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The Natural & The Manufactured: Gold Standard

With seemingly endless speculation on economic crisis filling headlines worldwide, questions of value are on the minds of many these days, particularly in Dawson City where a pair of exhibitions hosted by ODD Gallery take an art world measure of commodity culture. It’s the second installment this summer in the annual “The Natural & The Manufactured” residency and exhibition series, which brings Canadian and international artists to the Yukon to respond to ideas of landscape, place and the environment.

In the gallery space, Toronto artist Bill Burns puts personal perspective on the intertwined notions of price and prestige with “The Veblen Goods,” an installation of watercolour paintings and carved logs conceptually framed around the work of the early-20th-century economist Thorstein Veblen. Running contrary to the norms of supply and demand, Veblen identified a correlation between rising cost and increased desire for luxury or “status” objects—otherwise known as Veblen goods. Burns adds an autobiographical touch to this idea of “positional goods”: “The watercolours in the show are part of a memoir I’ve been developing about the slings and arrows of life in the art world,” he says. “Quite often they are kind of brownnosing situations with critics and curators, things like that. But there are other things that show up about the art world or the art economy, things Dave Hickey would call felonies in any other trade, like manipulating the market or economies where the stakes are low and everyone is groping for those small stakes. That’s sort of what the biography is about.”

Piled on the floor of the gallery, a set of locally sourced logs—carved with the names of various art world celebrities who have affected Burns’ career—expands that personal edge into broader notions of national economies and values. “The logs conflate Veblen’s ideas with a classic ‘hewers of wood’ economy,” notes Burns. In an accompanying wall drawing, Burns classifies these names further—“Those that have helped me”; “Those who I still hope will help me”; and “Those who have wronged me.” It’s an attempt by Burns to embed a narrative flow into the work: “I do a lot of projects that deal with circularity and have an internal logic, so it has to be considered within a certain personal cosmology. I’m always trying to circulate within a project.”

For the exhibition’s second element, American artists Steve Badgett and Deborah Stratman present two site-specific installations viewed surveillance style from “spotting scopes” in and around Dawson City. Titled Augural Pair, the works tap into what they call the “statistical sorcery” of the financial world set against the elemental aura of the local landscape. One work in a town-bank window features an electronic sign with a real-time relay of the market price for gold. Seen from across the street, the work offers a telescopic view of conflicting realities, broadcasting not only the escalating values in a global scramble for economic security (gold prices are currently at record highs), but also warning of the financial conjuring from afar that drives local resource extraction. The second spotting scope looks toward a forested ridge across the Yukon River where a large mirrored disk reflects, as the press release puts it, “the luminosity of the sky as a phenomenological mystery.” Raven sculptures perched around the mirror add a further mystical charge as they hint at First Nations’ creation mythology. Without seeing it in person, one can only wonder about the work’s affect, but perhaps that overall process of speculation is exactly the point Badgett and Stratman mean to make. This is the natural world as an unquantifiable commodity, one best kept just out of reach.

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