Back in 1989, Calgary artist Rita McKeough had an exhibition at the Dunlop Art Gallery called Tremor. It consisted, if memory serves, of two elongated houses that, by attaching furniture to the outside walls and roof, she metaphorically turned inside out so that what had once been contained inside was now on public display. There were also some audio tracks that referenced domestic violence, and the whole idea of the show was that domestic violence was a public issue that society needed to confront and not something that was, as conventional wisdom once held, a private matter between a husband and wife that should remain behind closed doors.
I wasn’t writing about visual art then, so I didn’t review Tremor, but it did leave a strong impression on me.
On Saturday, McKeough was back in Regina to open an installation called Wilderment at Neutral Ground. That’s a picture of it above. When you enter the space you activate a motion sensor and the cranes start to swivel as if they were working in a prairie field — as symbolized by a plywood base which is laid out behind a barbed wire fence.
Through their movement, McKeough depicts the cranes relentlessly pulling stalks of native grass out of the “ground”. Scattered throughout the functioning cranes are many other cranes that are sprouting up like grass in the soil. Once they’re built, they’ll be put to work uprooting even more grass to clear the way for even more urban development.
Living in Calgary, that’s a narrative all too familiar to McKeough. And there are plenty of Reginans who would like nothing better than to see us follow a similar path to urban glory. We have plenty of land here, their reasoning goes, so we don’t need to worry about urban sprawl and sustainability.
Yes, we do live in a geographically expansive province. But that geography has many potential values beyond urban development — like as wilderness habitat, and productive farm and ranch land. We need to recognize that.
And while we may have plenty of land around us to develop, what we don’t have is plenty of cash to install, maintain, repair and ultimately replace all the roads, sidewalks, sewer and water lines that new developments require, along with services like transit, police, fire, garbage pick-up, street-cleaning, schools, community centres and everything else that city dwellers need and value as amenities. That’s the true cost of our low-density, vehicle-dependent lifestyle. But the eco-terrorism that McKeough depicts in her installation is no less devastating.
Wilderment is on at Neutral Ground until May 28. The gallery, at 203-1856 Scarth St., is open Tuesday to Saturday 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Check it out if you get a chance.