Pandemic makes the Dunlop’s doomsday show more relevant than intended

Art by Gregory Beatty

Pinar Yoldas, Hollow Ocean, 2020, image still. Photo courtesy of the artist.

States of Collapse
Dunlop Art Gallery
Until April 9

We’ve all heard the famous quip attributed to Oscar Wilde about life imitating art. But this is ridiculous.

Okay, I’m exaggerating. Even if the pandemic hadn’t happened, an exhibition exploring humanity’s long-standing fascination with doomsday scenarios (both real and imagined) would have bite. As much of a hassle as Covid-19 is proving to be, it’s small potatoes compared to climate change and the wider environmental crisis we face.

Still, the fact States of Collapse is running during the worst global pandemic in over a century is exquisite timing.

Planning for the exhibition began in 2019, says Wendy Peart, who co-curated the showwith Amber Christensen, Stacey Fayant and Tomas Jonsson.

“It was to be our summer 2020 blockbuster,” says Peart. “The working title was Apocalypse, which we ended up changing. It was based on the idea that the world, over time, has shifted for so many different cultures, countries and groups of people. But we haven’t faced a cataclysm like a world war for a long time.

“Our big thought at the time was about global environmental disasters,” says Peart. “We also thought about viruses, but little did we know that it would become the world’s main focus over the past year. When the pandemic happened, we, ironically, had to postpone the exhibition.”

States of Collapse finally opened in late January at the Dunlop’s Central and Sherwood Village Library locations. “It’s only 15 artists, which is just a small snippet of what’s out there,” says Peart. “Many artists have been addressing these issues, especially the environmental collapse.”

When the exhibition was delayed, some artists took the opportunity to make new work addressing the pandemic. Longer-term, some positives could come out of the ordeal. Covid-19 has exposed some significant weaknesses in our society. If we take steps to properly address them, it could be a transformative moment for us.

But for now, things are still grim.

Sylvia Ziemann provides a stark reminder of that in Quarantine Diaries — which consists of five miniature rooms mounted on wooden supports. Peer inside, and you’ll see different quarantine-themed vignettes. In one, a figure is huddled in bed. Toadstools seem to be growing from a mossy mat on the floor, and the walls are dotted with post-it notes and scraps of paper with motivational messages — some mundane (“Get Up”, “Do It Now”), others more inspirational.

Toadstools aside, the room looks like a typical bedroom. But the figure in bed is a rodent. Miniature animals inhabit the other rooms too. The menagerie includes a rabbit and donkey vegging in a room littered with protest signs, and a rabbit, rodent, donkey and wolf playing a socially distanced game of cards. The animal/human hybrids add a surreal edge to the vignettes, which reward careful viewing with numerous insights.

Other pandemic-themed works include two photographs by Rolande Souliere where she’s outfitted in a mound of safety vests with poles extending from the sides to enforce social distancing in public settings, and a 2017 project by Rachelle Viader Knowles and Mkrtich Tonoyan called VacZineNations! which explores public attitudes toward vaccination. 

But as Peart notes, climate change and the environment are central to the exhibition. In two tabletop miniatures, Jude Griebel envisions a world struggling to cope with rising sea levels from melting ice caps. One is an urban scene, with houses flooded up to their rooftops, cars stranded on a bridge, and people moving between high-rises in boats; while the other pokes the consumer-capitalist frenzy driving the whole gnarly process.

While a sense of “collapse” certainly pervades the exhibition — there’s even a nod to nuclear war via a Geoffrey Pugen photograph taken inside the infamous Diefenbunker built near Ottawa during the height of Cold War paranoia in the late 1950s — there’s also a sense of resilience, says co-curator Tomas Jonsson.

One example is Hollow Ocean, by Pinar Yoldas.

“It examines an environment that’s gone through collapse and is now growing and developing in a new way,” says Jonsson. “That’s explored through a video game interface as a virtual reality piece.

“Another artist, Jill Ho-You, imagines, through print etchings, a human world that’s being overtaken by natural and biological processes,” says Jonsson. “In one case, it’s petri dishes that contain drawings. There are bacteria too, and they eventually eat through the drawings.”

In both works, the resilience that’s on display is that of nature. But States of Collapse is also infused with a sense of cultural resilience.

That was a point the curatorial team wanted to emphasize, says Peart.

“We’ve faced colonialism and continue to experience the effects of that. That is one theme we wanted to look at — how Indigenous people in North America have been experiencing a type of ‘end of the world’ experience for the past 200 years.”

Colonization’s toll is acknowledged in Naomi Bebo’s figurative sculpture Woodland Child in Gas Mask. Toxic pollution on Indigenous lands from reckless industrial development and state-sanctioned violence against peaceful protest over land and water rights are two obvious readings. The mask could even reference the current pandemic, which has hit Indigenous communities especially hard.

Still, the child stands with their head held high. And the mask and other accoutrements are adorned with colourful beaded designs emblematic of Métis and First Nations culture.

That sense of resilience extends to works by other artists in the show, says Jonsson, and reflects the potential for good to come out of a crisis.

“When we think about [these events], it tends to lean towards the negative,” he says. “But there’s also an opportunity to rethink and consider what’s coming.

“There’s this quote by Arundhati Roy where she says rather than taking the baggage of our old world into the new, we should travel lighter through this rupture and not simply seek to stitch the past into the future.”

Here’s hoping life will imitate art in our post-pandemic world, too.