Skip to content

May we suggest

Essays / December 20, 2016

Art in 2016: From Many, One

A critic at midlife on art that condenses time—wide, inconceivable, generational time—through repetition and incantation, aggregation and association.
Pamela Norrish's <em>Outfit for the Afterlife</em> (2010–2015) organizes half a million tiny glass beads, and several years of labour, into a shimmering, meticulously detailed T-shirt and jeans sized to fit the artist's body. Photo: via Glenbow Museum Facebook page. Pamela Norrish's Outfit for the Afterlife (2010–2015) organizes half a million tiny glass beads, and several years of labour, into a shimmering, meticulously detailed T-shirt and jeans sized to fit the artist's body. Photo: via Glenbow Museum Facebook page.

Along the journey of our life half way
I found myself again in a dark wood
wherein the straight road no longer lay

These are the first three lines of an artwork that moved me in 2016: Via, an audio recording by poet Caroline Bergvall.

Via was recorded in summer of 2000, but I only became aware of it this year, listening to it one cold November evening on my phone while I crossed the parking lot of a shopping mall in my neighbourhood. As I listened to Bergvall’s mesmerizing French-Norwegian-British voice intone, I saw pinks and oranges float a dusky East Toronto sky above Lowe’s and Wine Rack and OshKosh B’Gosh; I watched seagulls and pigeons wheel and flutter around white-shitted light fixtures; I tried not to get hit by a car.

In Via, Bergvall recites 47 translations of the first three lines of Dante’s Inferno—a canonical work from the 14th century I admit I have never read and know little about. These translations span almost 200 years, from 1805 to 2000. Each translation differs—sometimes slightly, sometimes significantly—but always there is this recurring image or moment: awakening in the dark, at a “half way” point of life, not knowing exactly where one is.

As someone who often feels lost in a dark wood at midlife, both personally and politically, I found the notion of various translators revisiting this moment or image over and over again, in various ways, through 200 years of literary work—as well of the author himself grappling with its rendering some 700 years ago—to be poignant in a way I never would have expected.

The fact that Bergvall originally performed this work, rather than “published” it on a page, enhances Via’s effect. To hear Bergvall bring those many, repeated moments of lostness and grasping and revisiting to life through her own lungs and diaphragm in a single moment in time is moving, as well as conceptually apt. To me, it underlines that the work of these 47 translators had an embodied aspect, as did Dante’s—that of putting pen to page (quill to page? hand to quill to page?), of breathing as one thought and thought and thought about the right way to “say” things, of searching through leaves of words in a thesaurus or dictionary or synapse.

And the fact that Bergvall called the piece Via—which in Italian, means “road” or “way” and in English is a pointer, itself, to being “in transit,” or “in between”—just kind of seals the deal.

There are other possible readings of Via, of course. In fact, I encountered Bergvall’s work through a free online course I was taking called ModPo—a University of Pennsylvania initiative that hopes to nurture what it calls “close collaborative readings” of Modern and contemporary (mostly) American poetry.

One of my ModPo classmates, for instance, has suggested that Bergvall’s recitation of each translation in Via was like the worrying of a single prayer bead on a longer chain. This, too, works for me in a sense of condensing time—wide, inconceivable, generational time—through repetition and incantation, aggregation and association.


This rhetorical road/via now leads me to a consideration of physical beads as art material. I saw some wondrous instances of this in 2016, this facility that some artists have for making many one, for binding traditional technique with contemporary life, for stringing together multiple timespans and multiple meanings.

Pamela Norrish’s Outfit for the Afterlife, for instance, which I saw at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum this summer, organizes half a million tiny glass beads, and several years of labour, into a shimmering, meticulously detailed T-shirt and jeans sized to fit the artist’s body. Even the zipper pull and “distressed” frayed denim on the knees of the jeans are rendered with extraordinary attention and care.

Norrish’s work raised a set of questions for me: That is, Who loves a body so that they can care for it for decades, with delight and affection, pain and resentment, before bidding it farewell? How can that be done, really? What kind of labour and attention makes this possible?

Norrish’s luminous and contemporary take on the mortal coil was surrounded at the Glenbow by a display of beaded works from the museum’s collection that reinforced this reading: a black Victorian mourning mantelet of the 1880s, a traditional Ukrainian beaded woman’s vest from the 1930s, an assortment of Dakota birth amulets of the 19th and 20th centuries, a Deh Gah Got’ine baby-carrying bag of the 1890s. Nancy Tousley, who curated the Glenbow presentation, is to be commended for this poetic arrangement of elements. (And though Norrish’s piece is curated differently in a current group show at Mercer Union, Toronto audiences would be lucky to catch it there until February 4.)

A different way of binding life and death came across in another meticulously beaded work I saw this year: Ruth Cuthand’s Don’t Breathe, Don’t Drink, which was brought to Art Toronto’s solo section by Edmonton’s dc3 Art Projects.

In Don’t Breathe, Don’t Drink, Saskatchewan’s Cuthand brings her characteristic incisiveness and craft to bear on the water crises that continue to affect dozens of First Nations communities in Canada. In the installation, a long table supports 94 found glass vessels—one for every such community that Cuthand identified. These glasses, baby bottles and “sippy cups” contain beaded versions of Giardia, Heliobacter, E. coli and other infectious bacteria.

Walls of the installation are hung with portraits of these and other contagions impacting First Peoples, while a blue-tarp “tablecloth” is beaded with patterns of black mould spores—an illness-causing fungus common in houses where boil-water advisories lead to constantly high levels of ambient moisture. Essentially, you’re damned if you boil, and you’re damned if you don’t—by calling attention to this catch-22, Cuthand underlined, for me, the impossible, and often fatal, position that colonialism has put many First Nations people in.

In any year, therefore, Cuthand’s piece would be a knockout; but in the era of #NoDAPL, and of continuing controversy over mercury contamination at Grassy Narrows, among other water struggles and tragedies, its viewing is essential. Fortunately, David Candler, director of dc3 Art Projects, tells me that many institutions at the Toronto fair took an interest in the work, and it is likely to travel widely in the coming years.


Travel, renewal, repetition and reinvention were themes that also coursed through some of my art experiences in 2016.

In Calgary this August, a few steps away from the ever-changing Bow River, I had an opportunity to take a tour through the city’s old, somewhat Frankensteinian Centennial Planetarium. The facility was originally opened in 1967, added on to awkwardly in the decades following, and subsequently abandoned. Now, it is slated to be revamped in coming years as the new home of Contemporary Calgary.

During my facility tour alongside Contemporary Calgary director Pierre Arpin and senior curator Lisa Baldissera, there was plenty to consider about ideas of utopia and creativity, and how they are expressed in the architecture of different eras.

One of the original centrepieces of the planetarium, for instance, was a winding, poured-concrete spiral ramp, with a stone-mosaic rendering of the Earth and its magnetic fields (I think) at its base. Some 50 years on, the edges of the concrete are softened and worn brown in places by the touch of hundreds of thousands of field-tripping Calgary schoolkids across a couple of generations. The planet mosaic—once modern, then unfashionable and now, perhaps, in sync again with a millennial-art era attracted to crystals, stones and astrology—has also survived many revolutions of the planet, and gestures of human touch.

I am intrigued to see how Contemporary Calgary’s renovation project honours these structures and symbols while trying to turn them to new ends.

Likewise, I am intrigued to see how the cultural sector in Calgary grows and changes in the coming years, especially given the current state of the oil industry.

Some people I spoke to on my gallery visits in Calgary expressed hope that the latest oil crash might prod the city to diversify its industries, in part by boosting culture—after all, no less a rust-belt-reinventor than former Pittsburgh mayor Tom Murphy was invited to speak by Calgary Economic Development this summer.

Others, like gallerist Jarvis Hall, noted that the industrial warehouses around his southeast Calgary venue were once full to the brim with pipe, putting space at a premium; now, many are empty. Hall has filled some of this space—his gallery, at least—with bold collages by Robin Arsenault, witchy sketches by Marigold Santos, and dreamy tondos by Corri-Lynn Tetz.

What else might come from such emptiness? Or, as one sign I saw along the Bow, installed by artists Broken City Lab, put it: Is the river jaded?


Part of my route of daily travel, routine and repetition is the return home—usually with a toddler and stroller in tow.

But what is home now? And what can we expect of it?

On the pop-culture, marketing and design front, the 2017 Ikea catalogue had some surprisingly strong things to say about these questions.

As dozens of think pieces, blog posts and hot takes opined when the catalogue was released in August, this iteration of the annual idealized-home missive ended up subverting its usual monolithic imaging of consumer-capitalist fantasy. Instead—or in addition—it acknowledged and advanced imagery of a certain dark age present, and dark age ahead.

In this new (to some of us) reality—one that Ikea decided to bring to consumer consciousness after no small degree of research and market forecasting, I’d bet—home, even a fantasy home, is somewhere inevitably small, downsized, in-between.

Lower your expectations, much of the Ikea imagery seemed to proclaim, at least in comparison to its past iterations. Dinner parties such as the one on the cover seemed to consist of soup and bread and water, arranged around a table of (unfashionably!) mismatched chairs—or, as in an inside spread, of celery sticks and chicken wings consumed around a makeshift coffee table.

I do not object to this imagery outright, as some of the critics of the catalogue have. What I do need to note, however, is what a mainstream-level shift it represents/predicts in ideals of what home is, or might be. Interspersed in the sections on bathrooms and kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms, are articles on refugees, on sustainability concerns, on furniture made out of paper, on carbon-neutral veggie balls (for when the meat runs out, I think?).

Rarely, in my 25 years of poring over this fantasy-home annual, have I considered its pages, its dioramas of ideal domesticity, and thought, “Wow, my living situation looks pretty good.” But this year, I reconsidered our slant-floored apartment, with water stains on multiple ceilings, and dirty 1970s carpeting on the stairs, and mildew on the window frames, and I thought, “We are pretty lucky.”

To go further: Your home, the Ikea document implies to an anxious mind like mine, is not just good. It might be the best it will ever be. All things right now might be the best they will ever be. Or maybe they won’t—but it helps to keep those expectations low, and buy all your things cheap at Ikea.


This morning, I woke once again in darkness, at a midpoint of my life, under a white ceiling that bloomed brown (or, if you want to be fancy, café au lait) splotches, on a mattress wrapped in a bedbug cover, sealed with gummy grey duct tape.

It is okay to wake in this place, in this home, over and over again. It is natural that things repeat and re-emerge, over and over again. It is right to not know where we are going, and to love art that reflects that truth back, over and over again—as well as to be inadequate in that art’s translation.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via