Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Laura St. Pierre, Urban Vernaculars, AGA until February 13, 2011*

In Laura St Pierre's Urban Vernacular, large-scale photo landscapes fill each given wall of the AGA's RBC New Works Gallery. As ever-so slightly digitally manipulated stretches of urban landscapes, they are the end results of guerilla art tactics in and around the town of Grande Prairie, where St Pierre has been living and teaching for the past several years. In one image from the series, the mounds of silty snow gathered at the edge of a mega parking lot are undeniably familiar to any resident of an urbanized winter city. In looking closer, nestled within the mounds are temporary shelters made out of garbage, and even these are not so unfamiliar sights.

Image credit: Laura St. Pierre

The mounds of snow recall a direct first-hand experience of suburbia, especially to those who have become accustomed to navigating our cities from the point of view of automobiles or attempted the impossible walks through sidewalkless streets and mounds of dirt and snow. In short, the photographs elicit an intimate experience of urban landscape, but a particular type of urban landscape that has not yet lived up to its own expectations.

St Pierre's latest series is photo-based, but it is photo-based documentation of an action, one that is both immortalized and trapped in its own preservation. As an artist who has been known to create sculptural installations that take over galleries, St Pierre shifts into presenting only the photographs of her installations, and while the installations are site-specific and not transportable, I wonder if the medium of photography is enough to translate the initial concept.

Image credit: Laura St. Pierre
In "5.10," the most striking image of the series, the open facade of an isolated building sits like a proverbial Narcissus, sitting before its own reflection with pride and glory. Congregated street lights appear off in the distance signaling civilization. Above, the prairie sky is vast and open, and the upturned and exposed earth suggest both development and death. The possibilities are open for interpretation, and intervention, and yet, the photographs elevate these gritty and ephemeral installations into something that is enchanted and permanent. The immortality of the photographs are seemingly in opposition to the inspiration of their subject matters.

Last seen in Edmonton with her Autopark installation on Churchill Square as part of The Works Festival, St Pierre converted a handful of beat-up old cars into self-sustaining green houses. The presence of the cars, the smell of condensation and dirt, those factors played into the overall work.
Conducting a series of interventions, St Pierre sought out locations that potentially relay a survivalist instinct, seeking locations that could be transformed into temporary shelters. From abandoned school portables to the back of an appliance store, St Pierre built makeshift shelters using disposable materials like styrofoam and plastic packaging. Lighting them simply from the interior, and giving them a semblance of being inhabited, they were photographed in the twilight hours, further adding a cinematic quality to the implied narrative.

The photographs themselves are desirable objects, pristine panoramas of controlled chaos that push viewers past the point of reality. Like her series of landscape interventions and subsequent photographs along the St Lawrence River during a 2007 residency in Quebec, the photography of Urban Vernacular are captivating photographs.

However, photographs are not the installations, even though that is how most of us will ever get a glimpse of ephemeral art. Photographing works in order to share and archive them, that strategy has proliferated, and the issue remains debatable as to what is preserved in photography and what is lost.

*First published in Vue Weekly

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