From the forthcoming book, Art Nature Dialogues, by John K. Grande. A conversation with artist Mike MacDonald.
Mike MacDonald’s installations are direct evocative presentations in defense of nature. Best known for his video work, he also does photography, works on the Web and has been planting gardens that attract butterflies on the grounds of museums and galleries across North America. Quilt and video works have grown out of the garden projects. Born in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Mike MacDonald moved to British Columbia in 1977. His first years there were spent making environmental and anti-nuclear video tapes. As well as addressing concerns over the preservation of the environment, Mike MacDonald, himself a MicMac, has also worked directly with British Columbia’s native peoples on land claims issues. In Hazelton, B.C., he documented the testimony of elders for the Gitskan Wet’suwet’en Tribal Council’s ongoing land claim.
Merging a political and social conscience with native traditions, MacDonald uses technology as a healing medium. Largely self-taught, MacDonald has exhibited his Electronic Totem at the Vancouver Art Gallery (1987) and the Ksan National Exhibition Centre (Hazelton, British Columbia, 1988). His Seven Sisters video work, presently on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario, was earlier exhibited in the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s Indigena: Contemporary Native Perspectives show. MacDonald has exhibited his video installations in the U.S., completed garden projects in various Canadian locations and was presented with the first Aboriginal Achievement Award for new media by the Centre for Aboriginal Media in Toronto. As MacDonald states: “I am a video installation artist in the U. S., an artist/gardener in Canada and an Indian in cyber space.”
John Grande: Mike, it is a pleasure to talk with you about issues of technology and permaculture. I would consider you to be one of the contemporary artists who is making breakthroughs in using technology for spiritual purposes, as well as generating gardens and permacultural installations I guess they could be called but I guess they may just be what they are in place.
In general we think of modernism and we see this kind of lineage of artists with their movements making breakthroughs and so on, but a lot of the search for meaning involves a desire to attain a higher spiritual order. In a way artists became almost like preachers. We think of the abstract expressionists or the Cubists and so on, explaining their times in various ways. Ironically a lot of pre-Columbian art, Native Amerindian became the source for Henry Moore and abstract expressionists like Barnett Newman. And yet these artists considered their art of a higher order than mere fetish objects. I doubt they would have admitted that art they produced somehow embodied a message of historical and materialist progress. Indeed while nature remained a source, art effectively relied upon a distancing from nature. How do you feel about it?
Mike MacDonald: I am inclined to think of a large coloured pencil work by Vancouver artist David Ostrem. It shows an artist in his studio pausing to think while working on a piece, and the caption is: “God wonders if art isn’t just another way for the middle-class to deal with their guilt.” You did not use the “A” word in your question but I guess we should talk about appropriation. Emily Carr has often been accused of it but she was working at a time before the concept of appropriation as we currently understand it had even been defined. She was given an Indian name, (Klee Wyck – Laughing One), and thereby accepted into the culture. One can not be appropriating a culture if one is part of it. She also understood the culture very well and in an essay she wrote for the McGill Quarterly, she explained the native approach to art with a prayer to ask the spirit of the living tree to stay with the object made from it. If masks, spoons and bowls can contain spirits why not stories too. Perhaps having the talent to tell a story well is more important than the ancestry of the storyteller. We talked a lot about appropriation in the 80s and 90s and though the discussion seems to have become rarer appropriation never seems to fall from fashion.
JG: I think a lot of art has as much to do with fashion and the look of things as it has to do with a kind of search for breakthroughs or a higher meaning. In a way we almost have an overproduction situation where art is fine and society is in bad shape. It is one of my main concerns right now. The programs are working. Artists are producing. But the actual society is breaking down in many ways as a collectivity and becoming sort of digitalized. We have become digitalized producers and consumers.
MM: I sometimes think that people are seeing butterflies more frequently on the web than they are in real nature.
JG: That’s right. The loss of this tactile, experiential side of life is happening at such an early age. I know there are fears of violence and so on. But in away by avoiding this and trying to hide our children from these problems we may actually contributing to the overall problem of a loss of social context and direct experience. I have always found your own videos like Seven Sisters, which I saw recently at the Art Gallery of Ontario and originally in the Indigena show at the Museum of Civilization, a fascinating work. The images in various sized video monitors of West Coast mountains played with the space between the monitors. In a way it activates that space between the monitors, through this strange formatting and sizing of the piece as a collective seven-monitor piece. Are you reflecting on the immediate experience of the viewer as well as the imagery of pristine nature that you are projecting?
MM: I videotaped these images in the Seven Sisters mountain range near Kitwanga between Terrace and Smithers in north central British Columbia. The area was threatened with clear cut logging- I was in that area working for the Gitskan land claims case. It was there that I really became enamored with butterflies. I was working for the tribal council with elders and attempting to preserve the knowledge about traditional native medicines and their uses and the names for them in the native languages. I went to an elder one day because as I was videotaping and photographing their traditional medicine plants more and more I was getting butterflies in my pictures. So I took some of these pictures to an elder medicine woman and showed her. It was a wonderful visit, and she explained that butterflies are to be treated with the utmost respect because they represent the spirits of the medicine people who have passed on. Another day when I was not feeling very good and had visited her for tea, she told me: “When you are not feeling good you go find a butterfly and follow it and it will lead you to a medicine that will make you better.”
JG: Since that time you have been making a series of quilts as well as projecting imagery of butterflies. Touched by the Tears of a Butterfly, a video that I saw, is very eloquent and rich piece. It is a powerful work that works in micro-cosm almost like Yoko Ono’s The Fly, but your work is not at all modernist. It develops its own narrative within its own context and does not try to represent a meaning, let’s say. In that sense it is not modernist or post-modernist, but more a narrative. We see close-ups of butterfly wings, leaf fragments, and so on, but there is a lyricism, a build up of tension that develops in the work that has very much to do with the essence of life itself. Can you tell me something about how you came to that idea of producing this?
MM: I was living in an old house with a beautiful garden in Vancouver for about 15 years. The people who had previously lived there had paid attention to growing things that the butterflies liked. It occurred to me that it would be easier to photograph and videotape butterflies if I studied and grew the plants that they liked. As regards the style of my work, I do long shots compared to those used in broadcast television. A 30-second commercial will use many shots but most of my individual shots are 30 seconds or longer. I want people to slow down and think about things. In fact each of my shots is like a commercial for nature.
JG: And you have since done numerous butterfly gardens across Canada.
MM: Yes. I believe there are 18 of my gardens from coast to coast. Most of them still exist but some have been allowed to return to nature, where they were grown in pots and so on or as temporary gardens.
JG: I find that Native culture generally viewed the process of making and working with objects as an ephemeral one. These things whether clothing, object, architecture, ritual masks, would eventually return to nature. It was a regenerative and cyclical system. The idea of ritual in daily life was as much about appropriating the spirit of things as it was about the reification through representation or hybrid representation of spirits and personages as images. Do you feel that in the long run the hope is that we can learn to understand the common denominator between cultures? Is this what you are working on trying to develop a new narrative that is trans-cultural?
MM: You know with these new gardens, I am hopefully providing a space where people can focus on and think about questions that I feel we need to think about so as to come up with some better alternatives. Our cities are becoming pretty ugly in terms of what happens there.
JG: It is the myth of freedom and this anaesthetic approach to public and private space that has developed, with the increasing regimentation of property and ownership. Public spaces are degenerating. Moving towards living artworks, which you have done with your gardens, is an effort to generate a new healing.
MM: Yes. Living here in Winnipeg, there is not a week that goes by that we do not read about someone being stabbed, someone being shot. For the most part this is young people who are doing this. People in their late teens or early 20s.
JG: So there is some kind of hole in the soul of this culture that we haven1t put our finger on.
MM: You know driving through the downtown of Winnipeg,
I love many things about the architecture of it, but stopped at a red light, closing my eyes for a moment and imagining what it was like when the native plants grew there and butterflies flew there. It was a more integrated and healthy environment than now.
JG: In a way we need to move slower and reflect on life, to have time and space to see the deeper meaning.
MM: I think if we paid more attention to the subtleties and what nature put into the environment and brought more of that back, we might have less violence and a happier existence.
JG: Well, nature is the house that supports us all. We sometimes forget that. The same thing can be said for the world of art. What really nourishes art, more than ideas, is the physical world, and it is the main sustaining feature of any kind of aesthetic, even so-called immaterial ones.
MM: Yeah, but for me as an artist if I didn’t occasionally have the kind of conversation we are having right now, I wouldn’t enjoy as much either.
JG: I think of George Sioui’s Towards an Amerindian Autohistory, where he says that in a way the white colonial culture has as many aspects of Amerindian culture in it that it cannot even perceive due to the centuries lived here. Yet in our art, we always talk about this myth of originality. I feel that it may be possible to be more original by not ever considering what one is doing is original in art or any endeavor for that matter.
MM: I do not know the elder’s name but an expression that came from an elder and that I heard many years ago often comes to mind. His comment was that the crime on this continent was not putting us into boarding schools, abusing us, and beating our language and culture out of us. The real crime and great loss was that the people who came here didn’t adopt the culture of the land.
JG: They applied a technology that came from a different place and forced it on the natives. When we think of the distortion of potlatching that occurred after contact on the West Coast, for instance. In a way to see these artifacts; the masks, basketry, boats, totems, all these facets of a living culture put in a museum, boxed and decontextualized like products. I went into the Royal Ontario Museum recently and what did I see, not one Buddha, but 40 Buddha’s from different sites, all crowded together. Each on their own lotus leaf. Overproduction again. Where is the sense of the sacred, of the meaning or spiritual aspect these sculptures once had in this voyeuristic context?
MM: Currently there is a show of magnificent huge sculptures outside the Winnipeg Art Gallery. And there are so many of them at the gallery that it’s like a warehouse. They don’t have the space they need so one may approach them from a distance and take in what the artist is trying to say through them.
JG: Yeah. Sometimes all you need is one or two to get the idea across. The same applies to artistic practice, with limited resources good ideas develop. But with a surfeit of information and matter, as Neil Postman says in Amusing Ourselves to Death, we have actually become incapacitated, we don’t rely on our own thought processes because of the data overload. It actually ends up scattering people’s resourcefulness and productivity.
MM: Right. Living our lives.
JG: So technology affects our lives directly. Your healing garden initiatives put people in touch with their feelings, encouraging them to change real physical environments for the better. The gardens are prototypes that stem from the indigenous cultural experience. They can help to inform us as to what can heal us, in this time of great pain in North American culture.
MM: It is always a great treat for me to talk about these issues, with people such as yourself, with an incredible depth of understanding and a talent to articulate it in ways that make what I am trying to say more accessible.
John Grande’s reviews and feature articles have been published extensively in Artforum, Vice Versa, Sculpture, Art Papers, British Journal of Photography, Espace Sculpture, Public Art Review, Vie des Arts, Art On Paper, The Globe & Mail, Circa and Canadian Forum. The author of Balance: Art and Nature (Black Rose Books, 1994) and Intertwining: Landscape, Technology, Issues, Artists (Black Rose Books, 1998), Grande’s next book, Art Nature Dialogues, will be published by SUNY Press in 2003. He will be giving a talk January 23 at 7 pm at the Urban Ecology Centre located at 3516 Park Ave. in Montreal.