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Introductory Essay by Caffyn Kelley
alluvion    statement     essay     stories 1 - 2 - 3 - 4     participants     places     catalogue      Exhibitions: Two Rivers    NAG    CRAG
Diana Thompson’s Alluvion

For twenty years, Diana Thompson has created thoughtful, powerful art addressing social issues. Her multi-media, collaboratively-created projects on motherhood (Conceptions 1998-2000), childhood (Memory’s Children 1997-1998) and violence against women (Witness 1990-1991)
have affected viewers in galleries across Canada. Yet Thompson no longer wants to make art objects that circulate within the tiny realm of art – no matter how meaningful and subversive these objects may be. She questions, “Can the magical impulse of imagination –
of discovering something beautiful unfold in one’s hands – still be kept alive without the world being filled with more stuff?” Furthermore, she wants to apply the “transformative, deeply-moving depth of art” to healing the environmental crisis subsuming our world. 

“Artists can affect planetary survival,” claims the visionary artist and architect Patricia Johanson, “I believe art can be used to create a benevolent world, rather than avant-garde novelty.”  A small but growing number of artists link art with survival, using their own creativity and art’s great power to address environmental issues. Thompson’s Alluvion is kin to Johanson’s Cyrus Field, a project built with marble, redwood and cement block to wind for over a mile through the woods near Johanson’s New York home. Both Cyrus Field and Alluvion use art to “frame” nature, incorporating the intricacies and processes of the natural world into the work. Both works invite viewers to enter the natural world as participants. Revisioning relationships between human creativity and nature in ways that admit a gentle and restorative human presence is Thompson’s achievement in Alluvion. Environmental sculptor Jackie Brookner comments, “To bring about a future where we can move beyond … an endless cycle of loss and repair and bandaging new wounds, we need [to]…revision what we value and what we undervalue in the world and in ourselves, and in how we see ourselves as a species.”

Thompson’s work subverts notions of art that privilege creativity as the extraordinary function of uniquely qualified individuals. She seeks places inside everyday life where “ritual, magic and meaning” might become credible. Behind her effort is a view that everyone is or can be an artist -– that her role is not best found in the expression of a personal vision but rather in the creation of  a dialogical space. Surrendering Alluvion’s objects and processes to a diverse community of participants, Thompson’s work speaks of hopefulness and openness. Betsy Damon, an artist who works on water issues around the world, describes her primary medium as relationship. For Thompson, the multiple voices and visions realized through Alluvion are key to the work. Alluvion is reminiscent of Rebecca Belmore’s project, Speaking to their Mother, for which the artist made a huge, intricately carved wooden megaphone. She travelled across Canada to urban and rural sites, asking fellow First Nations people to speak directly through the megaphone to the earth. These artworks make space for a multiplicity of individual voices alongside a deep analysis of social conditions. They do not assume community; they create it.

Diana Thompson began to invent ways to work with nature and environmental issues in her 2000-2001 work Hundreds & Thousands. Employed as “Artist-in-Residence” at the Surrey Art Gallery and the surrounding Bear Creek Park, Thompson attempted to number every single leaf on five trees, and wrote poems on the leaves of many others. She collected, sorted and arranged natural materials for a spectacular gallery installation in which viewers were invited to explore and participate. Hundreds & Thousands features the artist as Fool fantastically engaged in a playful, protracted labour. As in Alluvion, Thompson explores with humour and scepticism the value and consequence of a human mark on the land. Seeking a language outside the manufacture of objects, she is nevertheless profoundly engaged with materiality and making.

Thompson cites Ana Mendieta as an influence, pointing to the ephemeral “Earth/body figure” pieces in which Mendieta inscribed her body into the landscape in various ways – carved into earth, shaped with rocks, traced in fire or flowers. Like Mendieta, Thompson is concerned with
the individual body in relationship with the earth. Alluvion conveys our fragility and mortality in
the face of violence and destructiveness. It is at once a memorial to forgotten possibilities and an evocation of danger and loss.

Suzy Gablik asks, “are we forever locked into the inevitability of a world view based on materialism – and with it, a certain kind of art fixated in the notion of saleable objects?                Or…can art actually help us to revision ourselves and our way of living on this earth?”  With this catalogue and gallery show of Alluvion, the work is recuperated back into the realm of art – a context that may conspire to obviate the content of the work. Yet through its presence here, Alluvion will speak to artists and others of making a new kind of culture. Thompson’s work predicts an art that will be capable of creating memory, contesting history, and inventing a possible relationship with the land.

Caffyn Kelley
November 2003
Salt Spring Island
alluvion    statement     essay     stories 1 - 2 - 3 - 4     participants     places     catalogue      Exhibitions: Two Rivers    NAG    CRAG