Compressed, Condensed, and Canadian — Michael Snow gets in touch with nature

Published on Ontario Green Blog October 2009

Michael Snow - Condensation_for_Exit It’s a warm summer day amidst lush green trees and tall wild grass. You marvel at the interplay of sun and shadow, fog and mist. The sea rushes in, crashing against the jagged rocks of the cliff and gently caresses the sands of the cove over and over again.

After 10 minutes or so you get up from the bench, grab your coat and bag, and venture back outside into another London, Ontario day. But in those mere minutes you’ve witness the vivid sights recorded by one of Canada’s foremost contemporary artists – Michael Snow.

“As far as I know, there isn’t another landscape film like this in existence,” Snow says.

Condensation: A Cove Story is a three-meter, high-definition projection of a natural landscape. Recorded over two summers with a digital time-lapse still camera, a photo was taken every 10 seconds resulting in thousands of photographs tracking the landscape’s weather patterns.

Snow then turned the collection of photographs into moving images, compressing time in the process into a 10-minute silent film. It is now making its Canadian debut at the McIntosh Gallery at The University of Western Ontario.

“This work is a temporally compressed, condensed recording of several weather-events which took place on a wild landscape in the Canadian Maritimes,” Snow says.

But the piece does more than reflect the weather. It raises questions about how we perceive our natural environment, and how new media can represent that environment.

“There is a strong tradition of landscape art here in Canada and elsewhere too,” says Snow. “I thought I would add to that tradition by making a film that continues some of the interest of landscape art.”

Some of the best examples of Canadian landscape art can be found in the works of the Group of Seven, prominent in the 1920s.  Other contemporary artists like Jack Chambers have created work that gets audiences thinking about the beauty of nature, and more importantly the need to conserve this natural beauty for the future.

“People are very engaged with the piece,” says Judith Rodger, Acting Director of the McIntosh Gallery. “When you’ve sat and watched it and then go back outside walking through campus or around London you have a heightened awareness of your surroundings.”

Rodger hopes audiences will make that connection and understand how art can remind us of the celebrated bonds we share with the earth.

“When you are out walking in a natural environment even within the city of London it invigorates you in a way that doesn’t happen when you’re walking down Dundas Street,” she says. “You are rewarded by a calming, peaceful feeling and that’s exactly the type of reaction that comes from the power of this type of art.”

But rapid industrial growth and modern development can make it harder for Canadian artists to find untouched landscapes to illustrate in their artwork.

Throughout his career Snow, who turned 80 in 2009, has found himself in some situations where extreme measures were needed in order to capture a truly untouched landscape.

“When I was making the film La Région Centrale (1971) I wanted a mountain top view that did not show anything man made whatsoever,” he says. “I could never find anything that didn’t have power lines or something like that showing, so finally I rented a helicopter to get to a particular area of Laurentian Park that would work.”

Canada is fortunate to have a fairly extensive system of national parks across the country, but Snow stresses that without protection for these areas landscape art will suffer.

“It’s the only way we will be able to continue recording natural beauty through art,” he says.

Like other masterpieces from this Canadian artist, there is wordplay in the title. The piece condenses and accelerates thousands of images and also displays the effects of condensation of the lovely shorescape of this Atlantic Canadian scene. A Cove Story also plays on “a love story” as the summer scenes recorded in the film are a lot like love: serene and beautiful, while at times stormy, confusing and changing.

Although Snow does not wish to impose his political ideas through his work he hopes audiences will appreciate the piece as an experience that can get them thinking about their surroundings.

“If you interpret that to be a message about the environment that is up to you,” he says. “It is more than respectful of nature in the sense it shows these wonderful transformations that are constantly happening and makes and artwork out of them.”

The 10-minute silent projection continues at the McIntosh until November 1.

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