Karla McManus: Inside/Outside: Images of the LAND in Artexte’s Collection
by Samuel Bernier-Cormier
How will we reconcile the many ways in which we relate to the land around us? I did not leave Karla McManus’ latest exhibition Inside/Outside with specific answers, but motivated to pick up the conversation elsewhere. Presented in the small, one-room gallery space at Artexte in Montreal, the exhibition mostly comprises photography books. Viewers are invited to browse them while sitting on replicas of the red chairs designed for Canada’s 150th “birthday” to give Canadians a place to “slow down, relax and truly discover the best that Parks Canada has to offer.” In front
of them, the wall is covered by a mural of Andreas Rutkauskas’ photograph Garden River First Nation (2016) depicting a bridge along the old Trans-Canada Highway near Sault Ste. Marie, on which the words “This is Indian land” have been painted. The message draws us in, both visually and conceptually, to experience the rest of the exhibition, which relies on a more intellectual exercise.
Inside/Outside was developed out of a research residency that McManus completed at Artexte in the summer of 2017 to explore different approaches Canadian photographers have taken on the environmental crisis. When Artexte proposed the idea of an exhibition, McManus broadened the scope of her research to photographic depictions of land. Artexte is an archive dedicated to Canadian art from 1965 to the present, with all materials donated by the community, making it a unique place to conduct research; its context also makes for an exhibition space in which viewers must put in work—a not only refreshing but arguably necessary methodology considering the issues at hand.
The publications displayed in Inside/Outside show a complex and multi-faceted history of landscape photography in Canada. McManus creates dialogues between artists who have seldom been discussed within the same context. This diversity allows the exhibition to touch on various ideas of culture, identity and ownership as they relate to land and the genre of landscape. It is evident that McManus has carefully thought through the placement of these documents and the comparisons it encourages us to make. While the possibilities for these connections are vast, a few examples are notable. The Landscape: Eight Canadian Photographers = Le Paysage: Huit Photographes Canadiens (1990), the catalogue for the McMichael Canadian Art Collection’s first photography exhibition, puts together works that celebrate the beauty of terra nullius, like Robert Bourdeau’s and Richard Holden’s— much in line with the Group of Seven tradition—with depictions of human impact from artists like Edward Burtynsky and Lorraine Gilbert. This contrast between natural beauty and the aesthetics of industrial interventions is echoed in Allan Sekula’s Geography Lesson: Canadian Notes (1997) as he investigates the relationship between the Inco mine and smelter in Sudbury and the Bank of Canada in Ottawa.
Questions of locality emerge in many works. The Montreal landscapes of Regards sur un paysage industriel : Le canal de Lachine (1992) are placed next to Nordicité (2010), a photobook that explores the everyday realities of rural communities in Northern Quebec. In Touring Home from Away (2003), Jin-me Yoon explores the intersections of place and identity in her series of self-portraits taken as a first-generation South Korean–born Canadian woman visiting Prince Edward Island. This catalogue is conveniently placed near The Distance Between Two Points Is Measured in Memories, Labrador 1988 (1990) by Marlene Creates, who, like Yoon, positions the body within the landscape but explores identity from the opposite point of view, pairing portraits of local residents with maps and photographs of the land around them.
Issues of ownership are deeply rooted in Canada’s history of visualizing the land. In AlterNative: Contemporary Photo Compositions (1995), however, Indigenous artists like Mary-Anne Barkhouse and Patricia Deadman forge a history of the landscape genre that centres reclamation. Nearby, Ian Wallace photographs capture the gathering of environmental activists in Clayoquot Protest (August 9, 1993) (1997). Many fail to consider Indigenous land title when thinking about the environmental crisis, but in giving us access to multiple voices in the same space, McManus reiterates the intersectional nature of these issues. In a similar way, many voices come together in The Land We Are (2015), a series of essays in which writers and artists reconsider the very concept of reconciliation. Though directing focus toward the perspectives of so many others, McManus does not shy away from using strong words of her own; her exhibition essay ends on a point that cautions against “perspectives on land that have turned nature into selfie moments and reconciliation into empty gestures.”
The viewer—and, in the case of this exhibition, the reader—is tasked with activating these conversations by engaging with the material. This aspect is instrumental to the exhibition’s success and echoes the work that is required to thoughtfully pursue issues such as the environmental crisis and reconciliation between settlers and Indigenous people. McManus explains that she refrains from applying hierarchies
to these documents. She does not attempt to erase the mentalities of settler culture that are so evident in our photographic traditions of landscape, but puts them in a new context, where the work of Indigenous people and immigrant Canadians is made visible and given the importance it deserves.
Artexte’s exhibition program allows documents like these photobooks to come out of the archive and be made visible in new contexts, witnessed by new audiences, giving them new potential within contemporary discourses. As issues regarding land, both in Canada and globally, are obviously too large and complex to be fully unpacked in a single exhibition, McManus does not attempt to provide specific solutions but, instead, offers methodologies to think about these issues in new ways and address them collectively—a fitting proposition for the community-driven space it is presented in.