From historically doomed attempts to navigate a northwest trading passage to ongoing contention over Arctic sovereignty, ideas of north have long fascinated humankind. For many, the region above the 66th parallel has remained a territory of mystical phenomena, treacherous elements and infinite potential.
“Magnetic Norths,” an exhibition organized by Dawson City– and Montreal-based artist Charles Stankievech, unfolds the fantasy and fact behind these multiple northern realities in a gathering of archival documents, audio works and contemporary art at the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery in Montreal. For Stankievech, the exhibition acts as a kind of research project that reflects his own experiences and artistic interests in northerly latitudes. With this in mind, he’s divided the gallery into loosely overlapping zones of ideas and objects dealing with documentary histories, conceptual art from the 1960s and 1970s and contemporary art installations, all of which are knit together by an exhibition “soundtrack” broadcast to portable radios in the gallery.
Stankievech has amassed a rich if eclectic collection of works—early Thomas Edison films of the Klondike Gold Rush, a photo of Buckminster Fuller’s prototype for his Rigid Radome (an icon of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line), R. Murray Schafer’s 1973 composition for snowmobile and orchestra, North/White, documentary photos from the Center for Land Use Interpretation and artworks by Lawrence Weiner, NE Thing Co. and Joyce Wieland, among others.
His conceptual rubric for the exhibition—as a research/project space—also makes for some intriguing contrapositions.
The show opens with perhaps the most fantastic work that Stankievech has managed to include, a late 16th-century illustration of the polar region imagined by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator. It’s an object worthy of Thomas Moore or Umberto Eco, depicting the Arctic with two magnetic north poles, one a looming mountain set amidst a “whirl-pool” of seas, the other, lesser pole plotted further north. Considered in tandem with an official map of First Nations land claims in the Yukon—many of which are based on historical projections of traditional nomadic hunting grounds—or the BAR-1 DEW Line Archive, an exhaustive online archive of documents and photos related to the joint Canada-US military radar operation, it is an illustrated narrative of longstanding territorial ambitions, both real and imagined.
Also playing off the Mercator map is another key element in Stankievech’s northern project: Glenn Gould’s iconic 1967 CBC radio documentary The Idea of North. Where Mercator plotted a kind of fantasy of the poles, Gould wove an aural symphony of sounds and voices to portray real life in the northern expanse. Gould’s epic depiction leads to Michael Snow’s equally influential portrait of the northern landscape, La Région Centrale, represented in the exhibition by a preparatory drawing and one-night screening of the three-hour film.
All of these works and interwoven conceptual links preface the exhibition’s most dramatic installations. In Vancouver artist Kevin Schmidt’s Wild Signals, a barren Yukon landscape is transformed via stage lights and dry ice into a dramatic reinterpretation of the spaceship-landing scene in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Stankievech’s own DEW Project reimagines Buckminster Fuller’s Radome structure as a sculptural radio broadcast platform. And finally, French artist Laurent Grasso’s monumental video installation HAARP digitally animates the US military’s Alaska-based, conspiracy theory–laden High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program. In his exhibition text, Stankievech labels this a prime example of under-the-radar “Hothian warfare” in the Arctic, a sci-fi analogy that neatly confirms a continued blurring of boundaries between fantasy and fact. It’s an intimidating thought, but proof perhaps that while the north may for many rest on the outer limits of the imagination, it is clearly a zone of very real significance.