There's no question that human action and inaction can result in lasting ecological damage. The proof is in the steady trickle of pipeline bursts, the grim march of more- and less-remarked-upon extinctions and in the scars left on the landscape itself. The questions we are left with concern what comes after.
Two exhibitions currently on view look at the unfurling aftermath of two man-made calamities, a faraway nuclear disaster almost 30 years ago and a developing situation much closer to home.
Growth showcases senior Winnipeg photographer David McMillan's 20-year survey of evacuated sites near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in northern Ukraine. Since 1994, McMillan has visited and revisited the 2,600-square-kilometer exclusion zone, and specifically the city of Pripyat, once home to 45,000 people and now completely, permanently abandoned. His photographs bear witness to Pripyat's ongoing "naturalization," documenting the gradual incursion of the surrounding forest as plant life recolonizes the city's stark Soviet-era modernist streets and structures.
In a 1998 photograph, we see the nuclear plant itself, squat and silent at the other edge of a scrubby plain. Photographed from the same vantage six years later, the field has the appearance of a forest park. In a third image, taken in 2011, the plant is almost completely obscured by a towering wall of trees.
In another sequence, we see an entire life cycle play out inside a crumbling hospital room. A sapling takes root in the cracked floor one year; on the next visit it has grown into a stunted but substantial tree. Years later, it's withered and died, replaced by new growth. Blown-out picture windows frame vistas of a forest landscape, but can't contain it.
The images are hauntingly beautiful, with a stillness that belies the intensity of the original cataclysm and the rapid pace of growth and change in years following. They can't help but convey the grimly reassuring sense that "life goes on" -- albeit without us. Radiation will persist in the environment for tens of thousands of years to come. People will never safely resettle the area.
Extraction, Winnipeg-born sculptor Mia Feuer's exhibition at Raw Gallery, is even less reassuring in its grimness. It also looks at natural succession and remediation in the wake of ecological trauma, spotlighting the environmental degradation still unfolding on the Alberta oilfields.
Based on the first-hand experiences visiting the tarsands, Extraction is an isolated fragment pulled from An Unkindness, Feuer's ambitious, critically heralded exhibition at Washington, D.C'.s Corcoran Gallery of Art earlier this winter. While that exhibition was a phantasmagorical, dystopian petro-wonderland, complete with a coal-black (and functional) artificial skating rink, Extraction consists of a single, brutal gesture. A life-size birch tree sculpted from ragged black-tar paper hangs at an upside-down incline from the gallery ceiling, its exposed roots matted with flurries of black feathers.
Dimly lit and looming eerily, the sculpture seems like an image from a dream or nightmare, but its inspiration is only too direct and entirely too real. To remediate polluted fields, the oil companies planted wheat, which can draw up contaminants from the soil. Unfit for consumption, the wheat attracted an infestation of mice, which became contaminated themselves. So site managers planted actual, dead birch trees roots-skyward in the ground to serve as nests for birds, which would catch the mice that ate the wheat that absorbed the pollution, and so on, like the world's most awful nursery rhyme. Without fabricating or exaggerating a single detail, Feuer exposes the industry's vicious, shoddy caricature of natural renewal, not just an "unkindness," but a perversion.
Neither Feuer nor McMillan set out to answer the question of what comes next. Instead, each offers a harrowing, necessary reminder that these processes will continue whether we choose to acknowledge them or not.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.