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Features / December 5, 2014

After the Fall: Christos Dikeakos & The Okanagan

Bridging imagery from the Garden of Eden to Robert Smithson's Glue Pour, Dikeakos's Nature Morte frames the apple as symbol and stock. By Robin Laurence.

It is impossible to look at Christos Dikeakos’s recent body of photographs, Nature Morte, without acknowledging that the apple is the fruit most heavily freighted with meaning in Western culture. It is loaded with millennia of religious symbolism, folk belief and ritual practice, and with metaphors of life and death, knowledge and temptation, sexuality and fertility, paradise and expulsion.

Western art, literature and lore are thick with references to magic apples, poison apples and apples of immortality. Apples and apple trees are at the centre of the Judeo-Christian Garden of Eden, the Greek Garden of the Hesperides and the legendary Arthurian island, Avalon. Apples, especially golden apples, are the pivotal element in numberless accounts of deceit and seduction: Hippomenes distracting Atalanta so that he can win the race and her hand; Aphrodite bribing Paris, skewing his judgment and setting off the disastrous events of the Trojan War; Eve tempting Adam and, well, we all know about that act, its consequences for humankind and its many representations through the centuries. Still, there are counterbalancing numbers of medieval and Renaissance artworks depicting the Christ child holding an apple as a promise of redemption—goodness and everlasting life reclaimed from sin and death. Dual-natured, the apple.

Apples abound in the secular world, too. There are folk heroes and legendary scientists—William Tell, Isaac Newton, Johnny Appleseed, Steve Jobs—forever associated with that heraldic fruit. And think of the centuries of still-life images—from the frescoes of Rome through to the sumptuous paintings of the Dutch Golden Age and on to Paul Cézanne’s baskets and tabletops—all laden with apples. This fruit: so familiar, yet so given to the transcendent power of the brushstroke. Or the camera lens.

In Nature Morte, the apple carries all of this mythical, historical and cultural baggage, while also shouldering a complex of contemporary economic and environmental issues. In Dikeakos’s photographs of apple trees and apple orchards and apple pickers and apple pie, you can read our ongoing romance with the blessed fruit. You can also read land use, water management, labour and transportation costs, pests and pesticides, free trade, shifting demographics and the variability of the marketplace. Young, genetically manipulated apple trees planted in tidy, cost-saving rows. Old, unpruned trees, their heirloom fruit unpicked. Piles of chopped and severed branches and other tree debris where an orchard once stood.

But perhaps we’re being too doctrinaire here, yanking the political subtext out from under the poetic verse and plunking it on top, like a tarnished crown. Dikeakos says that his colour photographs—including his images of apples washed with rain, glowing with sunlight, capped with snow, foretold in scented blossoms, scattered on the ground among fallen leaves—are really about “a topography of place.”

That place is British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, for decades the centre of Western Canada’s fruit production and lately the location of an exploding viniculture. It’s a culture that supports a complex of scenic vineyards, acclaimed wineries, high-end hotels and destination restaurants—none of which are on view in Dikeakos’s photographs. Instead, he examines both the delight and the heartbreak of apple-growing in the Okanagan in the early 21st century, a time when, because of falling prices and rising costs, it is becoming a less and less viable enterprise.

In 2000, the Vancouver-based Dikeakos and his wife, Sophie, acquired a rural property near Naramata, in the southern Okanagan. This country refuge comprised a rundown house and old apple orchard, both requiring big commitments of time and labour. The orchard also provided the point of entry—the awareness, the insight and the inspiration—for Nature Morte. Dikeakos began the series in 2010, and it composed his solo exhibition, with textual, interactive and installation elements, at the Kelowna Art Gallery this past summer.

Walking and driving around the Naramata area, he became increasingly aware of the history, the mechanics and the decline of its apple production. Scattered among his more poetic images are those shots of abandoned trees, razed orchards and trashed apple cartons. There’s an image, too, of a neighbour’s apple dump, the mass of fruit picked and then disposed of because it wasn’t economical to truck it to a packing house or juice factory.

Kelowna Art Gallery curator Liz Wylie points out the way this 2012 shot of apples spilling into a ravine—an image Dikeakos describes as “dystopian”—echoes his photo of Robert Smithson’s Vancouver-area performance, Glue Pour (1969). As a university student, Dikeakos assisted in realizing Smithson’s project as well as documenting it. Smithson, Wylie recounts, emptied “a large drum of industrial glue down a short incline” of rough dirt, sticks and gravel. Although formally similar, the later image of the apple dump, she points out, is metaphorically quite different—“a resonating indicator of trouble in paradise.”

Also speaking to the declining viability of apple-growing in the Okanagan are photos of stacked wooden apple bins, their Judd-like geometric forms stamped with the name of a now-defunct fruit-packing organization. And there’s signage, too, for a roadside fruit stand and petting zoo, with its cheerful advertisements for potatoes, tomatoes, apples, asparagus and “LOCAL FRESH APPLE JUICE.” “These guys are gone,” Dikeakos says simply, examining this image in the studio behind his Vancouver home.

It would have spun a nifty thread of continuity to report that the backyard studio in Vancouver is flanked by apple trees. In fact, the two trees that cast leafy shadows across its roof are figs, their small, turbinate fruit still green on this late spring day. But wait, some mythologists believe that the forbidden fruit on the tree of knowledge was the fig, not the apple. And etymologists observe that in the English language, until a few centuries ago, “apple” could generically signify any number of fruits. Figs or apples, the garden surrounding Dikeakos’s studio is lush and Edenic: flowers blooming, vines twining, the air redolent with mock orange.

Inside, under a generous skylight, the artist goes through new work and old, including yet-to-be-exhibited photographs of potlatches, cemeteries and abandoned buildings in Haida Gwaii and Alert Bay, and of collectors and dealers of First Nations art. As we look, he recounts something of his personal history—his birthplace, Thessaloniki, Greece, his master-machinist father, his family’s arrival in Winnipeg when Dikeakos was nine, and then their resettling in Vancouver when he was 10. And, yes, those early years, when he spoke no English and was placed in a class of much younger children, were “pretty awful,” he recalls. His life brightened when he befriended another immigrant kid, whose father was a bricklayer by day and—inspiration—an abstract painter by night. “Like most Modernists in this part of the world, he was a hedonist,” Dikeakos says. West Coast Modernists loved colour and texture, he adds, and responded with deep feeling to their environment—“situating” themselves in relation to the mountains, forests and waterfront.

Although this perceived hedonism would not manifest itself in his own art for a few decades—not, fully, it seems, until Dikeakos took on the luscious apple as image and metaphor—the importance of situating oneself in the landscape was quickly apparent.

As a fine-arts student at the University of British Columbia in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Dikeakos was fascinated by collage, not only pursuing it as a politically charged art form, a Duchampian mash-up of found objects and images, but also organizing an ambitious exhibition of West Coast collage for the SUB Gallery at UBC. At the same time, and ultimately more significantly, he was drawn to conceptual photography as practiced by Ian Wallace, who was one of his instructors, and Jeff Wall, a fellow student. Like them, he sought imagery on the streets of Vancouver. His agenda, Dikeakos says, was to “get out of the studio and look at the reality of this young metropolis. Is there actually any consciousness of this place? And look at specific areas that were messy, untidy, multi-layered.”

His frequent subjects were the vacant lots and bulldozed expanses of dirt and debris on the “soft industrial” lands around False Creek, then in the early stages of what has become massive redevelopment and gentrification. “My intent was not just to picture a local defeatured landscape similar to that written about and recorded by Robert Smithson,” Dikeakos wrote in 2005. He was describing his early photographs, many of them shot from a moving car, for the catalogue to Presentation House Gallery’s exhibition “Unfinished Business: Photographing Vancouver Streets 1955 to 1985.” He continued, “I also saw the indexing and scanning of the streets of Vancouver as part of a critical discourse on urban expansionism and its social and political ramifications.”

That indexical impulse found another form of expression in his later Sites and Place Names (1988–96), the much-exhibited and well-travelled series that is so strongly associated with Dikeakos’s vision.

In this extended body of work, executed in the 1980s and ’90s and shot first in Athens, then Vancouver and subsequently in Ottawa and Saskatoon, Dikeakos took panoramic photos of historic sites that had been paved over, built upon, buried, obliterated or left in ruins. He mounted some of these photos under glass etched with the names—in Cree or Coast Salish—of what had been lost. Words for places, legends, flora, fauna, expressions of the sacred: all were cast as faint shadows across the street scene or cityscape. In Vancouver, through extensive archival research and then consultation with local First Nations elders, Dikeakos was able to identify old fishing and hunting grounds and once-thriving village sites. The overlay of image with text echoes the complex and layered histories of each place his camera sought out.

The transition to apple orchards from the urban subject matter that has dominated Dikeakos’s practice is at first surprising. Still, it is apparent that his examination of Vancouver’s history, prehistory and cultural markers, erased by its wildly inflated growth and development, bears a relationship to his survey of the shifting agricultural character of the Okanagan Valley. Both series of works are “topographies” that record physical change and investigate the forms and consequences of ruthless economies and market-driven land use.

Just as Sites and Place Names: Vancouver (1991–94) calls our attention to what has been lost in the race to erect forests of expensive and utterly characterless condominiums—generic glass towers that could be found in any urban centre anywhere on this beautiful, blighted planet—Nature Morte registers its agricultural time and place, asking us to take note of the changes that are occurring, the implications of monoculture crops and the disappearance of apple orchards from the Okanagan Valley. It’s not quite the expulsion from the Garden, but close enough, dear Adam, close enough.

This is a feature article from the Fall 2014 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, visit its table of contents. To read the entire issue, pick up a copy on newsstands and the App Store until December 14.