Beastly Acts and Beastly Beings
An Essay on the exhibition Jill Price, Unfurled: Unsettling the Archive from a More-Than-Human Perspective at the Orillia Museum of Art & History, by Curator Tanya Cunnington.
The exhibition, Unfurled: Unsettling the Archive from a More-Than-Human Perspective, combines artefacts from OMAH’s permanent collection, alongside original artwork created by regional artist, Jill Price. It addresses the North American Fur Trade and its impact both globally and locally through the voice of the underdog, the animals. Although her work is hefty with meaning and message, Price is hesitant to consider herself an activist. Yet, she is aware that as an artist, she has the responsibility to affect change through her artwork. Price states that,
“After learning about the harmful impacts of global, economic systems of production and exchange, I have become astutely aware how I as an artist and the visual arts industries are always at risk of perpetuating Anthropocenic perspectives and approaches to land. To know about these socio-political and environmental realities and not change the way and what I create would be negligent. As American author Marijane Marker says, ”Once you know something is wrong, you are responsible. Whether you see it, hear of it and especially if you are part of it.” By being able to primarily work with that which already exists in personal and public archives to draw attention to the importance and liveliness of more-than-human beings , I am able to partially disrupt the ongoing extraction and destruction of their habitats and pull into question the treatment of animals today.”
While completing her MFA at OCADU (2015-2017) Price’s exploration of fast fashion and its effect on the environment led her research to the early textile trade routes in Europe, and eventually to the North Atlantic Fur Trade. Now working on her PhD at Queen’s University, Price is examining the idea of unmaking as a creative act, acknowledging that undoing something, be it physical or learned, can be a regenerative process. This exhibition is in my opinion the culmination of these two synchronous fields of research, the fur trade and unmaking. Price physically unmakes and repurposes fur and found objects into artworks, while encouraging viewers to shift ideologies of Eurocentric and Human Centric histories, in relation to museum archives, sustainability and the environment.
In what I think is a very successful attempt to make this exhibition accessible, Price has chosen to use wordplay in many of her titles. In Tailored (WTF) (2021), Price has adorned an 18-inch-high sculpture of Samuel de Champlain from OMAH’s collection with the fur tails of two handmade sculptures; one a rabbit and the other a coyote. They sit on an antique ironing board behind Champlain staring in confusion at one another while he admires himself in a mirror wearing his new tailored tails. Stole’n (2021), works on the same concept of poignant wordplay with two handmade mink figurines, standing almost naked stripped of their fur behind a reclaimed figurine wrapped in a fur stole, still attached to one mink, almost as though he has been unraveled of his fur coat. Furnishings (2020), is a visually stunning hand drawn design of twisted animal skulls and forms printed in a repetitive pattern and installed as both a thick curtain and an entire wall of wallpaper. Inspired by the damask patterning often used for wallpaper and drapery originally in European parlors, Price alludes to the arrival and the imports of European settlers and their effect on the fur trade by changing the pleasant damask patterns of flowers and fruit to that of skulls, bones and fur.
Face Setting (2021), is an installation within this exhibition that uses both artefacts from OMAH’s permanent collection and found objects by Price. It is a delicate yet disturbing take on a dinner place setting, with silverware and serving plates contrasted with the fur hides and stuffed bodies of tiny mink. It is for me, pleasantly reminiscent of Meret Oppenheim’s surrealist work, Fur Lined Cup and Saucer (1936). Unlike Oppenheim’s piece, which was meant to challenge our reasoning of what can be considered art, we immediately understand that there is in Price’s installation a deeper meaning of the excess of privilege. Above it sits a grouping of 4 oval graphite and gesso framed drawings entitled Refurbished (2021), deftly reproduced from photographs in OMAH’s collection. These gently drawn, ghost-like portraits stare out, some passive, some confrontational, all adorned with reclaimed fur.
And of course, I could not speak of this exhibition without mentioning the many eerie sounds that accompany it such as Queen Victoria’s very raspy and muffled voice declaring “terra nullius” or “land belonging to no one”, emanating out of her fur adorned bust from OMAH’s collection entitled Regally Blind (2021). Also, there is the methodical and determined sound of Jill’s hand as she unstitches, unmakes and unleashes the skin of a rabbit hat in the 35-minute durational performance video entitled Unleashed (2020), and the grunting of a moose or the howl of a wolf as they float in and out of the installation video entitled Homecomings (2021). Also, if you look very closely at Grand Mere: Unsettling Legacy (2021), a seal coat breathes very slowly in its display case. This combined outcome of sound and the visual offers a sensory experience that is both unsettling and unnerving.
Unfurled: Unsettling the Archive from a More-Than-Human Perspective also touches on current and relevant topics of discussion. As I mentioned previously, Tailored (WTF) (2021) includes a maquette of Samuel de Champlain, a French explorer and colonist who travelled through this area (present-day Orillia) in 1615. In 2017, Parks Canada’s large sculptural homage to Champlain was removed for cleaning and has yet to be returned to Couchiching Beach Park in Orillia. Already a controversial figure for his role in colonization, this monument depicts Champlain standing over, apparently being worshiped by a fur trader, a missionary and Indigenous peoples. It is currently being debated whether this is an accurate depiction of history, or myth-mongering. In Fur-Lined (2021) Price covered the iconic red, blue, green and yellow stripes of a vintage Hudson’s Bay Jacket with reclaimed fur. Once one of the most powerful fur trading companies in Canada, many Hudson’s Bay Stores are now in apparent financial difficulty. Both pieces are about animals reclaiming what was once rightly theirs and are in my opinion the perfect balance between fact and imagination, art and history.
Each time I step into the Franklin Carmichael gallery where Unfurled: Unsettling the Archive from a More-Than-Human Perspective is installed, I feel as if someone or something has just been there and left; like my sudden presence in the room has disturbed something. Perhaps I am picking up on the spirits of the animals, or the local ghosts, but there is a definite intangible atmosphere to this exhibition. As I stand within the space, I also cannot help but wonder whose shoulders these tiny animals once adorned, or whose hands helped shape the sculptures of Samuel de Champlain and Queen Victoria. Hopefully 100 years from now, people will still be questioning and discussing these artworks and artefacts, their meaning and their purpose. Through Unfurled: Unsettling the Archive from a More-Than-Human Perspective, Price has taught us to examine our shared histories and our responsibilities to honour this earth, and its inhabitants, both human and animal alike.