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Issue 150

“Terra Economicus” — Will Kwan
by Jayne Wilkinson

The myth of infrastructure’s purposeful invisibility is persistent. Google Maps and Google Earth selectively determine what is visible online, and corporate landscaping constructs natural sightlines to hide infrastructures of extraction, transportation, and waste from view. Still, it’s very possible to see where our garbage piles up, to understand where our energy comes from, and to know the toxic supply chains that produce our devices. Will Kwan’s “Terra Economicus” confronts this terrain through a selection of installations and photographs spanning the past decade. The work builds an unexpected but direct relationship between the politics of class and colonization in India, Canada, and Hong Kong through integrated critiques of the “wellness” movement, environmental racism, and the habits of a leisure class who retreat from polluted, hot cities to find solace in mountaintops and lakesides.

  • Will Kwan, installation view from “Terra Economicus,” 2020-2021, The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, curated by Leila Timmins. PHOTO: TONI HAFKENSCHEID; COURTESY OF THE ROBERT MCLAUGHLIN GALLERY

In the title work, Terra Economicus (Superior) (2017–2020), Kwan piles a dozen wooden Muskoka chairs (a style of chair popular in cottage country) to form a barrier in front of a video projection; the chairs are painted in the palette of Lawren Harris’s painting Lake Superior (c. 1924), transposing representations of one region to another, Superior to Muskoka. The video shows drone flyover views sourced from realtor websites designed to show off the valuable assets of expensive lakefront vacation properties. Kwan’s careful editing produces a horror-film effect, with short, timed clips revealing just enough information to sense that something terrible has happened. Some are sunny scenes with wide, fisheye views, and others are cropped closely as though you are walking through the space yourself, but none have people in them. A loud buzzing with alternating silences accompanies each clip, and the persistent pace through lavish, empty homes is unsettling. Everything is on: lights, ceiling fans, taps, and showers—all wastefully running as though to prove an absolute luxury. It’s a science-fiction ending to the climate apocalypse to suggest that, even when all homes are abandoned, the wealthy will keep their water running.

The subtle reference to Harris’s Lake Superior may not be obvious to a casual observer, but in an institution like The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, which holds many works by the Group of Seven and Painters Eleven, the tangential critique is welcome. The Group of Seven frequently depicted the Canadian landscape empty of people, demonstrating land that was open to extraction—and were lauded for it. Throughout the 20th century, those images of Canada’s expansive geography maintained a visual iconography of wilderness such that the national economy could be built upon an aggressive program of logging, mining, and resource extraction. But as catastrophic climate change drives us toward increasingly unliveable conditions, real estate—rather than resource extraction—has become the industry that relies upon an imagery of wilderness to sell the fantasy of escape and remote living.

Elsewhere, Kwan’s conceptual approach to value and land use is made apparent through language, and the relationship between text and image. In Terroir, Terror, Terroir, (2020–2021), four photographs show a field of grasses and wildflowers that have grown over a large landfill used exclusively by the city of Toronto. Overlaid texts describe the way it smells in the quirky, specific language of a professional sommelier: “penetrating aromas of rotten eggs, rotting cabbage, and boiled potatoes define the nose and attack sharply.” Those rotting, pervasive smells are a reality inequitably forced upon the communities adjacent to the dump who did not produce its trash. In Meta (2020), digital stock photographs, showing outstretched arms cupping handfuls of soil, are paired with single-word metadata descriptors (some actual, some added by the artist) articulating a poetic web of destructive processes connected to resource extraction. The healthy, black soil is actually bitumen, which shifts the reading toward ideas of ecological destruction and dangerous toxicity. Excavating meaning through language aligns the work with legacies of Conceptual Art and photographic post-conceptualism—think of New York artists like Martha Rosler and Hans Haacke, or Vancouver artists like Ken Lum and Ian Wallace. Kwan’s critical engagement with the digital construction of contemporary images pushes beyond this earlier generation’s concerns, though, particularly given that digital files are already text/image constructions, made of pixels and code, not light and film. Still, like the photo-conceptualists, Kwan asks how we can so easily assume meaning in images: why does a meadow signify beauty or a handful of soil telegraph environmental consciousness?

The largest installation, Mountain Pose (2010– 2020), critiques how the wellness industry and the widespread adaptation of yoga practices have capitalized on the very idea of nature as aesthetic, pleasing, and healthy. Hand-cut yoga mats are layered to produce topographical maps in three dimensions that accurately depict the locations of hill stations throughout India on a miniature scale. Hill stations were settlements high in the mountains established during British colonial occupation, and were largely based on military strategy and the premise that polluted cities were bad for health: retreat became a signifier of wealth and class. I wonder if it’s too simple to read this in light of the current moment, when many are leaving urban areas en masse, happy to work “remotely” as privilege affords. Of course, it’s not the working class who are able to do so. Those who work in hospitals, the service industry, and other front-line settings are not able to conduct their labour lakeside. The purpose of these high hill stations foretells a disturbing but coming future when only the wealthy can escape the most intense weather emergencies, retreating farther and farther from fires, rising seas, hurricanes, and unsafe drinking water.

On the opposite wall, an unlit neon sign reads “WATER IS TAUGHT BY THIRST”—an evocative aphorism suggesting we only know something through its absence. It’s poetic, but suggestive of more alarming contemporary realities for a country facing catastrophic wildfires and drinking-water advisories on First Nations lands in nearly every region, province, and territory—most recently in Iqaluit. Those who are thirsty know the price, and cost, of water. Kwan’s projects point to this capitalization of nature, through a determined and rigorous conceptual framing. It’s the aesthetic—and what the natural world signifies—that is being sold back to consumers as a class aspiration. This was a strangely foretelling exhibition, ostensibly about the economy of the land but ultimately about how the idea of nature can be marketed, bought, and sold as much as the tangible resources extracted from it.

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