Out of the Forest

Humans are attracted to animals on an instinctual level, yet more than 50 percent of us now live in urban settings, worldwide (as of 2008). This collective experience creates a substantial gap in how we understand foxes, coyotes, beavers and other wild animals whose habitats intersect with ours.

A dual exhibition in Dawson City’s ODD Gallery sees two artists using animal stereotypes to explore the dreams and desires that we pour into that gap.

Through video, sculpture, drawing and performance, the dual exhibitions Fleshold (by D’Arcy Wilson, Halifax) and Giant Bingo (by Belinda Harrow, Regina) look at how clichés can form the starting point for our interactions with wild animals—and with each other.

Harrow’s family is originally from New Zealand. She took time to live and teach art there in her adult life, and one of the things that struck her, she says, is how certain elements of Canadian wildlife that she loves are experienced as pests in New Zealand.

The only animals originally living on those southern islands were birds; deer, hares and other “ultra-Canadian animals” were introduced over time and are considered invasive and destructive. And these animals were the ones she was longing for!

Trained as a sculptor, Harrow began making soft-sculpture figures of Canadian animals (beavers, rabbits and more) “getting down to business,” as she puts it with a smile.

For the Giant Bingo works, she focuses only on beavers. The sexual pun of beaver fur for desirable female bits is hinted at, and it warms the project but isn’t the main focus.

Humans act out an impressive range of complicated actions when it comes to finding, seducing and keeping a mate. Beavers, in contrast, are monogamous, hard-working, provide for their families and mate for life.

“These are characteristics I would find attractive in a male,” Harrow says. “And they build nice homes.”

The lines on the Bingo cards are made from headlines and profiles Harrow found during her own online dating experience, spelling quirks and all:

I am single looking for a companion. Is it Friday yet? Simply looking for interesting people. Honest, Caring and Fun 🙂

My previous account was deleted still again so here goes again. I am looking for a younger woman who needs some help in some way.

Lowered expectations?

Harrow tweaks usernames to make the numbers fit with the patterns of Bingo cards, but the core of the texts remain documentary.

“The world of internet dating is a challenging one,” Harrow muses, looking at the phrases written by users like 03 bad, government 51 mule, Thunderbeing 20, 19 AdventurLicious.

“It takes patience, effort and a lot of courage to wade through hundreds, even thousands of pictures, headlines and profiles,” she admits.

The experience is similar to Bingo in that the cards are what you have to play with.

“Perhaps it is the city you live in, your age, your looks, likes, emotional baggage. These are the things that you can’t change.

“When you play a game of bingo, you have your cards that you are given, and that’s what you have to win with…. It is similar with the internet. You read, filter, chat, work your way through the numbers to find the right person you are looking for.”

Harrow lived in Whitehorse for several years before recently moving to Regina.

“Living in the Yukon definitely gave me an opportunity to get up close and personal with animals that had been part of my art practice for the last few years,” she says.

Some of her sculptures use real beaver fur, purchased from trappers living and working in the North.

Her use of fur is not for shock value. “I am hoping that using part of the real animal, the fur, will make the beaver metaphor more substantial, concrete…. It is an incredible material to work with, and I am honoured to be able to use it.”

Part of the gesture, too, is to challenge our stereotypes about animals as groups, clusters of beings that live under one species label. “These are real animals, individuals.”

For Fleshold, Wilson poured her longing into action by interacting with animals at a wildlife rescue centre in New Brunswick (a university-level art instructor, she worked in Fredericton until her recent move to Halifax).

She hand-stitched nine “comforting” quilts for wild animals in rehabilitation and gave the animals the quilts to chew, paw or cuddle with.

What ends up in the gallery are excerpts from videos documenting the animals’ interactions with the quilts, and, strikingly, the remains of the quilts once the animals are moved to wilder locations.

One side of the split-screen video footage shows the animals messing around with the quilts. Most of the animals are rescued babies, zooming the “cute” factor to high.

One segment, for example, shows three or four baby skunks grabbing at their quilt, mouthing it and yanking it into a corner, somehow working together though it looks like they’ll trip over each other at any second.

This is seductive visual territory for humans. It’s wonderful to watch, and it’s impossible not to grin.

But Wilson is wise to the human-response energy, and handles it calmly. One half of the video screen shows her hands slowly, methodically, stitching the quilt being actively manipulated in the other half of the screen.

The serene, working hands shape a sturdy, secure space for the young animals to bounce around in.

Animals appear in Wilson’s work regularly, as she’s interested in how we want to get close to wild animals, but we usually can’t until they are caged, trapped or hunted.

“Last summer, I made a video called Tuck in which I sang lullabies to the taxidermy specimens in the Banff Park Museum National Historic site,” she recalls.

“I wrote a ton of lullabies for the collection, and at dusk, wandered from glass case to glass case singing to the animals–asking them to close their eyes and sleep.”

She would wait for them to lie down, but they never would, so she moved on to the next specimen.

Even after these imaginative, potentially transformative interactions, Wilson continues to believe “it is impossible to truly know a wild animal – our encounters are tampered by our preconceived notions that we learned in stories, myths, nature documentaries.”

Harrow and Wilson applied to the ODD Gallery independently. The room holds their work generously, giving visual space for Harrow’s colours (the design hues for the popular online dating site “Plenty of Fish” appear in her drawings) and offering easy access to walk around Wilson’s stained, chewed quilts and see them from both sides.

Viewed together, Fleshold and Giant Bingo reveal hours of meticulous, care-full and intricate attention to the nuances of human yearning for connection with other animals, including other humans.

The exhibitions continue until June 16.

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