Harcourt House, one of only four Edmontonian artist-run public galleries, is playing host to Griffith Aaron Baker’s Discards
exhibit from Jan. 26 – Feb. 25.
Discards, Baker says, is a continuation of his artistic, sculptural pursuit, which is to investigate “environmental principals
and materials and how they function and how we function with them.
Over 1,000 CDs, Baker estimates, currently reside in Harcourt House’s main gallery, in forms that vary upon piece and
interpretation. Some of these pieces are simple placements of CDs in rows — others are bizarre topographic maps created
by Baker’s doodling and a scroll saw with a 300-grit diamond blade. Some of Baker’s pieces are strangely organic while
others incorporate motion that, deliberately, embraces and rejects impressions of biology at the same time.
The Saskatoon-born artist studied fine arts in sculpture and received his undergraduate degree from the University of Regina. In 2009, Baker received his masters degree in fine arts from Montreal’s Concordia University. Baker has been practicing his rather unique trade for 15 years now and is currently the director-curator of the Mann Art Gallery in Prince Albert, Sask. Baker’s muse occurred to him auspiciously, while he was working at a golf course. Part of his job, the artist recalls, was to handle recycling. Inspiration struck when Baker realized Sarcan, Saskathewan’s recycling organization, didn’t recycle the caps from plastic bottles because it would be too tedious to separate the two plastics. From this cumulatively large mass of waste, Baker created statues of water bottles that are identical to their grocery-store counterparts — only larger (the largest being 13 ft) and with the letters of their logos mixed around (Baker notes that Evian spelled backwards is naïve) though it takes most people awhile to notice the shift.
“That,” Baker says, “is what sort of spurned me on to use recycled materials or post-consume materials.” A few years later, Baker’s partner worked at a company that makes photography props. The manager of this company, Baker recalls, ordered about 12 boxes of CDs full of promotional material but threw them away because he didn’t like their cover photo.
We managed to get around seven or eight thousand CDs,” says Baker, “and I’ve been working with that ever since.
The CD is kind of like the bottle cap; it’s some small, mass mass produced object that we don’t really consider. But, of
course, they add up.
Some of the most striking pieces in Discards are four works that look oddly biological, despite their inanimate composition. “I wanted to combine something that has a very organic feel with something that is a very inorganic substance.”
They also appear to be topographic maps, which was part of Baker’s intention.
These pieces, Baker says, are named and loosely inspired by e-waste (dumps for electronic waste) sites across the world.
We are disconnected from this pollution,” says Baker. “The modernist system of trash — ‘out of sight, out of mind’ kind
of notion — detaches us, literally, from our detritus.”
The process of creating these four pieces took around two years. Baker made them by gluing layer upon layer of shapes cut from CDs by with a scroll saw.“It’s an extremely tedious process. These four pieces were the first that I made . . . I have
one started that’s three feet by four feet that will be done sometime this century,” Baker laughs.
Through his materialist sculptures, Baker rejects futurism — an artistic movement that valued unmitigated progress above all else. “I think, like, maybe we should slow down and consider what we’re doing before it’s too late. That sounds cryptic,
However, Baker finds the idea of definition, in the modern world of art, lacking.“I guess,” says Baker, “the defining movement of today’s art is that there isn’t one. We’re all in a postmodern — some people say ultramodern or hypermodern — world. Equally striking, though far more ambitious in scope, is Baker’s Continuity in Disgrace. Currently, this work (above) consists of nine globes with smaller shapes (also made from CDs cut with a scroll saw) “jutting” out of spheres. “Many of the pieces [in Discards] look sort of organic and maybe a bit like microbes or bacterial growths. Continuity in Disgrace,” says Baker, “could be planets exploding or they could be seedpods or molecules.“
Baker had planned, originally, to fill an entire gallery with these spheres. However, due to time constraints, this wasn’t
possible. He expects this process to be complete in 2013 or 2014.
Continuity in Disgrace is named as a dubious homage to futurist sculptor, Umberto Boccioni’s, Unique Forms of
Continuity in Space — a sculpture that is composed of steel, yet still conveys a sense of movement of form.
Baker’s original idea for Continuity in Disgrace was for the CD shapes to have comet tails to convey a similar
sense of motion. However, Baker notes, ideas change over time. “I came up with the idea about five years ago and just finally started to realize it last year and it ended up like this. This actually fits a bit better with the entire idea of this exhibition which is exploring micro- and macrocosms — patterns that are on a microscopic level that are repeated on every level of existence, even metaphysical, up to celestial.”
"There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we have ever known."1
Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, 1994.
It is a matter of fit. After all, we have already been placed, located by a dot - a pale blue dot - by NASA's space machine Voyager 2, in 1990.2 Stealthily taken from beyond the orbit of Neptune some 3.7 billion miles away, this highly circulated photograph visualizes for us Earth's distinguishable presence in a cosmic sense. Not only does this image exemplify our frontiersman-like drive, it incites us to respond to the urgent predicament of our ecological situation here at home. We are keenly aware of the role that humans have played in the demise of global health. For instance, rampant chemical usage, rainforest reductions and fossil fuel burning have hastily increased the greenhouse effect, putting global warming on the centre stage of most international agendas. (Incidentally, the greenhouse phenomenon was initially identified through space exploration of lifeless conditions on other planets.)3 We are all looking for answers, or even mere suggestions, as to the reversal of current debilitating processes on our planet.
If we are to improve our relationship with our earth, where do we begin? According to authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart in Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, change begins simply in recognizing our own negligence by, "doing things over and over even though we know it is dangerous, stupid, and wrong."4 Recognizing how we created our circumstance is crucial. Like the fantastic and enlightening images from outer space, the work of the artists in the exhibition, Pale Blue Dot, make our condition more visibly poignant. This exhibition call for restorative action, urging us to consider better ways to exist within our natural world.
We have become a materialistic and disposable culture, fixated on objects and mass production. Ironically artists typically work with materials to make objects. Negotiating this contradictory position are artists, Griffith Aaron Baker and Twyla Exner (Regina / Montreal). Their work directly employs objects we consider offensively emblematic of the technological age. Refusing to merely recycle bits of plastic, rubber and wire, Baker and Exner employ a type of "upcylcing," by refashioning them into intentional ideas, cultural objects that are equal to or exceed the value of the materials' original functions.
Griffith Aaron Baker's Raft of the Medusa is gregariously constructed of thousands of discarded cola bottle caps. He has arranged troops of caps into one singular magnified cap raft caught in a squall; its destination unknown. Baker recognizes the futility in the cap's path as it travels from the bottle to the landfill, into the natural environment and, inevitably, into the food chain. Ironically, existing recycling programs do not reprocess caps and there is no current method of properly managing these small bits of plastic which clearly do not fit in the biological world. Through his work Baker considers not only how and what we consume but also the destination of our consumables and their dubious misplacement in our ecology.
The Exhibition, Pale Blue Dot, indicates that our relationships with the world and with each other need devoted attention. Presented here is an opportunity to embrace our inventiveness, our drive for originality and love for prosperity so that our work will someday "imitate nature's highly effective cradle to cradle system of nutrient flow and metabolism" eliminating waste altogether and becoming even beneficial to Earth's biological mass.5 Our connection with the world can be more than just sustainable, it can be stimulating, eloquent and emphatic. We need not establish ourselves on other planets, as Carl Sagan had suggested, but take care of our own. We can be like ants, dovetailing in every possible way with Earth's dense abundance.
1 Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of Human Future in Space, Random House: New York, 1994, p. 9.
2 Carl Sagan, ibid. p. 4.
3 Carl Sagan, ibid. pp. 222-223.
4 William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.
North Point Press: New York, 2002, p. 117.
5 William McDonough and Michael Braungart, ibid, pp. 103-104.
Compact Disc Expansive Art
The Griff Newspaper, MacEwen University, Edmonton, AB
Pale Blue Dot
Curated Exhibition Catalogue, Guest Curator: Wendy Peart
Art Gallery of Regina, Regina, SK
January 23, 2008 - March 4, 2008
Pale Blue Dot is a well-intentioned exhibition broadly scanning artists' responses to the timely issue of our sorry and frankly abusive relationship to the earth. Clearly a hot topic in the media and an "apple pie and motherhood" one in the corridors of power, the moral and ethical debates swirling around this issue are vast and complex. There are also often debates that can, and do, lead to didactic speechifying and finger-wagging.
While there is little of that in evidence here, I am unconvinced by this very large exhibition, which tries to touch on many of these multiple issues in one show. The result is that we come away wishing we had either seen an exhibition with a more restricted theme or seen a tighter selection of artists who had each been given more space to exhibit their specific concern to greater effect.
There are, however, several individual outcomes here that make us want to see more on these topics from these artists.
Saskatoon artist Iris Hauser steps positively into new territory with her apocalyptic the Machine Age, a no-holds-barred painting that is part cynical soft-core boy-fantasy heavy metal album cover and part soft-focus children's book illustration. Brimming with both humour and horror, this take on 1970s van-art pits the American myth of freedom against nature's own dynamics, loading a dollop of Hummer-esqueme-ism on top. A surprising and welcome new direction for her work. While I would like to see this particular
piece executed on a larger scale and with more technical finesse, Montreal artist Arshin Matlabi's quirky colour photograph, Cuba II: the Fatman, not only speaks to individual privilege, but to global economic and political dynamics as well. With his figure dallying in the ocean waters off a beach resort -- a cipher really -- he brings into the mix not only questions of the abuse of privileged individual and national power, but reminds us that our own Americanized comforts not only come at someone else's expense but have global environmental expenses as well.
Satellite Bureau, a collective which includes local artists Jen Hamilton and Christopher St. Armand and Jen Southern from the United Kingdom, offers up a full-size satellite dish that seems at first glance to deconstruct our 'science-izing' of the earth. But, glittering like a constellation seen in the night, a tracery of small lights in the center of this dish actually maps a walk that Southern took in her home town. Glance at the reverse side of the dish to find a small-monitor looping the video image of a person flying a kite.
Collapsing here into there and small into big, this work is less about either science than self or location, than being located: it is about acts of communion and community that fuse identity with place, in the broadest sense of the word.
Although I mentioned both Griffith Baker's water bottle cap sculptures and Twyla Exner's small wire botanical forms in the context of another recent exhibition, their works continue to fascinate. While I prefer Exner's unpredictable sci-fi-ish blobs where she continues to abstractly mash up the morphologies of both biology and technology, Baker's humorous new work here is a smart step forward. Referring
directly to our phobic North American pathology for cleanliness and its effects on our waterways, he also metaphorically references French Romantic artist Theodore Gericault's famous 1819 painting, the Raft of the Medusa -- itself an journalistic work depicting a real maritime disaster in which sailors who, stupefied and afloat on a raft churned by turbulent waves, wait helplessly for someone else to rescue them.
And, in the end, Joan Scaglione's video projection of a figure floating weightlessly under water is mesmerizing in a Bill Viola slo-mo kind of way. I wonder though whether the rubble of bricks foregrounding it is more distracting than contributive to her overall theme of a rebirth into a 'real' more sustaining than the physical world we occupy.
At the Galleries: Artists Consider our Effect on Earth
Newspaper Article, Critic: Jack Anderson
Leader Post Newspaper, Regina, SK
February 7, 2008
Our Abnormal Life
Student Run Newspaper Article, Journalist: Hailey Greke
University of Regina Carillon, Regina, SK
December 6, 2007 - January 9, 2008
Once you enter the doors and turn the corner into the Sherwood Library Gallery, the first thing you see is a ten foot tall Coke Zero bottle.
The exhibition titled, Abnormal Growth, is based on the theme nature and technology coexisting. The main question asked is, "Has modern-day technology created abnormal growths in nature?" Three Quebec-based artists - Griffith Aaron Baker, Twyla Exner, and Tricia Middleton - contribute to the exhibition, and they each try to explain in their own way.
Baker, who made the giant Coke bottle, takes mass produced items from the cycle of production, consumption and waste and gives them a new opportunity to exist as meaningful items. Not only did he make the Coke bottle but he also made an Evian water bottle. Both of these pieces were made out of pop bottle caps and didn't feature the product name. The coke bottle said, "Con-cern Zero" and the Evian bottle said "Naive," though they were completely recognizable.
Exner's pieces also stood out because of the incredible intricacy each one entailed. She imitates plant pods, root systems, and human physiological forms, reproducing hybrids of technology and nature by using the materials that allow us our fast paced life. One piece called "Invasion" consisted of a full desktop computer, taken apart and with foliage made up of wires woven together growing out of it. Some of the letters on the keyboard were popping out and there was a flower growing out of the mouse. Similar works of hers were called "Bacteria," which was made completely of woven wires, and "System," which looked almost like yarn from far away.
Middleton was my least favourite of the three. the only piece of hers that was intriguing was "Response," which looked like a fake coral reef made of paper and plastic. It is supposed to be her response to the effects of dragnet fishing. By building fake reef on the bottom of the ocean, fish would still have a place to live and it would deteriorate over time with little or no pollution. She calls into question the evaporating meanings and values of the objects that make up our human environment.
Overall, the exhibition had a very strong message tied with an obvious environmental conscience. All of the works were beautiful but ugly in their own way, especially Middleton's work. Everything was very meticulously done and had an organized yet chaotic fell to it as well. Baker's bottle cap pieces were very aesthetically pleasing and Exner's wire-weaving techniques are incredible and her pieces were very intricate and slightly creepy. As for Middleton, her pieces were very odd and messy.
Abnormal Growth is on at the Sherwood Library Gallery until January 6, 2007.
At the Galleries: Review of Abnormal Growth
Newspaper Article, Critic: Jack Anderson
Leader Post Newspaper, Regina, SK
December 27, 2007
Abnormal Growth arrives on the cusp of hurly burly consumption surrounding us at this time of year.
Conceived as an oppositional proposition to all forms of capitalist excess, this exhibition examines our relationship to the environment and to the problem of sustainability, understanding that the word 'environment' itself has morphed over the last century over modernism to not only describe the natural world that surrounds us with its own models, patterns and imperatives, but to include culture and technology's models, patterns and imperatives as well. The three artists included in this small exhibition un-entwine the subtle partnership of media and technology to capitalism and consumption, hinting at and even declaiming on the viral and perhaps malignant trajectory we seem to be following.
Starting with what looks like a cartoonish clipart illustration of a dump truck sourced from the high-Modernist 1950's or 1960's when naive notions of commercial and industrial progress reached some kind of apex, Twyla Exner and Griffith Baker's wall installation depicts the disgorging of post-consumer waste -- here made from discarded water bottle caps -- into an apparently endless hole. Moving from wall to floor, this flood of caps assembles into a 3D sculpture resembling a colourful flower -- here mired in a pool of black sludge -- which is, instead, a sculptural rendition of the molecular structure of a specific plastic, which will of course eventually leach back into the waterways. From the transformation of impure water to pure, our consumption, in the end, leads from purity back to impurity.
And speaking of naive, Griffith's himself exhibits a monumental replica of a plastic Evian water bottle executed not only bigger than human scale but made of -- you guessed it -- plastic Evian water bottle caps. This ironic inversion -- using the thing to critique itself -- is effectively developed as a strategy throughout all of his work, especially here, where we recognize the word 'naive' is Evian spelled backwards. Indeed, rather than eschew plastic as one would expect an environmentally concerned citizen to do, plastic, in various incarnations, takes up a lot of space in his work perhaps mimicking its ubiquity in our environment.
Tricia Middleton's strange mountainous mounds of debris speak to our delirium of consumption. recycling not only her own earlier work but materials sourced from post-consumer waste, her simultaneously amusing but purposefully unappealing garden folly -- consisting of a bench, a classical column, a bird bath,. numerous garden gnomes and so on -- is virtually unrecognizable under a vomit of dripped and slathered paint she disguises and deforms them with. Resembling a drug induced dream of mindless overindulgence, her work also speaks to debates the hand made object over those mass produced, finding in them more than simply some aesthetic high-mindedness but a deeper concern with the problems of local versus global, minimal versus maximal, and autonomy versus dependence.
And with the delicate hand and eye, Exner knits and binds technological debris such as coloured electrical wire together into some kind of technological macramé which climbs the wall like electronic ivy. Her biomorphic wall works remind us of the nature versus culture debate. Beyond that though, in another piece we find a computer terminal overgrown with the same kind of technological 'growths' -- a miasma
which remind us that at a certain point, technology will (or has already become) 'natural' to us.
This energetic show reveals that, despite environmental urgencies demanding immediate action on both personal and social levels, there is much more for all of us to discuss regarding these complex issues. But, as an exhibition, it is guilty of a different kind of excess itself: we are overwhelmed by the amount of work in this small gallery. This might have been an interesting thematic gambit had the gallery literally been overflowing with 'stuff.' But I am sure this is not the case here. With some tighter editing and less repetition of both forms and ideas, what is an interesting show could have been a fascinating one.
Abnormal Growth, Artists Riff on Technology, Disposability, and Indestructible Waste
Newspaper Article, Journalist: Gregory Beatty
The Prairie Dog, Regina, SK
December 6, 2007 - December 16, 2007
"I just want to say one word to you. Just one word... Plastics. There's a great future in plastics."
- The Graduate, 1967.
Upon attending the opening of Abnormal Growth at the Sherwood Village Branch Gallery on November 24, an exhibition of sculptural works by Griffith Aaron Baker, Twyla Exner, and Tricia Middleton curated by the Dunlop's Amanda Cachia, I couldn't help but think of the above quote from the classic counter-culture flick about a disaffected college graduate named Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) who, while trying to decide what he wants to do with his life, is seduced by and embarks on a short affair with the wife (Anne Bancroft)
of his father's business partner.
In the movie, the advice Benjamin receives from another of his father's business associates to consider a career in plastics is rife with metaphorical significance. Initially regarded as a miracle substance that by virtue of its relative abundance and versatility on comparison with natural materials like wood, stone, brass silk, and rubber would usher in an era of unprecedented prosperity, plastic, by 1967, had come to be seen as a symbol of all that was wrong with America -- sleek, colourful, and infinitely malleable, sure, but lacking substance, tactility, and soul.
Ironically, while the scene in The Graduate was intended as a slag against plastic, it actually had the opposite effect, boosting the stock of companies in the industry and legitimizing the sector as a viable career path for budding business executives and scientific researchers alike.
Thanks to The Graduate (and ignorance, and unsustainable consumption, and a dysfunctional economy), in 2001 the average American used an estimated 223 pounds of plastic, with that figure expected to rise to 326 pounds by 2010. A recent Los Angeles Times article (from which I cribbed those stats) discussed the growing problem of plastic as a pollutant in the worlds oceans.
Before I go any further, I'd like to emphasise that plastic isn't the sole subject matter of Abnormal Growth. Yes, there is a lot of the material on display in the various sculptures and installations. But that's simply one facet of a broader issue that Cachia and the three artists are intent on exploring here -- namely, how our growing dependence on technology is impacting on environmental sustainability.
"Issues of environmental damage have always interested me as a curator," said Cachia at the opening. "All three artists are obviously very different. But there's strong links between them. They work with recycled material. They're very passionate about consumer waste, and what happens to an object after we buy it."
For Baker, who obtained his BFA at the University of Regina in 2004 and is now studying for his MFA at Concordia University in Montreal, bottled water is a particular bugaboo. For several years now, he's been collecting discarded plastic bottle caps and using them to construct giant versions of popular brands of bottled water and, more recently, soft drinks. So what is it about the industry that bothers him?
To begin with, most urban residents -- in the developed world anyway -- already have access to a safe supply of drinking water. But through skilful marketing preying on consumer worries about the purity if tap water and extolling the virtues of their product as a status symbol, companies like Evian, Aquafina and Perrier have carved a significant -- and growing --- niche for themselves.
In Evian Bottle, Baker tackles the challenge this consumer trend presents to the environment. Three meters tall and composed of over 13,000 bottle caps, the sculpture is an exact replica of an Evian bottle save for one small detail: the company name is spelled backwards, and thus reads "naive".
To Baker, who spoke at the opening, consumers are naive to pay a premium price for bottled water which scientific studies reveal is virtually indistinguishable from ordinary tap water. Indeed, concern has recently been expressed about phthalates, a chemical that is added to plastic to make it supple, leeching into the bottled water. In laboratory tests, phthalates have been linked to birth defect and liver cancer.
Also problematic for Baker is the amount of waste that the industry generates. While the bottles themselves are made of type one plastic and are recyclable, the caps are made of type five plastic and aren't. Sure, they're tiny. But when you consider that millions of bottled drinks are sold each day, it quickly adds up.
Once discarded, these caps, as the Times article tragically revealed, are often washed out to sea where, along with tons of other waste plastic ranging from cigarette lighters and toothbrushes to toy soldiers and all manner of cargo lost from ships at sea, they are pushed by ocean currents, called gyres, into massive patches of floating debris that create dead zones and poison marine animals on the periphery who mistake the plastic its for food.
Even is they're disposed of properly, the caps become another stream of non biodegradable waste clogging our landfills. It's that reality that Baker, in collaboration with Exner, addresses in Consumed -- a wall mounted bottle cap mural which depicts a truck dumping tons of bottle caps in a landfill, where they morph into a model of the molecular structure for type 5 plastic. Beneath the mural is the pseudo corporate slogan admonishment: materials that last, objects that fail.
The irony of this industrial practice, in which goods that are intended to be used once and then thrown away are made of a material that, once disposed of, will endure for millennia, is explored more fully by Exner in her solo work. Like Baker, she's a University of Regina grad who's also currently enrolled in Concordia's MFA program. Living in Montreal, where garbage pick-up is done largely from the street, she's reminded constantly of how wasteful we, as a society are.
Particularity troubling for Exner is the amount of electronic trash we produce. While not disposable per se, relentless innovation in terms of improved performance and tweaks in style quickly render computers, monitors, MP3 players and other digital devices functionally obsolete. When she spots something in the garbage she grabs it and cannibalizes it for her art. Internal wires, for instance are employed as weaving material in place of the grasses, roots and tree bark that weavers traditionally use.
In System, she explores logistical and aesthetic similarities between the nervous and circulatory systems of plants and animals and non-organic electrical systems in computers. Similarly, in Invasion, she presents a desktop computer and printer seemingly gone to seed, with woven wire growths sprouting fungus and pod-like forms from various cracks and crevices.
Like Baker and Exner, Middleton also makes use of recycled materials in her sculptures. A 2005 graduate of Concordia's MFA program, she presents two works here: Help! Final Home and Ether Frolics that critique the sustainability of domestic living arrangements in North American society, where our largely non-communal mindset requires a heavy expenditure of resources to build, furnish and maintain the dwellings which we inhabit.
In Ether Frolics, she showcases a line of garden furniture like a fountain, bird bath and bench that, consistent with their hand made origin , are somewhat rudimentary looking, but nonetheless possess a frothy ornateness suggestive of self-indulgent excess. Help! Final Home, meanwhile, consists of a hand-built structure with wooden floorboards which contains a steep staircase. At the top, Middleton's installed a small LCD panel which displays video of her in her Montreal apartment calling plaintively for help.
Can you hear her?
Johnson, Doug. "Compact Disc Expansive Art," The Griff Newspaper, MacEwen University, Edmonton, AB
Wendy Peart. "Pale Blue Dot," ex. cat. Regina, SK: Art Gallery of Regina, January 2008.
Jack Anderson. "At the Galleries: Artists Consider our Effect on Earth." Leader Post Newspaper,
Regina, SK. 7 February 2008, B-2.
Hailey Greke. "Our Abnormal Life." The Carillon, University of Regina Student Newspaper,
Regina, SK., 9 January 2008, Volume 50, Issue 14, p.20.
Jack Anderson. “At the Galleries: Review of Abnormal Growth.” Leader Post Newspaper,
Regina, SK., 27 December 2007, B-3.
Gregory Beatty. “Abnormal Growth: Artists riff on technology, disposability and
indestructible waste.” Prairie Dog Magazine, Regina, SK., 6 - 16 December 2007, pp.26-27