Show's crows come home to roost

Suzanne Northcott: Crossing Boundary

At the Surrey Art Gallery to October 9

You hear it before you see it: Suzanne Northcott's video installation, Crossing Boundary. A cacophony of crows rises up against the clamour of the city. Primordial nature conjoins with traffic and industry, caw-caw-caw against gong-jangle-thrum, all electronically mixed into a stormy surge of sound. You can hear the wind blow through the soundtrack, too, haunting the space between your senses and your instincts.

Northcott, a Langley-based painter, has been steadily expanding her practice to encompass mixed-media and photo-based work, verse and text, and, more recently, digital-film and large-screen video installation. All are called into service here to fully explore her subject: the crow-individual, collective, and metaphorical. The crow as wily survivor, occupying the interstices of our built environment. The crow as cultural hero, trickster, bringer of light, harbinger of death, scavenger, nest raider, occupier of dreams, holder of mysteries, member of an alien tribe. In the statement accompanying the show, Northcott says that crows represent "an awesome otherness".

Her interest-her obsession-was stimulated a few years ago by observing the winter flight pattern of Vancouver's crows. Some 16,000 of them fly from their scavenging territories in the city, each night of the non-nesting season, to a communal roost in the Still Creek area of Burnaby. Northcott was struck by the evidence that their evening flights, in long and rhythmic streams eastward along the low-numbered avenues and across Boundary Road, strangely echoed the end-of-day migration of car-bound commuters out of the city toward the 'burbs. The feathered creatures invoked for her a number of ideas about the crossing of boundaries, the nature of social structures, and the spaces between "day and night, city and suburb, the mundane and the mythic".

Northcott's three-channel, large-scale video projection, a gorgeous and startling juxtaposition of sight and sound, is a collaboration between the artist and cinematographer Rudy Kovanic, video editor Laurie Long, and sound designer Jean Routier. (Northcott also acknowledges the advice of wildlife biologist Rob Butler.) The cooperative nature of the work nicely parallels the social cohesion and collective behaviours of the crows under scrutiny.

The wall-sized central video opens with a black tarpaulin, frayed and strangely textured, flapping in the wind. It is draped over the decomposing roof of the Opsal Steel building in the South False Creek area. A stunning image, it is deeply, darkly evocative of an immense wing, and of the interface between nature and culture. The work then tracks the urban crows during their busy days, through their migrations, congregations, and temporary roosts, to their eventual bedding-down in a grove of alder trees, silhouetted against a huge full moon.

The other two video projections isolate the crows in flight against a darkening sky and their pattern of rising up and dropping down before settling for the night. In an adjacent gallery are Northcott's mixed-media paintings, drawings, photo-based imagery, found objects, collaborations with Toronto poet Rishma Dunlop, and a "home video" of a fostered baby crow. Together with the smashing video installation, these works indicate the depth of Northcott's attraction to her subject and the multiple ways in which she seeks to give form to her observations, her imagination, and her awe. They also register our connection to what Northcott calls "crow world".