Atkins’ short, weird and wonderful films are fantastic

by Gregory Beatty

Braid Harvesters

Amalie Atkins
MacKenzie Gallery
Until June 14

Saskatoon artist Amalie Atkins is a rising star in the Canadian art world. She was recently featured on the cover of Canadian Art, and in the past four years has been included in two major surveys: one of emerging Saskatchewan artists called Mind the Gap! presented by the Dunlop in 2010, and the nation-wide survey Oh Canada! that the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art hosted in 2012.

Atkins received her BFA from the Alberta College of Art & Design in 2001. She majored in textiles, and that’s still a major part of her practice. But she’s been gravitating toward film and video lately — to the point where she’s got a major film in production called we live on the edge of disaster and imagine we are in a musical which she worked on during a recent residency at Open Space in Victoria.

Three excerpts from the film are included in this exhibition, along with three other video installations. Once the exhibition, which is Atkins’ first solo show, closes at the MacKenzie it will travel to the Southern Alberta Art Gallery. After that, who knows?

If I was a curator somewhere, and I had a chance to book it, I definitely would. You’d need a decent size space to install the show, but it packs up light and wouldn’t cost a ton to ship. So it’d be easy on the budget. Plus, it’s damn good.

The MacKenzie has the show installed in the hardwood Kenderdine Gallery, which always lends itself to dramatic displays. When you enter, you’re greeted by several lushly erected tents that recall a fair or carnival.

The tents are scattered, so there’s no set path to follow. Each tent has an opening where you can enter and view a short work by Atkins with the aid of headphones. Videos range in length from 3’02” to 12’18”.

One tent’s been augmented with fabric foliage and a pile of bright red apples. Another looks like a giant cake. It’s got a video screening inside that’s set in winter, and depicts a young woman struggling across a snowy field while carrying a large cake. To recreate the winter landscape for viewers, the tent floor is covered in finely crushed white glass. Special slip-on boots are provided for you to wear when you enter the tent.

Then there’s a third installation where you sit at an antique pedal sewing machine and power a projector to show a 16mm film. It was sticking a bit when I tried it, and I struggled to get the right rhythm. That’s perhaps been fixed now. Or maybe that’s the way Atkins intends it to work.

Anyway, you get the idea. Seeing this show is an adventure. And that’s always fun.

There’s some borderline dark/weird imagery, but the show’s still kid-friendly as Atkins’ videos have a strong fairy tale vibe. Kids will be suitably perplexed and intrigued, and adults will find plenty of striking visuals and quirky narrative threads to ponder on.

During a walkthrough on Feb. 1, Atkins described her working method as being somewhat haphazard. And necessity truly is the mother of invention for her low-budget videos.

Speaking about her use of animal-headed figures, for instance, Atkins said they arose out of an ill-fated commercial venture to sell head-warmers as fuzzy winter wear. When that idea didn’t fly she used them in Three Minute Miracle (2008), the video with the cake woman, where she ends up at a bizarre vaudeville show at a church; and Scenes From A Secret World (2009), which is another country tale set in summer where a girl on a bike encounters a wolf-headed creature in the woods at night.

Atkins films have to be seen to be appreciated — I can’t possibly do them justice in a review. But here’s some thematic keys to keep in mind when you’re watching them: twins, isolation, prairie, journey, red (and not just the nod to Little Red Riding Hood in Scenes From a Secret World either), vaudeville, silent movies, and more.

Of the three works tied to we live on the edge of disaster, The Summoning (2014) is the most prominent. It’s projected larger than life-size on a gallery wall, and begins with six young women in red dresses drilling in roller skates on a paved path in a remote location. Later, two similarly dressed girls who are conjoined twins are shown waking up in a field. Eventually, they meet up with the “Valkyries”, who are kind of twin-like themselves, and are given a white axe.

The other films are The Braid Harvesters (2013) and Embrace (2013). The former shows a mother and daughter gathering braids of beribboned hair as they float by in a creek and hanging them on a line to dry while the latter depicts two elderly women (twins, both with short hair) meeting on a path like the one in Summoning and embracing.

To me, the videos seem related. In the first one, the conjoined twins share an intertwined braid. If they used the axe to separate themselves, they’d have to cut it. In Braid Harvesters, the braids that have been discarded by girls who separated from their twin and became “Valkyries” are shown being harvested. Then, assuming the twins did cut their braids and separate, Embrace depicts a poignant meeting between them in old age.

That’s just my take on it. Others will have their own interpretation. Regardless, this is a show worth checking out.