Viewed from the SeaBus as it sails north across Burrard Inlet, the Polygon Gallery glitters in the autumn sunshine. The building commands and charms its North Vancouver waterfront location, just east of Lonsdale Quay Market, and, yes, it truly glitters, the polished steel and perforated aluminum of its upper façade reflecting and refracting the light. Inside the big, bright lobby, director and curator Reid Shier is supervising the placement of the inaugural show’s signage. The large vinyl letters of N.VANCOUVER march across the title wall and into the stairwell.
Mounted beside those big letters is White Ship, a photograph by Fred Herzog. Shot in 1967, it depicts a group of people standing at Prospect Point and watching a passenger ship navigate the waters beneath the Lions Gate Bridge. The North Shore looms, dim and unfocused, in the background, suggesting a shifting understanding of place, in accord with the theme of the exhibition. “It was important to me personally that when the first audiences came into this brand-new building, which is taking up a prime piece of North Vancouver’s real estate, that the first show spoke to this region and this area,” Shier says. “The landscape and the history of the city.”
Newly commissioned and existing works by 26 artists “emerge from or reflect on this land and landscape”, according to Shier’s curatorial statement. They evoke North Van’s beginnings as the Coast Salish village of Eslhá7an, its location in the interwoven territories of the Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) and Tsleil-Waututh, its “development as an industrial town based in lumber and shipbuilding”, its postwar suburbanization, and its recent, rapid urban growth.
“I was really keen on creating a dialogue with the people for whom this building might be a major piece of their civic infrastructure,” he says now. “Not just to create a sense of ownership but to create a sense of intrigue.” The show spans early photo-conceptual works by N.E. Thing Co. to spectacular contemporary photographs by art stars Stan Douglas, Rodney Graham, and Jeff Wall.
It also includes three of Greg Girard’s remarkable colour photographs of North Vancouver’s working waterfront. These include an eerily lit image of the Richardson Grain Terminal at dusk and a behind-the-scenes view of the mountainous sulphur piles near the north foot of the Lions Gate Bridge. In a recent interview with the Georgia Straight, Girard described the circumstances behind the creation of these works in 2013. He had recently returned to his hometown of Vancouver from Asia, where he had lived and worked for the previous three decades. After winning acclaim for his probing photographs of Asian cities in transition, he was anxious to record the ways in which Metro Vancouver had changed since he left. One of the biggest of those changes, he said, was the busy port, which he had previously shot in the 1970s and early 1980s. “In those days you could walk across the railway tracks, into the container terminal, onto the various docks,” he noted. The events of 9/11, however, dramatically altered conditions. “Ports had to be secured now and the fences went up and the cameras and the security gates and the patrols and all of that.”
Girard had to find ways of gaining legal access, something his previous career as a news photographer had trained him for. “That became a logistical series of hurdles to jump over,” he said. With a wry smile, he recounted that it was easier for him to gain access to the United States military bases on the Japanese island of Okinawa—the subject of a recent book of his photos—than to the dockyards and terminals of Port Metro Vancouver.
Perhaps surprising to those anticipating a photo-based exhibition program of the kind that characterized the Polygon Gallery’s previous incarnation, Presentation House Gallery, the show also includes a large number of three-dimensional works. These range from Myfanwy Macleod’s one-eighth–scale model of Capt. George Vancouver’s ship, the H.M.S. Discovery, to Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill’s sculptural assemblages based on objects and images deaccessioned by the North Vancouver Museum and Archives.
“I like to remind everybody that the gallery was never entirely slavish to the mandate of photography,” Shier says. Then he adds: “It will still be the core of the gallery’s mandate.”
Some of these “other mediums” are seen in the practices of First Nations artists represented in the show, and include weavings by Lisa Lewis, Shelley Thomas, Melvin Williams, and Tracy Williams. Interviewed during a lunch break from her day job (she’s manager of language, culture, and archives with the Squamish Nation), Tracy Williams describes the science and culture behind her wool and cedar-bark dance apron. The bark, she explains, is harvested in the spring from stands of yellow cedar trees high in the mountains. “When we find yellow cedar, we always ask the tree for permission,” she says. “We always try to show the wenaxws, the respect.” You have to be mindful, too, not to take too much bark. “If you take the right amount, the tree will continue to live and grow.”
Descended from a long line of weavers, Williams has devoted herself to recovering and learning Skwxwú7mesh methods and materials. She talks about the deer fat used to keep the cedar strips supple and water-repellent. She also speaks about the mountain-goat hair woven into the dance apron’s upper panel, about how the hair may be collected as it catches on the branches of bushes and trees when the animals shed. “I respect the amount of work that it takes to gather the material,” she says.
Within the context of the Polygon Gallery’s inaugural exhibition, it is possible to see history, landscape, and culture woven into Williams’s dance apron. She adds, with a laugh, that some of its wool is store-bought. “It’s a little bit of the contemporary, mixed in with all the other materials. But that’s what it is. I am trying to create something that’s not just from the past but is also for today. It’s a continuity.”
N. Vancouver runs from Saturday (November 18) to February 18, 2018, at the Polygon Gallery.