A Prairie artist considers capitalism form the inside

by Gregory Beatty

KC Adams: Birch Bark Ltd.
Sherwood Village Gallery
Until June 4

Biologists describe birch trees as a “pioneer species”. That means when there’s a fire, flood or other calamity they’re one of the first plant species to re-colonize the barren ground. In fact, they’re so prolific that land management is sometimes used to control their spread through grazing or burning the seedlings/saplings.

Really, when you think about, birch is a pretty unique tree. It doesn’t even have real bark like pine, elm, maple and other trees do. Instead, it’s covered by strips of porous tissue (lenticels) that allow for the exchange of gasses and easily separate from the trunk.

The lenticels have resinous oils that make them resistant to decay. And that made birch hugely valuable to woodland indigenous people who used it for all sorts of things: canoes, water-proof shelters and containers, paper, pharmaceuticals, casts to mend broken bones, and more.

Indigenous people even developed an art form around birch called mazinibaganjigan or birch bark biting. It resembles the ancient Japanese art of origami, but instead of folding paper to make shapes you fold and bite into pieces of birch bark to make images and patterns.

The art form is dwindling, but it’s still practiced. And there’s a reference to it in this installation by KC Adams. Born in Yorkton, Adams grew up in Selkirk and Winnipeg. She’s of Scottish and Oji-Cree descent, and she holds a BFA in Studio Arts from Concordia in Montreal.

Adams majored in ceramics, and Birch Bark Ltd. consists of 24 ceramic birch — you can’t really call them trees, they’re more tree sections, with no branches, leaves or visible roots. They’re grouped like stands of birch that grow in the wild, it’s true, but the sections are mounted on white plinths that are themselves installed on a floor made of slabs of birch board.

Because of the “eye-like” impressions on its bark, birch is known as the “watchful tree”. Adams’ sculptures have “eyes” too. Some even glow, and if you take off your shoes (as you’re required to do) and wander in the “forest” you’ll see that they’re interior lit (with LEDs) and that the clay is incised with intricate patterns and images.

They weren’t done through biting. Instead, Adams used a computer to simulate the dotted look of birch bark biting. Most designs are mandala-like, and are adorned with woodland birds and animals.

You’ll see other recognizable images too. You might be surprised to find them, but when you think about it, where aren’t they present in this day and age? Wherever there’s a resource to be exploited, and money to be made, you’ll find them. Transnational corporations.

In addition to birds and animals, each of Adams’ 24 “trees” has a corporate logo incised on it. And while I’m not as up on my logos as I could be, some I recognized included Royal Bank, Apple, Microsoft, General Foods, Wal-Mart, Shell, Chrysler… there was even a dromedary, which had me stumped, unless it was for Camel cigarettes — are they even still around?

Three large-scale sparkly white paintings hang on the wall behind Adams’ forest, evoking a snowy winter landscape. So the installation is visually striking. It makes a compelling environmental statement too.

Adams is criticizing rapacious corporate greed, obviously, and the devastation that is currently being wrought on our planet’s dwindling wildlife habitat. But during an artist talk she acknowledged that, like everyone else, she’s a participant in our consumer economy. And that makes her (and us) complicit in what’s going on — which I accept with one caveat, that people who strive to live sustainability are less complicit than those who don’t.

Another association that leapt out for me is the idea of corporate branding. In cities around the world, it’s become common to sell the naming rights of cherished public assets like sports stadia, performing arts centres, festivals and other community celebrations, museums, galleries and more to corporate sponsors.

What’s the next marketing frontier? Why not corporate sponsorship of nature?

I don’t know if Monsanto is among the logos in Birch Bark Ltd. It (or some other high profile bio-tech company) would be a natural fit. Through the research they’re doing, and the products they’re producing, they’re literally transforming plant (and animal) species into patented brands.

As I noted above, Adams has First Nations ancestry. And one of the logos she uses is “the Bay”. As a trading company, it has an association with indigenous people dating back to the 17th century. The Bay is only one corporation among many for indigenous people now, but its presence here effectively highlights Canada’s colonial history and the ongoing marginalization of indigenous people.

Before any hardcore righties reading this fly off the handle, please remember this isn’t an anti-capitalist show. Adams herself incorporates an economic product of birch (the floor) into her installation. But the image of truncated trees in a sterile (albeit seductively appealing) forest will hopefully inspire those who take time out of their busy days to see it to think about the path we’re currently on and how we can best secure a future that is truly prosperous and sustainable.