Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Searching for My Banff, Essay for Sarah Fuller's My Banff, AGA, May 28 - August 7, 2011

Photo and image credit: Sarah Fuller, Installation view My Banff, Art Gallery of Alberta, 2011

My earliest memory of Banff goes back to the mid ‘80s, when the hot springs still smelled like sulphur. I was about five years old and I remember thinking that the gurgling pools of dark water must be filled with rotting eggs, that people were boiling eggs and forgetting to take them out. I remember riding in the back seat of a rental car with my mother and some adults I no longer remember. We made stops in Calgary, Drumheller and the Rockies. I remember the smell of the hot springs. I remember rolling up and down the car’s window pane, but I do not remember much of what I would have seen through it.

There were photographs taken on that trip, to help us remember. But like most souvenirs and memorabilia, they are long lost in the dust bins of personal history. I hold a vague recollection of  one specific image, a photograph showing my mother and me, standing side by side, completely dwarfed by the back drop of looming cascades and majestic peaks against a clear blue sky.  This photograph proved we had been to Banff.

Only, I have no physical proof that this photograph ever existed. I could have imagined it, assembled it from the multitude of photographs I have seen of visitors in Banff. It’s an image that’s been standardized in tourism paraphernalia and promotional materials, yet I am sure it is mine. What is mine could easily be yours. Standing before the mountains, standing by the hot springs. The heat rising up in a thin veil of steam. Vaporizing into the vista behind me.

Real or imagined, this was my first memory of Banff.
Real or imagined, I have no other memory of being there.

“The Local is defined by its unfamiliar counterparts. A
peculiar tension exists between around here and out there
. . . This tension is particularly familiar in a multicentered
society like ours, where so many of us have arrived
relatively recently in the places we call home.” (1)

My own memories of Banff, like most tourists’ memories of Banff, intersect with Sarah Fuller’s My Banff in our search for an authenticity of being there in time and place. Locals and tourists alike seek a sense of place, though their experiences are not mutually inclusive.

Banff has always been a tourist destination. The hot springs was the raison d’etre for why Banff was localized at all. After CPR railway workers William McCardell, Thomas McCardell and Frank McCabe reported on their findings at the base of Sulphur Mountain, the hot springs were developed as an elite travel opportunity in an age of luxury rail travel and grand destination hotels.

Of course, before the railway named the area after the CPR directors’ hometown on the north coast of
Scotland, the area now known as Banff was not exactly a tourist location; but still, it was a site for transient experiences. Several First Nations communities traveled through and around the area, including the Plains Blackfoot, Cree and Kokanee people. The approximate region now known as Banff was a place for vision quests, and it was not a place to be settled upon. Some still identify the area as an unusually concentrated nexus of energies, a convergence of forces where five valleys meet.

Today, anyone who has visited Banff, especially up Tunnel Mountain Drive, will know (or is told explicitly through corporate branding) that Banff is a place for creativity and inspiration. Visitors, especially resident artists who stay for weeks to months, still report vivid dreams or intense insomnia. Long before Banff became the tourist destination it is today, it has attracted visitors seeking an inspirational experience.

1.  Lippard, Lucy On the Beaten Treak: Tourism, Art, and Place. New Press, New York, 1999. Pp 13. 

The essay in full is available on site in the RBC New Works Gallery through August 7, 2011 and available for purchase through the AGA  Visit Sarah Fuller Photography for more information on the artist.  

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