Anyone who's ever come back from a trip to the beach with a pocket full of rocks and shells should be able to relate to Rivers, Lyndal Osborne's current exhibition at the University of Manitoba School of Art Gallery. Where someone else might be content with a jar of beach glass on the windowsill, however, Osborne intensively combs the landscape, stockpiling what amounts to an eccentric museum collection's worth of natural specimens and cast-off human artifacts.
The show restages Shoalwan: River Through Fire, River of Ice, a work first produced in 2003. The sprawling installation is built around a treasury of over 100 different found materials that Osborne collected along the banks of two rivers half a world apart. These range from rose hips and fragments of eucalyptus bark to shotgun casings, golf balls and horse bones.
When Osborne visited in 2002, areas along the Shoalhaven River in New South Wales, Australia (not far from Newcastle, where she was born), were still smouldering in the wake of recent bushfires. The burned twigs and singed seedpods she collected there are stark evidence of a landscape in transformation. The remaining items were gathered over 13,000 kilometres away, along the North Saskatchewan River outside Edmonton, where Osborne has lived since the '70s. She cites winter, just as the ice begins to gather on the water's surface, as an ideal time to go walking and collecting.
In the gallery, Osborne organizes her finds meticulously. She separates the juniper berries and the insect casings out into dozens of small papier-m¢ch© bowls, which are arranged in clusters on a series of low, irregularly shaped platforms.
The gently spotlit platforms resemble lily pads, or chunks of river ice set adrift, and appearing to float on the surface of a swelling, sparkling "river" made up of some 7,500 salvaged clear glass containers. Ranging in size and shape from gallon jugs and canning jars to skinny hot sauce bottles and impossibly tiny pieces of scientific glassware, the containers are carefully arranged by height to mimic the undulating surface of a moving body of water.
The work is undeniably lovely, and the diversity and scope of the materials are certainly impressive, but collecting is a often highly personal and often sentimental activity, and Rivers reflects that.
The work mimics the movement of water, and by extension, the passage of time; the various artifacts themselves testify to the ravages of forest fires and the rhythms of changing seasons. (It's all a bit theatrical, but nature is nothing if not theatrical.) At the same time, the work seems to reflect on private experience. Osborne presents us with personal keepsakes, mementos of her own cherished landscapes, which she sets out as almost ritualistic offerings. The various bottles and jars echo domestic rituals of canning and food preservation, and viewers are keenly aware of their brittleness and precarious arrangement as they skirt the edges of the work.
In one way or another, every collection is about preserving something for the future, and it's not hard to understand Rivers as a symbolic attempt to preserve the fragile natural diversity of two far-flung landscapes. Of all the things people set out to collect, that at least seems like something worth hanging onto.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.