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Issue 147

darkness is as deep as the darkness is: Rita McKeough
by sophia bartholomew

Since I’ve moved back to Vancouver, what’s struck me most is the amount of construction. There are the buildings fenced off and boarded up with plywood, the rezoning notices posted like billboards. There are the piles of broken-up buildings—bricks and blocks, glass and wood and dust, amid earth-shaking noise and other debris. There are the scruffy sheets of plywood adrift across huge pits in the ground where some lowrise buildings once stood.

  • Rita McKeough, installation view from darkness is as deep as darkness is, 2020, Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff PHOTO: DONALD LEE; COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND BANFF CENTRE FOR ARTS AND CREATIVITY

In Banff, the salvaged wood in Rita McKeough’s exhibition darkness is as deep as the darkness is might have come from these sites, or from other, rural sites feeding them metals, sand, fuel, and lumber. Many worn and varied pieces of wood were cobbled together, repurposing leftovers from the Banff Centre’s woodshop to form an imagined underground animal burrow, built up around the entrance of the Walter Phillips Gallery, and dimly lit. Back and forth through the burrow were the voices of plants and animals. After their homes were dug up and turned under, they took refuge here.

Through the noise of chainsaws, jackhammers, tractors, and other equipment, and over the sounds of insects buzzing, Bear speaks to Cranberries over the radio, saying: “I can’t hear anybody. Is anybody out there? Cranberries is that you? You’re breaking up…” Cranberries replies: “Yes, this is Cranberries… It’s terrible… Where did all the rest of the forest go?”

Bear: Well the trees are all gone of course. They’re long gone…

Cranberries: How did they get the roots out of the soil?… Why do they want to have the land this way?

Bear: There’s something down here in this darkness that they really want… I think it’s… It might be oil. It might be coal. It might be food. It might be us. I’m not sure…

Bear continues: “It’s time we show our claws… and show our teeth. It’s time to get them to listen. It’s time that they stop. No matter what they’re looking for, _that’s enough_…” Cranberries agrees. “We can’t give up.”

During the exhibition opening I re-encountered Darren, down there in the animal burrow. Darren is McKeough’s gentle-hearted squirrel character, and for hours he tended to ill and injured sword ferns, quietly. I’d last seen him several years ago in Sackville, at a performance titled H (2014), part of Struts Gallery and Faucet Media Arts Centre’s Mondo Monde festival. There he had been caring for outdated cell phones in a makeshift emergency hospital. Thinking back on it I’d say that the world around us feels much darker and heavier since, as did the work in McKeough’s exhibition.

There were two other, distinct ecologies happening beyond the burrow: a darkened wide open room McKeough calls “the extraction field”—dozens of construction cranes perched over the burrow, overlooking a grid of machine-towers built from two-by-fours— and, in the other direction, out in the lobby, a garden bed filled with nearly human-sized red roses who sang, cried, sobbed, and spoke—whispering urgently: “Hey! Come closer… We need your help…” These roses first appeared in McKeough’s Tower of Silence (2000), laughing in angry, feminist defiance. Here they shared their deep sorrow instead. Like all the bodies that moved and spoke in this exhibition, the roses were very worried. Meanwhile, the cranes blinked their lights and swung around, repeating their choreography from McKeough’s earlier installation work, Wilderment (2010). The sounds of each ecology pressed up against the others, bleeding and recombining in unexpected ways. The noise and dialogue from the burrow carried over into low cello sounds, bass guitar notes and voices humming out there in the wide open room, with the crying and singing of the roses occasionally interrupting.

In our conversation McKeough describes her use of past projects in this exhibition as “needing their help,” and “asking them to be a part of it.” She similarly understands the taxidermy animals used in her animal burrow videos as “working with her.” These are McKeough’s collaborators and co-conspirators, reminiscent of Donna Haraway’s description of interspecies communities in her 2016 book Staying with the Trouble: “companion species, cum panis, with bread, at table together—not ‘posthuman’ but ‘com-post.’”

Out of the soil, large thorns and claws rose up through the extraction field’s machines. McKeough built them from wood and burnished, raku-fired clay, but they were imagined as the many composting bodies of plants and animals past. The sword ferns were fighting too, at the surface. If you listened closely, you heard their voices describing the machines as “full of dark empty space,” how they “rattle and grind and suck up everything that is not them.” These may be the literal machines of extractive industries—oil, gas, forestry, mining—but they are also the machines of ideology, of the prevailing violence of colonial government and law.

“We push through what is built on top of us,” say the ferns. “Upwards to the sky, and downwards into the depths of the earth, where our roots lie beside your remains, in the darkness of the shadow of these machines.” Humans are not alone in this and—perhaps more importantly—we cannot do this alone.

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