A commissioned text for The Natural & The Manufactured 2008

The Natural & The Manufactured:
Joan Scaglione and Max Liboiron, An Archaeology of Desire

an essay by John K. Grande

In the work of Max Liboiron and Joan Scaglione, Northern myths are challenged, and reinvented for the 21st millennium; the idea of a new sustainability enters into the debate. In the summer of 2008, the ODD Gallery at the Klondike Institute for Art and Culture in Dawson City invited Scaglione from Regina, Saskatchewan and Liboiron, a Canadian artist living in New York City, to spend six weeks in residence to make site-specific work for the gallery’s yearly thematic project, The Natural & The Manufactured. Both artists investigated facets of the organic and the man-made, each in their own inimical way. Both artists used refuse from the local dump-sites–the Quigley Gulch, the North Dump, and the Dome Dump–to develop site-specific responses to the history, landscape and cultural context of Dawson City.

Just as these artists’ interventions use discarded materials, recycling them into art, they also extend our definition of the potential and integral value, or function, of trash. In a sense these artists are like archaeologists reinventing the produce and product of life in the north, which exists in a series of layers. Some of the layers of history are those of nature itself, while others are of past human intervention. What do we really need? What is ultimately desirable? How are we influenced by our particular period of history in our needs and lifestyle? What is produce? What is nature? All of these questions are raised by The Natural & The Manufactured investigation, which involved these invited artists and their interaction with the people of Dawson City.

Each artist works in a different scale and adapts the materials they use to the specifics of the place where their work is presented. Joan Scaglione developed her response, a large-form outdoor installation titled Earth Bed Tells, adjacent to the old Hopewell Landslide site, while Max Liboiron proposed an installation titled Abundance in the ODD Gallery. Land use, and the interface between nature and humanity is a central consideration in these artworks.

Liboiron’s project takes the form of a miniature diorama of the Dawson City area, a series of four sculptures, a small grid of photographs, and a pamphlet published to document the history of garbage disposal in the town. The three-dimensional works are constructed entirely of local refuse, while the photographs offer an almost extraterrestrial close-up view of the garbage itself. A key element of the installation is that all components of the diorama are free to take away by members of the viewing public, each piece stamped “Made with authentic Dawson City raw materials.”

By way of introduction to her project, Liboiron comments: “The research I put into the show produced the only document of Dawson’s refuse history to date. In a town so focused on its history, trash was never considered a worthy subject of consideration. When middens were investigated, it was through archeology, though their contents were never labeled trash.” The Quigley dump, one of several Liboiron accessed for her project on the outskirts of Dawson City, is a place where materials are dropped off and stored and are readily available for their reinvention and reuse by anyone in the region who needs them-clothing, household objects, wood, old cars and motors, propane tanks, fridges and stoves. There is a subversive economy of value behind much of the refuse in the North, where the remote location prohibits easy access to new products.

On the gallery floor, the town settlement has been neatly constructed and orchestrated as discarded products are given new life within the space. The entire set is a scenario scaled to something resembling an HO-scale train set, but the items and elements include horseshoes, books, rusty tin can lids that become islands with miniature minimal landscape forms on them, and wooden landforms that carry a Zen-like topiary quality. A flotilla of plastic bottle caps weaves through the installation as an undulating representation of the Klondike and Yukon rivers. Trees have been fashioned from the branches of a discarded artificial Christmas tree; dozens of scavenger birds-ravens and seagulls-hang from the ceiling, their text-ridden, dyed newspaper bodies animating the space. These intimate assemblages become representations of a landscape that is quintessentially Northern, a land mythologized by Robert W. Service and Jack London in the Goldrush days of the late 1890s. As Liboiron’s installation suggests, however, this landscape is also a very early example of large-scale human intervention and permanent environmental alteration, with a massive amount of human energy being expended as mining operations took hold of this part of Canada’s Yukon.

While Abundance clearly works to provide a semi-accurate three-dimensional map of the Dawson area, the installation also pays respect to the latent connotative charge of the artist’s various chosen materials; the distortions of scale and geographical precision belie a highly selective process that gives the piece a persistent undertone of play and mood. Parts of the gallery, for instance, have had shelves installed which present a range of materials that suggest the layered strata of geological time. Here, however, we are reminded that the strata are human-made formations of garbage. The shelves representing the Dome dump, a problematic, short-lived dump very close to town that ran from 1980-1987, holds cut paperback book sections with miniature topographies set on them, including the smoke (made from wool) from the burning that went on in the “trench and fill” method of waste disposal at this site, burning which remained a fire hazard to the city and surrounding woods until its closure. Upon closer inspection, the books open to reveal the trench and all of its ashes (made of raven feathers) inside. The “story” of environmental ruin, habitat destruction, and threat are highlighted by the books themselves (Life and Death, one is called; another, Human Error) as well as by the intricate construction and materials themselves.

Another mini-section of the installation, The Old Quigley Site has sod sections that are square and round, made from discarded timber ends. Again there are more books, terraced paperbacks, with topographical sections representing a landscape of literature-literally. Knowledge and literature return to nature; ideas, and culture are temporal, ephemeral, Liboiron seems to say. A tiny sign reads: “Welcome to the Quigley Waste Reduction Centre. Thanks for separating your waste. It makes a difference!” On the wall behind we see a diagrammatic sign indicating the REFUSE LAYER in the ground, an INTERMEDIATE SOIL CAP, and an exponential projection that reads ” FUTURE RECLAIMED GROUND SURFACE.” Another shelf, or lgiographica layer, has nothing but tea bags with topographical landform lines covering their surfaces. A series of Styrofoam chunks look extruded, torn by an external force, and these have been placed in another of Liboiron’s shelves that act as categorical landscape storage sections. These suggest the permafrost that surrounds the Quigley dump. Under the dump, however, there is no permafrost, and so whatever residue seeps into the ground at the dump, drains into the water table, a contentious issue in Dawson City.

Styrofoam shows up again in the four sculptural works titled “Northern Topography.” These are large chunks, weathered, white, and synthetic. The Styrofoam found by Liboiron at the Dome dump came from an old dock that was in the water as recently as May, 2008. Whatever chemical reactions caused the burning and abrasion of the Styrofoam is present in the river water. And so what pollutants exist in the north can often be overlooked, pass unnoticed for the most part. With their surfaces covered in salt, Liboiron’s sculptures look like formal abstract sculpture though they are found, and have been acted on by nature’s processes over time. Amidst the fragmentary landscapes that exist within the architecture of the gallery, they become symbols and representations of an archaeology of the present, one that carries the residue of human activity with it.

This entire artwork confirms all our constructed modular dreams, the economy of our progress, but an economy that nevertheless is inimically tied to nature’s ecosystems, and nature’s resource base. As trash art this work differs from Arte Povera in that it is a maquette, a designed environment, fabricated in a craft-like way out of trash. We are able to walk through this miniature world.

Liboiron’s diorama reminds us that landfills are an ever-expanding proposition that will extend far into the future. These are trash zones, but they equally exist at Dawson in the extensive placer tailings that extend over kilometres, carrying with them a history of mining and intervention. As Liboiron comments, “Shopping is considered a significant form of environmental activism in North America via green consumerism. It is not a strictly urban phenomena.” As gallery visitors began taking parts of the installation home with them, enacting Liboiron’s posted message, “Please help yourself,” the work thinned out, became disassembled, symbolically revaluing the refuse as art. In this way, Abundance raises a number of questions about nature of shopping, of acquisition, of value and non-value. As reconfigured art, trash is perceived differently than it was; in the eyes of the beholder it has a new value. As Liborion says, “If trash is desirable, it makes us reassess the meaning of trash. ” And so the process involves an archeology of the present, but one that utilizes elements and objects that once had a value, and were desired, to then be discarded, and ultimately re-appropriated by the artist.

Sculpture always has a landscape in it, an experience drawn from nature. When a sculpture embodies a landscape while actually being in it the challenge becomes a broader one. It involves aspects of architecture, aesthetics, landscaping, and creative and individual expression. Earth specific sculpture actually is the landscape.

For the site selection of Earth Bed Tells, Joan Scaglione eventually set upon a site by the Moosehide Slide in the north end of Dawson City. Irregular topographies of a terraced land area used as a gravel pit, later reconjured and stabilized due to the presence of asbestos in the serpentine rock, something that inhibited the development of this area of land.  With a view of the Yukon River and downstream view towards the Moosehide and the Sisters Island (where the Sisters of St Anne and the Oblates had a retreat house), Scaglione’s installation literally assembles seven earth beds out of found wood from the Quigley Dump.

The earth bed metaphor of this outdoor installation set on a hillside express what Scaglione calls “a place where our dream self meets with our waking self. The bed offers us a place where dreams transport us into an interior wilderness where our primal instincts are stirred.” It is this relation between an inner world of the unconscious and the outer physical world that has preoccupied Scaglione in previous installations such as Ritual of Desire, in Claybank, Saskatchewan where a series of approximately 25 ladders projected upwards into the sky on this flat landscape. As with Ritual of Desire Scaglione’s most recent Dawson City piece involves a memory of place and externalization of interior states of being. In this case the landslide references the instability of nature, and the ever-changing quality of our transient lives is equated by the placement of chaotic, sometimes heavy elements within these earth beds.

Within each of these “beds,” made from old boardwalk timbers, are contents drawn from nature and human activity. A huge rock extends out of one, a tangled willow brush construct from another, while aged and weathered metal fragments lay in others. All of the earth beds carry a memory of place, and of earlier presences to this site, where tents of the seasonal workers used to be. The site of the Father Judge (the Saint of Dawson City) hospital, the first in Dawson City is close to Scaglione’s present day installation. Father Judge was a prominent figure in the early days of Klondike life. Administering to the gold miners during one of the city’s most severe cholera and typhoid outbreaks, Father Judge eventually succumbed to the epidemic himself. Interestingly, the first Dawson City garbage dump used by miners, prospectors and settlers is also close to this site, and some of the original hospital beds are themselves in this landscape of refuse from over a century ago.

Similar to Liboiron’s installation, Scaglione’s Earth Bed Tells also involves notions of archaeology, a reinventing of old discarded materials into art. With a solemn, almost brooding presence, some of the bed structures seem to be migrating, moving over the landscape. Their weight and rigidity–two of the defining features of sculpture–is at once highlighted and destablized; the structures themselves seem transient, unfixed, a series of  floating memories that cover the surface of the land.  As Scaglione comments, when working in her studio in Saskatchewan she is constantly aware that “matter is in a constant state of reorganization.” For this work, Scaglione reconfigures found materials with natural elements to present us with emblems that challenge the our rational cultural dominance over nature.

The location and presentation of these elements in the northern landscape is disquieting; the barren, weather-scarred site highlights the temporal, fleeting quality of Scaglione’s works. They never seem truly settled on, or within, the land. This gives them a haunting, spectral quality. As Scaglione has laden these beds with volumes of earth, soil and rock, and jumbled this with refuse from the dump, we get a sense it is the earth itself, finally, that is the patient or persona inhabiting the work. And so Scaglione’s Earth Bed Tells suggests that our own place in nature, of which we are a part, is impermanent. And just as a land once inhabited returns to nature, or we turn nature into places we inhabit, the whole cycle of nature is one that exists within a continuum of immeasurability. The structure of Scaglione’s sculpture and art is site specific. Much is left to nature. The ephemeral takes over. And ephemeral nature seems chaotic at times, reflected in Scaglione’s configurations within the earth beds. Nature takes its course and art adapts the course of nature to express our presence therein, which is temporary, fleeting as light at dusk.



Writer and art critic John Grande‘s reviews and feature articles have been published extensively in Artforum, Vice Versa, Sculpture, Art Papers, British Journal of Photography, La revue Espace, Public Art Review, Landscape Architecture, Ceramics Monthly, Etc, Fibrearts, Art On Paper, Vie des Arts and Circa (Ireland).

He is the author of Balance: Art and Nature (Black Rose Books, 2004); Intertwining: Landscape, Technology, Issues, Artists  (Black Rose Books, 1998); Jouer avec le feu: Armand Vaillancourt: Sculpteur engagé (Montreal: Lanctot, 2001); and Art Nature Dialogues (SUNY Press, New York, 2004). Mr. Grande’s Dialogues in Diversity: Art from Marginal to Mainstream appeared in a North American edition in October 2006. John Grande has also co-authored  Nils-Udo: Art with Nature (Wienand Verlag / Ludwig Forum, Koln, Germany 2000), Le Mouvment Intuitif; Patrick Dougherty and Adrian Maryniak (Atelier 340, Bruxelles) and Nature the End of Art: Alan Sonfist Landscapes (2004).

As a curator, Grande’s recent projects include Earth Art, an international sculpture show at the Royal Botanical Gardens Sculpture in Ontario, and an international sculpture symposium titled Culture Sculpture in Sackville, New Brunswick.

Grande’s new books to be released in 2008 include Art Allsorts: Writing on Contemporary Art, and an edition titled Stonehenge & Avesbury, a collaboration with artist Arnold Shives.