The beauty of the prairie and the activities of humans on the landscape are represented in unique and contrasting ways in the current exhibition at the Art Gallery of Swift Current.
Peneplain by award-winning Canadian artist and filmmaker Kent Tate will be on show at the gallery until Nov. 3.
The exhibition has a very direct connection to southwest Saskatchewan, because Tate lived in the area from 2007 to 2014 and he recorded a lot of footage in the region.
He now lives in the Kamloops area in British Columbia, but his time in Saskatchewan had a significant influence on his work.
His career began with performance art, paintings, installations, video and film in Toronto and Vancouver. He moved to Hawaii in 1992, where he began to develop his filmmaking style and techniques.
“After I returned to Canada in 2005 with my wife Cheryl, we took a trip to the prairies, fell in love with wide open spaces, and moved to southwestern Saskatchewan,” he told the Prairie Post by e-mail. “The landscapes in the southwest became a new inspiration for me. During these years in the prairies I recorded massive amounts of footage chronicling my impressions of this vast and beautiful region.”
The exhibition is an image and sound installation with 10 movies. It can be viewed as individual scenes in a multi-channel installation with several television screens or as a single movie on a large screen.
“As the creator of the films I try to create a cinematic experience that can generate an interest for whatever time span that the viewers watch and hear my work,” he said. “In this exhibition, all the films and the soundtrack loop throughout the day so at any given moment something that has potential for fascination will be occurring.”
The exhibition’s title, Peneplain, is a reference to a geological term. A peneplain is a land surface that has been shaped by erosion over a very long period. Tate found a reference to this term in the writer Wallace Stegner’s book Wolf Willow, in which he referred to the drama of the landscape and the sky.
“Wallace Stegner’s elucidating description of the landscapes of southwestern Saskatchewan affirmed the essence of a land of light and shadows that still inspires and intrigues,” Tate noted.
The exhibition features images that will be familiar to anyone who has spent some time in southwest Saskatchewan as a resident or visitor. There are thunderstorms, dark clouds, vast landscapes and skies, crops stretching to the horizon, and grazing cattle. But there are also constant reminders of human activity and changes to the land, whether it is a pump jack and filling station, or cityscapes and grain elevators.
Tate does not present overt political arguments through his exhibition, but the images are combined in ways that is an expression of his concerns about the crisis he believes we are in.
“I believe we are in the midst of the Anthropocene period and the Holocene extinction,” he said. “This is a dilemma, because we have the imminent threat of climate change and serious choices we need to make quickly to ensure our survival. The crisis is that we’re already experiencing the impact of inaction as we cross one climatic tipping point after another.”
At the same time the experimental format of the movies makes it possible for viewers to experience and interpret the images in different ways.
“Experimental movies by their very nature re-evaluate cinematic conventions and explore forms that are non-narrative,” he said. “So intentionally I create my work to encourage the viewer to come to their own conclusions about what they see.”
Tate’s work has received international recognition and his films have been screened in London, Paris, New York and Berlin. It has also been recognized in Canada and screened across the country. The movie Isolated Gestures, which is included in this exhibition, won the Ruth Shaw Award for Best of Saskatchewan at the Yorkton Film Festival.
The process to create these films are time-consuming. He works with a digital camera, but his perspective is informed by the aesthetic of the classic box camera and plein air painting techniques.
“I will often return to the exact same location, time and time again, sometimes five or ten times over a period of days or weeks,” he said. “Relying on the time of day and the camera’s angle from the sun, I was able to maintain my goal of no colour grading in post. I created the soundtracks during the same time as when I was editing this movie. … Music is crucial to my movies and it’s the rhythmic and melodic structures of the soundscape that completes each moving image for me.”
Kim Houghtaling, the director and curator of the Art Gallery of Swift Current, felt it was important to have this exhibition at the gallery. It is a follow-up to a previous exhibition of Tate’s work in 2012, which was called Movies for a Pulsing Earth.
“In both cases he wants us to appreciate our earth and what we really got here, and not be quite so overbearing and greedy about it, and imposing ourselves over everything,” Houghtaling said. “I think the first part of the project was more about causing you to appreciate the beauty that we have, where we live and what we see, and making that important. With this now, he makes us think harder about what as humans we're doing to it.”
He noted that artists are cultural observers who are asking questions about the societies they live in.
“Sometimes it seems like they're just criticizing, but they're not actually criticizing,” he said. “They're concerned and they did what Kent did. They start by recognizing the wonder of the place, they recognize all the beauty of it all, the complexity and the richness and they share it with you so that anyone can recognize the beauty and the wonder of the place, and the experience. But then in that same exploration, they recognize what is troubling about it too and so sometimes they have to speak about that.”
This exhibition is curated by Houghtaling and it will be available for circulation to other galleries in the different prairie provinces after this show in Swift Current ends on Nov. 3.
“The artist definitely wants it to be seen again in another gallery,” he said. “So we'll be asking galleries, certainly in the southern plains, if they would like to take the show. We'll offer it and it will be available for years to come.”
Admission to the exhibition is free. The gallery is open Monday to Thursday from 1-5 p.m. and 7-9 p.m., and Friday to Sunday from 1-5 p.m. It is closed on statutory holidays.