Rainer Wittenborn

Centre International d'Art Contemporain de Montréal (CIAC)

Amazon of the North: James Bay Revisited, Rainer Wittenborn’s latest collaboration with Claus Biegert, a Munich author and DJ, focuses on the threatened existence of the native Cree and Inuit of northern Quebec and Labrador. Conceived in response to utility company Hydro Quebec’s proposed (and temporarily canceled) Great Whale hydroelectric dam project, which would result in the flooding of some 11,000 square kilometers of subarctic territory, Wittenborn’s installation includes paintings, drawings, photos, maps, documents, and elements of nature as well as indigenous artwork.

In Natural Disaster, 1995, a map of the James Bay region of Quebec has two circular wooden hoops in proximity to one another. The first hoop follows the shoreline of James Bay, created millennia ago by the impact of a meteor, while the second covers the region that the Great Whale project would flood. Caribou Kill, 1984, comprises a wall-sized drawing on muslin of a dead caribou and an actual antler jutting out at an awkward angle. On an adjacent wall, digitalized computer images of a dead caribou are reproduced 10,000 times to represent the 10,000 caribou that died at Limestone Falls in 1984 when Hydro Quebec released water from the James Bay reservoir along the caribou migration route of the river Caniapiscau. Through images of the James Bay shoreline, an enlargement of a drawing of a beluga made by the Inuit hunter Sappa Fleming, and a car radio and speakers that projected whale sounds, Last Dance for a New Skin, 1994–95, referred to the beluga whales’ habit of “dancing” or rubbing their bodies in the sand near the shore to shed their old skin, after which they remain near freshwater outlets. As the plastic pipe with whale vertebrae at either end and the numbers printed on it suggest, their populations would dwindle, just as the freshwater rivers would dry up, if the Great Whale project were to go through.

Wittenborn’s working method is almost ethnographic, involving his living with indigenous people for some time as part of his projects. The effect of this practice on his work shows in the awareness of different cultures he brings to the work. In Creatures of the North: Seal-Species or Sub-Species, 1995, enlarged photo cutouts of antique European engravings of freshwater seals hang suspended in midair, their white skeletal outlines superimposed on them amid the plastic floats and sealskin lines used in native fishing practices; nearby, a surveyor’s rod leans against the wall. The Great On-Off Flood, 1995, returns to the theme of the Great Whale project. Above a near ceiling-to-floor-length stretch of black canvas are photo images of the Great Whale region taken from James Bay, above which the words on and off appear in bold lettering. A native cup-and-ball toy made of bone hangs in front of the piece, while on the floor a circle with leg-hold traps has red and white attachments—a concise statement about the interdependence of cultures and ecosystem.

Near the entrance to CIAC is a text that reads “We are all sleeping bodies on melting ice.” Wittenborn’s is a poetic sensibility that underlines our worldwide codependence and connection to nature.

John K. Grande