North has never been true, exactly. We know that. It’s a relative kind of thing.
Even if you look at a compass, you have to correct for the fact that Earth’s magnetic pole resides a bit over from the North Pole itself. This adjustment becomes more important the farther north you go.
Santa Claus lives at the North Pole.
Earl Miller, curator of the Untrue North exhibit at the Yukon Arts Centre’s Public Gallery, identifies what he calls the “lie” of the ideal North with Canada’s “ideal alter-ego,” wondering if it contains our “collective hope for a better land”.
If we lose those illusions, he suggests, that might be “too high a price to pay for facing the truth”.
Fortunately he does not engage with the Santa Claus question in this show.
Untrue North offers viewers a wide range of experiences through which to consider illusions of the North. You can even don archival gloves and flip through Sergeant Preston of the Yukon comics from the ’50s.
Seven framed prints made from the glass slides Martha Black presented at 400 magic lantern-illustrated lectures she gave, promoted the Yukon in England during the blackouts of the First World War. The slides were hand-coloured, which gives them an interestingly artificial effect.
“Algonquin Park, Early March” by Mark Lewis is a slow-moving video that starts zoomed in on what one might take for sky with fine clouds. Nothing seems to happen for a few moments.
As the four-minute video pulls out of the zoom, a horizon of evergreens adds to this impression.
Wait longer. No really, relax.
I don’t want to give away the surprise ending, but suddenly, you find you’re not looking at the sky at all. And maybe you’re not as alone as you think you are.
In “Wild Signals” by Kevin Schmidt, you’re treated to a rock ‘n’ roll show of moving coloured light, theatrical light fixtures and a snow-blowing fan on Crag Lake’s white expanse.
Vancouver-based Schmidt created the piece while in residence at the Ted Harrison Artists Retreat. It’s as if he threw a rock festival and nobody came – I keep wondering where the dancers are. Maybe that question is what he’s after.
The catalogue explains that the artist arrange the lights to “mimic the light configurations used for communications with aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
Since Tagish Elvis met his life-changing alien not far from Crag Lake, perhaps Schmidt’s hoping for an audience of tourists who’ve travelled really, really far to get here.
The show also contains many photograph-based pieces that explore tourism in various ways. Joseph Tisiga juxtaposes tourist industry landscapes with plastic “Indian” themed toys.
Brian Jungen’s silkscreened sandwich board, “Gallery of Native Art”, with its Northwest Coast-style topper, could be found outside many commercial galleries in tourist-zone Canada.
Placing it in a public gallery asks questions about the authenticity of the “Canadian Native Art” you might find in such a gallery and what the dynamic of that industry might be.
Marten Berkman’s pieces engage actively with the gallery space itself to create mind-bending illusions. He uses 3-D glasses in two pieces. You gaze down at photographs that, through the glasses, bring a pile of stone, or trash, or a pregnant woman’s body (I was wondering a bit what she was doing there) up into the gallery space.
Then you take the glasses off, and there they are not. You use a spotting scope to view a rotating golden charm bracelet with intricately detailed charms – close and far.
And you can see sterographic images, lifting the little viewers up to your eyes, to see mountaintop lichen-covered rocks up close.
If you look at your friend looking at these, it’s interesting to think about how they’re enjoying the impression of a wide vista, but from where you’re standing, they’re just blind.
Miller based the show on “lies perpetuated by the North’s idealization in both the media and in modern art.” But in his introductory paragraph, he describes reading Robert Service and Jack London as a youth.
“What we did not know, at least until we got older, was that we were reading lies.”
It seems uncharitable to call Service’s and London’s work “lies.” There’s a word for the kind of lies they are. It’s fiction. You can critique them in all sorts of ways, but to call them “lies” is an error in category.
Till the end of January you can contemplate Service right beside Untrue North.
The Yukon Arts Centre Permanent Art Collection has recently acquired originals for the illustrations to The Cremation of Sam McGee and The Shooting of Dan McGrew, illustrated by Ted Harrison for the Kids Can Press.
The McGee paintings are on display in the Community Gallery; some of the McGrew works are on display at the new Whitehorse Public Library.
Untrue North continues in the Yukon Arts Centre Public Gallery until March 10.