Notions of the sublime that one must accept and embrace in order to fully benefit from the experience of isolation as a source of creative inspiration

There is a traditional belief pattern which is convinced that the power of isolation is an effective influence in provoking creative production – maybe not even creative production, but any sort of efficient and prolific production. If one happens to find oneself in an isolated Art Centre (The Banff Centre, Black Mountain College or Emma Lake) you are either there because you like robust outdoor activities or you’re there to get some work done. Some people come to these venues with a specific project in mind which is in line with the context of the isolated Art Centre and its natural, epic or sublime setting. Right now at the Banff Centre’s Walter Phillips Gallery (WPG), Ragnar Kjartansson and his collaborator David Thor Johnsson, drew on the epic beauty of the Rocky Mountains as their scenery for a drawn out rock-groove homage to both the splendid and ideal setting of the isolated, untouched beauty of the mountain-scapes of Western Canada and a love of the cowboy cliché (also to be found in Western Canada). These inspirations resulted in The End (2009), a five channel video installation with an original composition (in five separate parts which coalesce) by Thor Johnsson.

This sort of site-specific inspiration in Kjartansson’s The End works beautifully with my own process of adjustment within the Banff, AB community– the exhibition opened on January 28, 2010 and was consequently the first exhibition running during my current contract with the WPG. Before I arrived at the Banff Centre I figured I would begin to adhere to the tradition of nature-based creative stimulation that is both a cliché as well as an honest decision to fall in line with a long tradition of artists moving through the Centre for over a century. So, I planned to begin my series’ of watercolour landscape paintings of the mountains and portraits of elk and bears fishing in the river. A deliberate decision to move my practice into landscape and portraiture could only be honest in the sense that I am attempting to be ironic through immersing myself in a seemingly outdated scene (outdated from my contemporary art perspective) or at least evidence of an attempt to make a comment on the un-transformative nature (or my resistance to this transformation) of the idyllic Rocky Mountain settings. Kjartansson and Thor Johnsson are working both angles – while playing with clichés, they also truthful embrace and react to the beauty of the exceptional environment they found themselves within Banff National Park while filming for the work in February 2008.

Protected and sanctioned, I am reminded daily of the bizarre character of the town of Banff being situated in a Canadian National Park. Noticing that a family of deer are always given the right-away at intersections, that human families march in lines along the downtown street, skis in tow and ski boots still on their feet, precious animal shit located along every path that will not be disturbed for days (it may be illegal), along with X-treme winter sports playing on every TV in every bar in town, it can all make one rather uneasy – oddly enough, this make me more uneasy than drunken men from the suburbs partying it up for an evening downtown, bums posing bananas as guns to beg for change on the street, naked performance artists at early evening events snorting coke, and crazy people pushing dogs in baby strollers down the street in the middle of a sunny Saturday afternoon – things that one may find in the larger cities’ scenes. I suppose both are unnerving…it may depend on whether you’re a city or country person. It also may depend, in this comparison, on how much outside cultural input one needs in order to thrive (city vs. country). In a place like Banff this input will come from yourself and whoever else may be visiting the Centre at any given time during residencies, conferences or symposia; while in the city it can be externally sought every day of the week with several venue changes throughout the course of an evening if something sucks – there’s always the next something to move onto.

The most important thing about the Banff Centre is that people move on to other things and it’s always anticipated as such. Many institutions are like this, with all working and studying positions becoming vacant on a frequent basis, new crops of people and ideas moving through at a constant pace, and impromptu events cropping up because everything is dependent on self-starting within the microcosm of the community. At every event I’ve attended – small openings both at the Centre and in the local community – it’s the same people at every event…..and this is no different than any large city I’ve lived in. So really, how is it different? Maybe because it seems so finite and truncated – finite in that you know the exact reaches of the local community at all times (I currently know all visual artists within the residencies in Banff- which I can also assume makes up about 90% of the artistic community in the town of Banff) and I’ve shared a bottle of wine from plastic cups leaned up against a wall at 3am in a studio in the woods with all of these same people. It seems truncated because, although there are many different international visitors at any given time going through the Visual Arts department and the rest of the Centre, I don’t necessarily understand how what we are doing at the Centre expands beyond that on-site interaction between international and local: the lecture, the studio visits and the fancy dinners. It must expand outwards, or why else would anyone care to isolate themselves in such extreme ways? Right?

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