Shifting Prairie Spaces

Imagine a dark, slender, vertical shape leaning into the distance. If there’s nothing else in view that indicates scale, it can be hard to tell if it’s a twig fairly nearby or a human far off against the horizon.

Anyone who’s spent time on tundra, prairie or sweeping shoreline will know this experience.

In a print suite currently showing at the ODD Gallery, Mitch Mitchell embraces and plays with the way massive landscapes can change our sense of size and depth perception.

The 10 images in Cities of the Prairies are based on photographs of miniature sets of abstracted space that offer hints of recognizable architecture (buildings, poles, maybe streetlamps).

Yet the objects’ size can’t be grasped – are they possibly hair follicles? Am I looking at this from hundreds of feet in the air, helicopter-style, or am I looking through a microscope? The surface might be puckered skin.

Pale sweeping powder acts like dust, or snow, in the images, adding to the sense that the cluster of objects Mitchell shows us is surrounded by a space that lets wind run unhindered for kilometres, gathering dramatic speed.

The hints of drifts, and the subtle shadows, make compelling details; these are images that you can get lost in, and pleasurably.

The Halifax-based artist’s written statement for the show reveals that the works are based on his personal experience of the vast landscape changes happening in northern Alberta.

He describes how visiting the tar sands industrial areas left him with “disorienting bodily separation from the space … the scale shift from the environment to my own body bordered on the absurd and questionable.”

The tiny human body in front of massive, industrially stressed landscape – is it different from, or similar to, the sense of disorientation we can have when we go into an unfamiliar pristine landscape? It’s an interesting question.

That’s my question as a viewer, however. Mitchell worked into more literal, visceral responses to two visits to the tar sands in his 2009 project Tar Plane Wayfarer.

The installation of torn newsprint recreated the topography of pits and tailings ponds, including some sculpted areas where hidden bitumen apparently gave viewers a hint of the odours the tar sands release.

Print-making is Mitchell’s main medium, however. He shows his work nationally and internationally, recently in Boston, New York City and Edmonton, and currently works as a printmaking instructor at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

The Cities images are a complex combination of intaglio, lithography and chin colle, all demanding techniques that have to layer the delicate images seamlessly to produce the blurred effects that captivate.

It’s interesting to note that Mitchell created them in 2009 – the same time period as Tar Plane Wayfarer.

In the prints, Mitchell’s responses are much more muted, more impersonal than in his initial installation. It may be that the prints are more emotionally distanced, as an act of self-protection.

Mitchell calls himself a nature lover and his first visit to the tar sands area was a 55-day camping trip, which gave him an unusually long exposure to the devastated landscape before earth walls were bulldozed into place to block sightlines.

In fact, in comments published about the Tar Plane Wayfarer he says that that trip changed his artistic output permanently.

Or the change could simply be one of refinement, an artist working through a visceral response repeatedly until the aesthetic and the emotional recombine.

The elegance of the Cities prints is possibly aligned with the way well-known Canadian artist Edward Burtynsky makes gorgeous photographs of nickel tailings, though Burtynsky’s large-format images tend to be colour-saturated.

And scale doesn’t shift in Burtynsky’s work, though, as he always positions his camera outside the “landscape subject”, if you will, at a distance that brings hundreds of feet of space into the frame.

For me that adds a safety zone of distance that tempers the emotional wallop delivered by the never-get-it-back ecosystem changes shown in “Kennecott Copper Mine No. 22” (shot in Utah) or “Nickel Tailings No. 36” (shot in Sudbury, Ontario).

In a print like “A Stream of Circulating Sites,” by contrast, Mitchell’s spaces keep shifting, which brings us back to the opening of this article.

One minute it seems as if we’ll fall headlong into a windstorm pulsing past huge warehouses and be blown into oblivion. The next minute it seems as if we’re giants looking down at toy kingdoms that can be flattened with a sigh.

The viewer can switch between a place of vulnerability and superiority with a simple shift of focus. As a metaphor, this expresses how we are vulnerable in our needs for the earth’s resources and how we are (technologically) “superior” in the ways we can manipulate those resources.

Cities of the Prairies is an elegant suite of prints that presents an elegiac response to the irrevocable changes in our relationship with the northern prairies.

The exhibition continues in Dawson City until October 21.

Meg Walker is a writer and visual artist living in Dawson City.

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