25in25: A Public Art Retrospective – A False Creek by Rhonda Weppler & Trevor Mahovsky

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Article by Joni Low

I visited the bridge at dusk, just as the clouds were breaking. The sunset reflected from the water onto the bridge’s underbelly; kayaks passed underneath, while birds migrated eastward overhead. Everything appeared picturesque; idyllic. Yet the simple chromatic blue stripes at the bridge’s base belied this reality, marking, as they do, a complex and uncertain environmental future and the impact of rapid climate change. In 2012, when this artwork was completed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that the sea level would rise four to six meters over a time frame of “centuries to millennia,” due in part to melting polar ice sheets from Greenland and the Antarctic.[1] Already, global warming has contributed to erratic weather patterns, droughts and coastal flooding. Speculations on these fates continue to be urgent, dystopian, even tinged by science-fiction; they capture both our anxieties and desires to affix our imaginations to something, to avoid the drift of uncertain futures.

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Photo: Richard Winchell

Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovksy’s A False Creek apprehends the moment where the link between a signifier and what is signified collapse, if only into a multitude of possible associations. Altogether, these five blue stripes represent a five-metre sea level rise, the midpoint of the scientific predictions. However, they can equally be read as sea fading into sky, paint samples, or mere graphic decoration. What is signified – a wide expanse of unknown consequences eluding precise representation – becomes abstract in this understated yet enveloping gesture, whose horizontal lines can be read from afar. In their sculptural and painting practice, Weppler and Mahovsky often lay bare the space between artifice and the real, presenting that tension within perception – the short-hand that falls short – while allowing viewers to fill these fissures with their imaginations. Here, the artists freeze a slow apocalypse into deadpan measurable blocks, gesturing towards the inadequacy of data visualizations to capture the unknown.

False Creek itself is a man-made artifice – a body of water that Vancouverites accept as real, often without recognizing its deeper histories. Its sculpted shoreline obscures past identities; but we are prompted by Weppler and Mahovsky’s artwork to also read these gradations downwards. Burrowing into the stratified layers of the waterway, from its present-day areas of leisure and recreation, through 20th century uses as industrial ports and sawmills, we discover its existence pre-contact, as a large tidal flat – with abundant indigenous plantings, salmon basins, and wetlands. For thousands of years, it was inhabited by the Musqueam, Squamish and Tseil-Watuth peoples.

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Photo: Trevor Mahovsky

If predictions are accurate, False Creek will eventually exceed its man-made intentions. In an extreme scenario published by the U.S. Geological Survey, what is experienced today on these shores could become submerged: seawalls will transform into Venice-like canals; maritime relics will rest on sandbanks beside Jerry Pethick’s Time Top, the sea-encrusted vessel that foreshadows an experience of time and space previously unimaginable.[2] Technology will allow us to live above and below water; at night, we will navigate silently through algae-green waters, rich with cultural debris and underwater gardens, towards the distant glow of barnacle-like homes. Glass skyscrapers will poke modestly from the water’s surface; waterfront property will be in abundance. In this veritable Atlantis, our underwater lost utopia, we will no longer be able to parse the real from the imagined. Yet in some ways, we are already there.

Please see the artists’ parallel website at www.afalsecreek.ca.

Joni Low is an independent curator and writer from Vancouver, and curator-in-residence at Or Gallery.


[1] From an interview with the artists, July 19, 2016. Their research was based on the most recent IPCC report (2007, Fourth Assessment) at the time, whose scientific findings were “necessarily expressed as a range of possibility, over both time and scale.”  The artists wished to capture this abstract time frame, and scientific expressions of uncertainty, though these shades of blue. For information on the first report, see http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg2/en/spmsspm-c-15-magnitudes-of.html.
The most recently IPCC report is now dates 2013 (Fifth Assessment), available here: https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/unfccc/cop19/3_gregory13sbsta.pdf

[2] According to this particular prediction, published in 2014 by the U.S. Geological Survey, the melting of entire ice sheets could cause an 80-metre rise in sea levels between 1,000 and 10,000 years from now. See: http://thetyee.ca/Blogs/TheHook/2014/12/18/Vancouver-Ice-Sheet-Map/ , accessed May 26, 2016.


About the artists

Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky have worked in collaboration since 2004, investigating the relationships between everyday objects and the materiality of painting and sculpture, and the ways in which seemingly simple visual codes unfold into complex contradictions. They have participated in solo and group exhibitions throughout North America, the United Kingdom and Asia, including the National Gallery of Canada; Musée d’art Contemporain, Montreal; the Vancouver Art Gallery; LABoral in Gijon, Spain; Tokyo Wonder Site and loop-raum, Berlin. Currently, they have three public artworks in Vancouver: A False Creek (2012), Idea for a Trellis (2014), and Watch Seller (2015). They are joint recipients of the Glenfiddich Prize (2014), the City of Vancouver Mayor’s Arts Award (2008), and residencies at Acme Studios, London, UK (2013) and Artspace, Sydney, Australia (2011). Weppler and Mahovsky each received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of British Columbia, and live in New York and Toronto respectively.

 

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