As summer sets in with record-breaking temperatures this week, the thoughts of many have drifted to the pressing concerns of a vacation retreat. To mark its 25th anniversary, the Quebec City artist-run centre L’Oeil de poisson finds its own getaway with “La Colonie,” an exhibition-cum-summer camp that fills the village of Deschambault-Grondines with installations and performances by BGL, Martin Dufrasne, Geneviève et Matthieu, Milutin Gubash, Les Fermières Obsédées, Thérèse Mastroiacovo, Graeme Patterson, Roberto Pellegrinuzzi and Kim Waldron. Here, exhibition curator Jean-Michel Ross speaks with Bryne McLaughlin about history, displacement and the fun to be had when art goes on vacation.
Bryne McLaughlin: “La Colonie” is presented as a kind of free-for-all summer camp where contemporary art takes over the historic village of Deschambault-Grondines. Let’s start with the obvious question: What’s the connection between L’Oeil de poisson and Deschambault-Grondines?
Jean-Michel Ross: L’Oeil de poisson was already planning for their 25th anniversary when they had an invitation from Deschambault-Grondines to organize a project around an artist residency. There had been a previous collaboration between the village and the gallery involving the artist Georgia Volpe. But it was really the director of heritage and culture for Deschambault-Grondines who contacted the gallery and said we have these wonderful historical sites and instead of just having these didactic panels explaining the actual history it might be nice to have contemporary art in these spaces. The area has deep ties to the beginning of the Quebec colony. Jacques Cartier’s second trip actually stopped in Deschambault, which was a key military position because the river runs very narrow at that point. Samuel de Champlain also visited the site but decided to found Quebec City five years later a little further up the river. Now you have 20,000 people going there every summer to see these historical sites. So the place has deep links to both historical and modern ideas of a colony.
BM: It seems quite amazing for the regional cultural representative to step forward with this kind of proposal.
J-MR: It is really amazing for them to imagine something different for these historical sites. My first reaction was is the art going to be stuck in a corner somewhere? How heavy are the restrictions going to be? On the contrary, they opened up the doors to the whole village and they told us we could use whatever we want. So the artists in “La Colonie” had access to all kinds of interesting spaces—an old mill, an historical presbytery, a music school—all of which are mostly empty and typically used for historical displays.
BM: So the location is loaded with the legacy of colonization. How much of that played in to your choice of artists and your overall curatorial premise?
J-MR: Colonization was a big question for me. I kept thinking: Would I go into something more political? How do we actually talk about the colony today? In the post-colonial era and especially with modern communications, we don’t need to physically invade a space to exchange, appropriate or impose culture. So when I started considering artists I was thinking more about displacement. I had this idea of a colony of artists who could bring their different colours to these heavy spaces and be festive. I did have the political discussion in the back of my mind, but in the end it wasn’t the thing I wanted to go for.
BM: The artists had a two-week residency in June and the resulting works are installed for the rest of the summer in a number of sites throughout the town. For those of us who are too far away to actually make the trip to Deschambault-Grondines, could you “walk” us through the exhibition?
J-MR: Of course. Starting on the first floor of the village presbytery, BGL have recreated a huge bonfire in plexiglass called Le Buché, which in French means not just “bonfire” but also the actual stake when you burn someone. This is their typically humourous take on the idea of fire being something that destroys but that also makes new things possible. It’s also a kind of critique of the avant garde always trying to go further into the future in order to break with aspects of the past. So they’ve burned an historical site without actually burning it. There’s also the question of traditional colonial culture that is still very present in Quebec—the bonfire at Saint-Jean-Baptiste, for instance. There were a couple of Bibles scattered around playing on the whole religious aspect.
J-MR: Upstairs from that was Martin Dufrasne who has installed this huge head on a pillow, which is actually meant to be his head, and then you have the ideas inside the head represented by watercolour paintings of clouds. He actually hunted clouds while he was in his residency. Inside of another room he had these little clouds on disco balls. It’s hard to describe but it was very beautiful. For him it was trying to show the imagination linked to an actual space.
The photographer Roberto Pellegrinuzzi is just up the street at the 19th-century general store. It is not only the one place to buy food in the village but it’s also a museum filled with all of these objects from the history of the general store. Roberto found this historical display so interesting that he decided not to make his work super-present but to simply include it in the space. Alongside two light-box photos of his mother, he’s showing a series of photos of vintage cameras installed in a very subtle fashion so you just discover these little pieces as you look around. You can even imagine that the cameras he’s photographed would be similar to the ones that would have taken the pictures of his mother or might have been sold at one time at this general store. For him, it’s about making a link to the actual space but also to his own history and this idea of the colony within himself. So it was more of an inner search, though it works well on many levels.
Thérèse Mastroiacovo has made lots of great little pieces that are installed throughout the village including these huge balloons that were floating above all of the exhibition spaces. When you’re at historical sites you always have these little didactic panels identifying “Here was this…” and “Here was that…”. After a while, Thérèse came to me and said, “What’s up with all of the ‘ici’?” So she made these huge balloons and postcards based on this recurring idea that almost becomes absurd. Now “ici” or “here” can be taken to elsewhere. Because the sites are so close together and with all of those balloons floating above high in the sky you also have this Land Art aspect, which was unintentional, but works very well.
The town’s historic mill has videos by Mastroiacovo, Graeme Patterson and Milutin Gubash, who is showing two short works, one of which was shot in Grondines at one of the oldest mills in Canada, from 1635, I think. There’s also an installation by Kim Waldron of wall-mounted, taxidermied animal heads as well as a set of photos of her actually being the butcher. It’s not an activist or political work, it’s more about personal experience and her images have the raw beauty of a nature morte. One night on the opening weekend, she hosted a communal feast where she roasted a whole lamb. Perhaps fittingly, it rained and everyone ended up eating inside of the space among these mounted animal heads.
Finally, in the basement of the mill is an installation by Geneviève et Matthieu. They read everything in the museum and then created a kind of waterfall coming out of the wall fashioned from all kinds of trashy, colourful objects. For them there was this question of the mythology that surrounds historical spaces and also of going into a new place or culture where there’s always a part that you can’t understand and so it becomes magical or mythical. They also used those didactic panel texts for a beautiful performance on the opening weekend that created a new mythology for the site with artworks, lights and music.
And then, of course, everybody partied.