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Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods: From Hermits to Head Shops

Long before the 2010 Olympic Games emerged on the province’s horizons, the official slogan for BC’s tourism industry was “Super, Natural British Columbia,” a phrase meant to showcase the wealth of sightseeing activities available to visitors in the region’s spectacular wilderness. While the province’s reputation as a west coast mecca for hikers, cyclists and canoeists has been a bane to some urbanites, the promise of sublime experiences in nature has also contributed to a unique landscape tradition in Vancouver’s contemporary art world, characterized by work as divergent as Emily Carr’s forest paintings and Rodney Graham’s upside-down photographs of trees.

Now, in tandem with its 25th year of programming, Or Gallery offers a critical reappraisal of the use of the sublime—or, experiences that exceed rational understanding—in contemporary art production with the group exhibition “Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods.” Bringing together an international roster of artists, Seattle-based curator Eric Fredericksen aims to politicize the notion of the sublime by offering parallels between overwhelming natural experiences and the terror and awe that accompany monumental human endeavours (such as the construction of skyscrapers and invention of space travel). Comparisons to the altered states of consciousness produced by hallucinogenic drugs and traumatic events are also drawn.

Taken from a poem by William Wordsworth, the title of the show refers to an imaginary hermit who has a spiritual connection to the wilderness that the author, living in the city, cannot attain. For this reason, the figure of the recluse features prominently in several works, including Seattle-born New York–based artist Oscar Tuazon’s hand-bound collection of zines produced by a couple living “off the grid” in the Oregon woods. The hermit is also evoked in Berlin-based artist Jordan Wolfson’s looping film of an uncannily realistic animated crow reciting the hours of the day in abandoned woodland settings.

Berkeley-based artist Lutz Bacher offers a more lighthearted meditation on the effects of coastal isolation in her video Organic: a slow, close-up pan of the interior of a used Subaru car that listens in on a free-form community radio station. Meanwhile, the Welsh duo Heather and Ivan Morison bring their dry wit to a darker take on the post-apocalyptic sublime in I hate her. I hate her., a live puppet show that creates “a mythologized interpretation of their own work from the perspective of a bleak and ruined future.”

Rounded out with performances by the Kansas-based band Drakkar Sauna, “Of vagrant dwellers” promises to reinvent the creative potential of the sublime and create a whole new host of reasons for viewers to take note of the province’s natural scenery. (555 Hamilton St, Vancouver BC)

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