Comprised of a grid of 100 cibachrome photographs arranged five high by 20 long, Questions focuses on the “question mark” signs found posted throughout Nova Scotia directing tourist to the location of the nearest information center where maps and guides to historic and cultural sites might be found, as well as information about shopping and accommodations. Typical tourist fare, in other words. Creates traveled across the province to photograph these signs—these icons—situated along highways, on urban traffic islands and next to rural byways. Uninteresting in and of themselves, her images set about reiterating the banality of the tourist snapshot, the visually superficial and meager “we were there” response to the fecund reality of place. None of these photographs actually depict any of the sites tourists actually come to see, like the Citadel fortification in downtown Halifax, or the waterfront of the rustic fishing and shipbuilding port of Lunenburg. Instead, Creates offers us images of nothing much of visual interest—a distant view of some waterfront office towers in Halifax, or perhaps the corner of the Lunenburg Opera House—all contextually circumscribed by the omnipresent icon, sometimes posted by itself along a roadside, but more often situated in conjunction with another icon—an arrow—pointing us in the right direction, and occasionally a commercial sign, say, for “Baxters’ Ice Cream.” Creates has worked successfully with the grid before, as in Sleeping Places, Newfoundland, 1982, 25 black and white images of the impressions left by her body on wild grasses in places where she slept outdoors during a walk around Newfoundland. Questions is no less impressive in its subtle enquiry into how places are given meaning, in this instance one selectively shaped by a coalition of government agencies and commercial interests, one in which the meaning of “place” becomes what market forces determine it should be. “Sur la route menant le voyageur vers l’Atlantic,” Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, Quebec 1997 is a single large cibachrome image of a foreground roadway, trees and grass in the middle distance and a line of hills on the far side of a background body of water. Creates has mounted the image low—very low—on the gallery wall, a large Plexiglas sheet silkscreened with French text leaning on it The gallery lighting is arranged so that the shadow of the text superimposes atop the image. The title of the piece, which roughly translates as “on the route taken by travelers to the Atlantic,” is borrowed from a tourist guide published by the small Quebec town of Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, located along the St. Lawrence River, to describe itself. Creates asked residents of the town their impressions of Newfoundland— a place few had visited and so knew only from media sources— and reproduced their responses on the Plexiglas. For the most part, the banality of their impressions underscores the inescapability of the human condition in the way we politically, geographically and culturally caricaturize places where we have never been and know of only second- or third-hand. “It’s a province, an island,” says one person. “It’s our tenth province,” says another. “The rocks, the red and white houses,” is the impression of yet another. The most political response, indicative of the gulf that still separates French Quebec from the rest of Canada, takes aim at a former Newfoundland politician inaccurately blamed for widening that gulf in the late 1980s. The speaker then veers off to acknowledge the verity of Creates’s presence, stating “but it’s not your fault.” Opinions, like the shadows of the words cast upon Creates’s image of a roadside at the edge of a river, suffer from inexorable warping and disfigurement in their making. The final work of “Orientation” is the video The Colour of My Voice, the Colour of the Land, Newfoundland 1996, a 13-minute “chronicle of a calendar year” which Creates lived in Newfoundland. Taped just outside of the city of St. John’s on Signal Hill, perhaps Newfoundland’s most famous landmark (and the site of Guglielmo Marconi’s first trans-Atlantic radio transmission), the video comprises shots of natural settings—fields of wildflowers or groups of lichen-covered rocks—over the top of which Creates speaks the words of the tape’s title, intercut with quickly edited sequences of single words flashing by, verbs like “amble,” “snuggle,” “relapse” and “detect” culled from Creates’s journal of her Newfoundland year. The images are washed out, the color of the lupins and lichens drained. Together with Creates’s sometimes monotonous, sometimes exasperated or annoyed articulations of the title phrase and disruptive sequences of seemingly disconnected words flashing by, it is not difficult to come away with a sense of stress and fatigue. Whether, in the end, that was Creates’s intention is neither here nor there. Orientation is, after all, never as easy as we might imagine. View Marlene's artwork here. This review originally appeared in Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism, May/June 2001. Gil McElroy is a critic, independent curator, artist, and poet currently living in Colborne, Ontario. His latest books are Gravity & Grace: Selected Writing on Contemporary Canadian Art (Gaspereau Press), and a book of poetry, Dream Pool Essays (Talonbooks). View Gil's curriculum vitae.