Recently, it seems that when Toronto’s mayor isn’t making headlines, the city’s overheated condo market is. Getting to Amnesiac Hide, Mike Nelson’s exhibition at The Power Plant, is an exercise in navigating the realities of this fervor. Queen’s Quay, the city’s so-called “revived waterfront,” is undergoing a makeover in the midst of rising condo towers, which makes for a messy route to the gallery. But after seeing the piles of found rocks, clumps of logs, and stacks of detritus in Nelson’s exhibition, the upheaval outside the gallery becomes something more: a larger context in which to reflect on this show.
Amnesiac Hide presents four sprawling installations: Quiver of Arrows (2010), Gang of Seven (2013), Eighty Circles Through Canada (The Last Possessions of an Orcadian Mountain Man) (2013), and Double Negative (the Genie) (2014). The pieces are creepily empty–full: full of stuff, empty of owners. Typically, the human characters suggested by Nelson’s constructed spaces remain undefined, allowing each viewer to create her own narrative of the people who have seemingly left these camps behind. However, the works Eighty Circles and Double Negative do invoke specific people, becoming highly personal audits of things and experiences. As a whole, the exhibition flirts with issues related to Canada’s past as a British colony and the continued negotiation of its identity in a post-colonial milieu.
Eighty Circles involves toothbrushes, bicycle-tire repair kits, hiking boots, books, and rail cards, among many other things, arrayed on a floor-to-ceiling wall of shelving hunkered at the doorway to the gallery as if to forbid entry. All of the items belonged to a man named Erlend Williamson, Nelson’s former collaborator and the “mountain man” of the work’s title, who died while hiking in Scotland (which I might never have known if not for the explanation of a gallery assistant).
The backside of the wall of shelves serves as a screen for a series of eighty projected photographs of rock circles (small interventions in the landscape, made to contain campfires) taken by Nelson in western Canada. The relationship of these images to the aggregated personal items is obscure. The heat of the slide projector, the nostalgia-inducing shick-shick sound of the slides changing, and the cycle of mundane images make this half of the installation hypnotic. The lack of manmade objects in the photographs is refreshing, especially after experiencing the cluttered other installations in the show.
In Double Negative and Gang of Seven, strewn reams of photocopy pages, rocks, and beach flotsam crowd the viewer much as Williamson’s former belongings in Eighty Circles do. The crowding within Quiver of Arrows, meanwhile, occurs at a psychological level rather than a physical one. It consists of a circle of RV-style campers that have been welded together and from which the wheels have been removed. The presence of these immobilized dwellings suggests land-rights issues, congregated as they are in a circle as if to face some unmentioned threat—a modern version of circling the wagons.
The totemic piles within the Gang of Seven installation suggest Inuit inuksuit, while its title references the Group of Seven—a school of early-20th-century Canadian landscape painters. These artists presented an unpeopled Canadian landscape, full of mountains but devoid of human presence or impact. Nelson’s Gang of Seven seems to repeat this trope, presenting Canada as a landscape full of raw materials for art making but void of inhabitants who might lay claim to the land. Within the spaces Nelson has crafted at The Power Plant, the question of the relationship between colonialism, land rights, and artists remains mostly unasked and unresolved.
While Nelson declares this work to explore an ongoing interest in British colonialism and post-colonialism in Canada, in the end the pieces stake an uncomfortably neutral place in this critical discussion. As Toronto continues to “reclaim” the waterfront for development that consists mostly of erecting condos, artistic practices that question land grabs and the fallout of overheated development is all the more necessary. Nelson’s work offers us little guidance in resolving these critical issues.
Amnesiac Hide runs through May 19th at The Power Plant