The Willful Plot – Galleries West

The Willful Plot, with its slow and inviting cadence, is a rumination on the germinal space of the garden. Curator Melanie O’Brian complicates preconceived notions of the cultivated plot of land, an insufficient and flat definition for a space that holds a world of internal tensions. 

The exhibition, on view at the Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery in Vancouver until April 16, includes work by nine artists who pull apart, stretch or expand competing questions related to land. Their inquiries involve public versus private spaces, sovereign and colonized territories, and the opposing aesthetics of wildness and control. 

The manifold resources, relations and rich information networks enclosed within the garden’s borders run a throughline between conversant works that ponder the way green space distracts us or elides the furtive messages of our time. The garden is a world within a world – a heterotopia – where thousands of living parts contribute to its continuing hum. Collages by Rotterdam-based Gabi Dao, a 2021 finalist for the Sobey Art Award, and a suite of assemblages by Vancouver artists Derya Akay and Vivienne Bessette emphasize these numerous yet singular materials.

Freon, an ongoing installation Akay and Bessette started in 2015, is a working fridge that contains items both functional and absurd, demonstrating the intricate materialism of the garden. Crocheted fruits nestle with spent peppers, pomegranates and burdock, while bottles of homemade elderflower wine and potions too numerous to list are crammed on refrigerator shelves, butted up against a CD of Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love. The crisper is full of dead dandelion heads. The fridge’s top, sides and doors are covered edge to edge with stickers, old menus, jars and dead plants.

Viewers are invited to contribute or take away items. The extensive list of materials posted on the gallery wall includes well over 100 items: “Quince Wine, yup;” “Radish flower pickles, ew, gnarly;” “Rusty Shears;” “8-page paperclipped menu and Kate Bush, The Whole Story.” 

The late Vancouver artist Charmian Johnson’s line drawings on paper offer another kind of careful examination. These delicate detailed studies of flora – some took more than a year to make – are evidence of Johnson’s time and attention. Placed auspiciously at the entry, they set a deliberately methodical pace that extends throughout the show.

Palestinian-born Rehab Nazzal, now based in Canada, provides an important complication to the myth of the garden as paradise – so explored by Vancouver artist Glenn Lewis in his archival installation of garden photographs. While the garden can be appreciated for its beauty and arranged to evoke quiet contemplation or thrilling spectacles, as we see in Lewis’ archive, in Nazzal’s 2015 video, Canada Park, the garden, or rather, the national park, is weaponized against colonized peoples. 

Canada Park considers the 1967 expulsion of some 10,000 Palestinian residents from three ancient villages – Imwas, Yalu and Beit Nuba – on the West Bank. The villages, razed on the order of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, along with some 80,000 acres of privately owned land, were declared a closed military zone, the property of the state of Israel and the Jewish National Fund, a non-profit group that develops land for Jewish settlement.

The Jewish National Fund of Canada, a registered charity, raised millions of dollars to build a seven kilometre-long attraction called “Canada Park” atop two of the ruined villages. The park’s woodlands and historical sites, including forts and burial caves, have drawn millions of visitors since it opened in 1970. Nazzal’s work highlights how national parks, not unlike Canada’s occupation of Indigenous land, makes trespassers of those whose land it remains.

The Willful Plot explores the possibility of the counter-garden, where nostalgia and tired notions of beauty, communality and sculpted territory are challenged by slowed time and conscientious materialism. ■

The Willful Plot at the Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery in Vancouver from Jan. 13 to April 16, 2023, with artists Derya Akay, Vivienne Bessette, Gabi Dao, Derek Jarman, Charmian Johnson, Glenn Lewis, Mike MacDonald, Rehab Nazzal and Dana Qaddah.

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