The current exhibition at the Dalhousie Art Gallery features a full retrospective of the work of Newfoundland artist Marlene Creates. Since 1979 Creates has been making work that engages with the natural world, often recording ephemeral gestures.
Her touch is always a light one, leaving no permanent trace of her passage through the environment. Photographs, sometimes complemented with texts, maps and objects collected on site, have been her media for most of her career, though lately, in a new series on view here, she has ceded the authorship position of focussing the camera and even triggering the shutter to trail cameras triggered by passing animals. She is a photographer yes, but a poet as well, and also a performance artist, and the hybrid nature of her practice neatly reflects her ongoing concerns.
Susan Gibson Garvey and Andrea Kunard curated Places, Paths and Pauses. It well documents Creates practice stretching back to 1979. It is accompanied by a handsome book of the same title.
A diptych from the series Paper, Stones and Water titled Wet Stones on Dry Stones and Dry Stones of Wet Stones, Ireland (1981) shows her poetic sensibility. By simply arranging wet and dry stones in contrast to each other, capitalizing on the difference in tone, she created a series of beautiful photographs.
The later series Sleeping Places, Newfoundland (from 1982) documents the traces of her body on the undergrowth in the spots she slept while travelling around Newfoundland, visiting places where she had family roots. In this series another key aspect of her work comes to the fore: storytelling that evokes a sense of place as a human artefact laid over the land. Places, she says, are “a process that involves memory, multiple narratives, ecology, language, and both scientific and vernacular knowledge.”
Reflecting on her roots and her move to Newfoundland in 1985 from Ottawa led Creates to two series of works based on ideas of mapping: through photographs, through walking, through storytelling, and through gathering, a process “based on the relationship of people I met to their own places.” The Distance Between Two Point is Measured in Memories, Labrador (1988) and Places of Presence: Newfoundland kin and ancestral land, Newfoundland 1989–1991, each involved Creates traveling to communities, interviewing their inhabitants and asking them to make “memory maps” of the places that they described in their stories. Combined with their transcribed stories, photographs, and objects from the places described, they make up these evocative maps.
In her newest work, Creates is trying to minimize her direct interventions, to forego overt authorship and to create a sense of place that is built in response to a site, not as a visitor but as an inhabitant. In 2002 Creates moved from St. John’s to Blast Hole Pond Road in Portugal Cove, a village about 20 kilometres outside the city. The 2.4-hectare lot that surrounds her house and studio has become her subject, and almost her collaborator. It’s a process of coming to know a place, as she writes, “corporeally, emotionally, intellectually, instinctively, linguistically, and in astonishment.”
In Places, Paths and Pauses we can trace the evolution of her work, and see how much more lightly she steps on the land with each succeeding decade, although she never laid that heavy a footprint. Her early response to land art, to want to step lightly rather than to intervene with construction equipment, has led, in a path that we can trace retrospectively, to Blast Hole Pond Road. The path, of course, isn’t finished. As Creates wrote about her ephemeral landworks, echoing Robert Smithson (from Cultural Confinement, a 1972 essay for Artforum), who said “nature is never finished.”
And she keeps walking her path, stepping to a place, now, rather than away from them, and keeping pace with the land.
Places, Paths and Pauses is on view at the Dalhousie Art Gallery until May 6, 2018.