Weird stuff in Preternatural exhibit | Ottawa Citizen

Weird stuff in Preternatural exhibit

December 9, 2011. 11:47 am • Section: Arts

Weird stuff in Preternatural exhibit

Ottawa artist Andrew Wright with, in background, two panels from Nox Borealis, at the Canadian Museum of Nature. (Photo by Peter Simpson, Ottawa Citizen)

What: Preternatural

When: Dec. 9 to Feb. 12

Where: Canadian Museum of Nature, St. Brigid’s Centre for the Arts, Patrick Mikhail Gallery

Once, at 1 a.m. on the longest day of the year, I sat with a cigar and single malt on a friend’s patio in Whitehorse and felt disoriented. It was after midnight and yet bright as day, and the legendary “midnight sun” was deeply weird. Our Yukon hosts were accustomed to endless day, but to a southerner like me it was The Twilight Zone. That’s why I understand Andrew Wright when he describes being up in the Canadian north.

One of Marie-Jeanne Musiol's electromagnetic leaves, at the Canadian Museum of Nature. (Photo by Peter Simpson, Ottawa Citizen)

“It’s kind of a site where almost everything related to geographic position and one’s sense of place is in flux, or at least inverted,” Wright says during a preview of a new exhibition, Preternatural, now at the Canadian Museum of Nature and other venues. “You don’t know when days switch from night, you don’t know which direction is up sometimes, depending on the weather conditions. You don’t know what time it is.”

We’re standing before Nox Borealis, a piece created by Wright, an artist and assistant professor at the University of Ottawa. It consists of four large photo panels, each subtly curved as if blowing in a wind. The two bottom panels are entirely filled with the pitch black Arctic night – a blackness “full of information but devoid of imagery,” he says – and the top photos show the empty land, covered in snow by nature and turned upside down by Wright. “The images here are inverted,” he says in the exhibition press kit, “a gesture that acknowledges the profound sense of disorientation one experiences when confronted with spaces so vast that they are difficult to behold, let alone understand.”

That “profound sense of disorientation” is what links the works of conceptual art in Preternatural, an exhibition that, over three months, will expand from the Museum of Nature to St. Brigid’s Centre for the Arts and Patrick Mikhail Gallery. Each of the eight artists involved attempts to play with your sense of what is natural, what is normal, and what we think when what we see is not what we expect to see.

German-British artist Mariele Neudecker with her glass spheres at the Canadian Museum of Nature. (Photo by Peter Simpson, Ottawa Citizen)

“I had this idea for an exhibition called Preternatural,” says curator Celina Jeffrey, the chair of visual arts at Ottawa U, “which deals with this conception of the world as being neither natural nor supernatural, but perhaps something in between.”

This preternaturalness is easy to see in most of the artworks that make up the main body of the exhibition, at the Museum of Nature. Gatineau artist Marie-Jeanne Musiol’s electromagnetic photographs of leaves are other-worldly, their edges aglow with brilliant light against the darkness. At quick glance they could be taken for bioluminescent creatures that swim in the ocean’s black depths. I only wish the small prints were larger, which could enhance their impact.

The German-British artist Mariele Neudecker creates an enigmatic effect with two pieces. A photograph, titled Much Was Decided Before You Were Born, shows a small pine tree inverted and immersed in murky water, creating a puzzling and spooky image. Another piece consists of two glass spheres with tiny, inverted lighthouses in water. A thick salt solution in the spheres will gradually mix with the water, so what you see in the spheres will change during the exhibition.

White smoke comes from vaults in the ceiling of St. Brigid's in Ottawa, part of Adrian Gollner's 'Handel's Clouds. (Photo courtesy Adrian Gollner)

New York City artist Sarah Walko has a wall installation built around dozens of test tubes filled with all sorts of items – pieces of texts, feathers, rusted bolts, bones. Its relevance to the “preternatural” theme escapes me, and it brings to mind the screed that renowned British collector Charles Saatchi wrote earlier this week in The Guardian, where, among other things, he slagged “those incomprehensible post-conceptual installations . . .”

Elsewhere in the exhibition, Ottawa artist Adrian Gollner will debut a site-specific piece titled Handel’s Cloud at the St. Brigid’s centre in the Byward Market on Saturday (Dec. 10). Plumes of white smoke will be released from the deconsecrated church’s vaulted ceilings, synchronized with a very, very slow version of music that is a perennial Christmas favourite.

“The smoke jets,” Gollner says, “are a transcription of a short passage from Handel’s Messiah: ‘Thy Rebuke hath broken his Heart.’ The two-minute, four-second passage is stretched to 12 minutes, 24 seconds, with one of each of the three jets portraying the violins, harpsichord and voice.What the audience witnesses is a music-less rendition of the passage rendered in smoke. My hopes are for it to be mysterious, intentional and beautiful.” You can see it on Dec. 10, 15 and 17 at 2 p.m. – a time, Jeffrey says, when the mid-December light will best illuminate the smoke.

Washington artist Avantika Bawa will launch another installation at St. Brigid’s on Jan. 7, and Korean artist Shin Il Kim will open a video installation at Patrick Mikhail Gallery on Jan. 6.

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