Marianne Nicolson: Walking on Water (Thin Ice)
At the Equinox Gallery until May 4
In September 2010, a devastating flood hit the central British Columbia coast. It overwhelmed the village of Gwa’yi (Kingcome Inlet), the home community of Kwakwaka’wakw artist Marianne Nicolson, and forced its emergency evacuation. As Nicolson describes in the statement that accompanies her exhibition, Walking on Water (Thin Ice), the flooding was the result of disastrously coinciding events: unusually heavy rainfalls, a very high tide, and the accelerated melting, owing to global warming, of the Silverthrone Glacier, which feeds the Kingcome watershed.
In ways both subtle and forceful, this gifted artist asks us to consider the consequences of climate change, deforestation, and the “degradation of Canada’s environmental policies”. The phrase “walking on water” implies widespread social denial—an expectation that a miracle will save us all from environmental catastrophe. “Thin ice” alludes to the peril posed by the way a lake, formed by melt water from the Silverthrone Glacier, is contained by a rapidly thinning ice wall.
Nicolson’s video Wel’ida Pała (The Flood) is her most immediate and direct response to the 2010 disaster in Gwa’yi, her camera operating from a “woman on the spot” perspective. The movement of a heavy-equipment truck to higher ground and the evacuation of residents, by motorboat to the local school and then by helicopter to Alert Bay, are followed by extended scenes of the flooded village, with a focus on symbolic structures like the community longhouse and the children’s playground. At one point, we see the immense pictograph Nicolson painted on a vertical rock face above Kingcome Inlet in 1998. Depicting a “copper”, a shield-shaped symbol of wealth and prestige, it speaks of an enduring aboriginal presence in the area. It also reminds us that Nicolson creates culture-affirming works for her own community while also participating in the international art world’s postmodern dialogue.
The video is complemented by six black-and-white photographs, taken during wedding celebrations in Gwa’yi two years after the flood. The scenes Nicolson records are of children dancing on a soccer field at night, their figures backlit by a large electric light that hangs in the dark sky of each photo like the searing sun. The blurred and silvery outlines of the children, and of a wolflike dog that glides silently through one of the images, suggest ghostliness. They are like death foretold, like spectres of a disaster that is not in the past at all but in the future.
The most symbolically charged work here is Nicolson’s sculptural installation Walking on Water (Thin Ice). It consists of five upright “dorsal fins”, executed in different shades of blue glass and set into curving wooden bases. The fin forms symbolize killer whales, which represent healing in Kwakwaka’wakw culture, while the blue glass alludes to glacial ice. Each fin is etched with a different figure: they’re whales in human form and they emphasize the connectedness of all living things.
These figures are surrounded by Northwest Coast and western motifs, including representations of Northern Saw-whet owls, a “reference to mortality”, Nicolson says. That reference is doubled here: in Kwakwaka’wakw belief, owls carry the souls of the recent dead, and many small owls in this province are endangered due to habitat destruction.
The most emphatic figure among those riding the whale fins is the artist herself: in this self-portrait, she is depicted with raised hands, round eyes, and a wide open O of a mouth. Nicolson combines her expression of alarm with the features of one of her family’s ancestral figures, Tisamgid (Stone Body), a renowned warrior who came to a bad end. We have to do a lot more than hope that Nicolson’s village and all of our villages do not meet a similar fate.