The Human North

Three photo-based shows currently on exhibit at the Yukon Arts Centre all aspire to convey something of the experience of living in the North.

Of course there is no “the” when it comes to north; there are many norths. In my opinion, the exhibits were most successful where they conveyed a particular place, inhabited by people.  

American artist Derek Coté uses video in installation for Legends are Made Here. Whitehorse photographers Brianne and Gary Bremner confront us with large-scale, emotionally charged portraits in This is How I Really Feel. Fran Hurcomb’s show What I Saw spans 40 years of life in the Northwest Territories.

Hurcomb, a Yellowknife-based photographer, gives a personal glimpse of a life lived in the Northwest Territories. The feeling comes through that she has a personal relationship with the people in the photographs. Their mid-sized format invites us to encounter them on this personal level.

Naming plays an important part in Hurcomb’s show. “My Team, Campbell Lake, 1979” is a portrait of Hurcomb’s dog team. Each dog’s name is listed. Next to it, Judy Lafferty beams as she works, in the photo titled “Judy Lafferty Hanging Fish, 1985.”

Not every photograph names the person depicted, but most of them do. This practice of using names is congruent with the spirit behind the photographs themselves; this is a particular place with specific people in it.

Brianne and Gary Bremner intensify the human presence. The artist statement says the aim of This is How I Really Feel is to “explore mental health and coping”.

Large, unframed portraits of people from Whitehorse engage the viewer directly. Some scream, some are calm. All have a great deal of emotional impact. A one-line statement beside the portraits focuses the voice of the depicted person. The images have one-word titles; most come from that statement.

Making this show required a great deal of courage both for the photographers and for the models, who reveal something deeply vulnerable about themselves in statements and photographs. The subjects aren’t named, but anyone from Whitehorse will recognize some of these faces. This aspect of living in our particular north deeply affects this show’s impact.

This show is admirable and intense. I could not stay in it for very long.

I took refuge in the next show: a collection of video installations called Legends are Made Here, by Derek Coté. There was a mysterious black quadrilateral painted on the wall, with a white three-dimensional shape attached within it. Fine parallel lines seemed carved along the form’s irregular edges. The mystery and detail in this object gave me a kind of peace.

YAC curator Mary Bradshaw explained to me that it was part of “Venice is Sinking”, a single-channel HD video loop with mirrors. On the other wall, an image is projected, it’s of an ice flow bobbing in the water. Because it’s not square to the wall, it projects another irregular quadrilateral. The fragments of mirror beside it reflect that shape over your shoulder.

Coté’s videos all have a slow, meditative quality – clouds, cloudy mountains, someone mending fishnet. They draw their images from various places “across Alaska and the circumpolar north”. His artist statement says that his aim was, “discovering the genuine character of the North and those who call it home.”

Coté’s longer videos did not hold me for their whole 12 or 19 minute cycles. They seemed abstract. The other artists’ exhibits seemed to display more genuine character than his did. Still, his exhibition made for a good resting place.

All three shows continue at the Yukon Art Centre main gallery until August 27.

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