Artist-in-residence Maddie Leach sat down with us at the CAG to discuss her practice (click here for Part 2 of the interview). Often described as “ephemeral,” her work creates astoundingly expansive connections that bring together organizations, corporations, and city offices. For three weeks in Vancouver, she researched the Simon Fraser Monument, located on the New Westminster quay off the Fraser River. The monument, originally commissioned as a single plinth in 1908, came to incorporate a bust of the historic figure in 1911.
Considering how research-based your work is, there’s an organic element to the development of each piece. When you start a new project, do you begin with a particular result in mind? Has there ever been a time when you hoped for a result and it didn’t happen?
I think something always turns up, but sometimes it turns up quicker than others. One might be looking for something along the way in a slightly different context, and then over to the side this other thing emerges and that is actually more interesting.
When I was here last time, I wasn’t at the point I’m at now. I was trying to follow a trajectory of thinking about the river, about logs on the river and the sawmill industry—which is related, but not where I’m at now. At the time I was interested in trying to find a special edition book that was published in the 1980s in which Beautiful British Columbia Magazine [today just British Columbia Magazine] claimed that one of their photographers and a helicopter pilot found the source of the Fraser River up in the Rockies. They talk about how it emerges from the ground under a rock, as a trickle that forms a puddle and then gradually becomes the gigantic waterway we are familiar with.
In 2011 when I went to Tasmania on my first research visit for Iteration: Again I arrived at a set of ideas quite quickly, within just a few days actually, to do with signal communication across the island in the early part of the 20th century. I guess in some places idiosyncratic histories are more immediately available to you, but in a larger place like Vancouver you could go in so many directions as to how you would want to respond. I do think for me it’s like a mapping exercise in finding ways to locate yourself, and a process of how you exclude certain things.
So once you arrive at a site, it’s an instinctive response to what you see and learn about?
One of the common things for me is trying to locate something that a narrative gets built around, so it’s not necessarily that a new object has to come into being. It might be that an existing object, for example the Simon Fraser monument, becomes the specific point of focus and I propose an adjustment to it rather than making a whole new thing. Lately I’m quite interested in forgotten or ignored sculptural presences in public space and working from this point, rather than going “there’s nothing here.”
By re-activating objects that are extant, and also the fact that a lot of the threads you work with are socially and politically situated, your work becomes a way of remembering certain histories that have been, if not forgotten, then lost.
I think the project that causes some confusion for everybody in that regard is If you find the good oil let us know which included a 1-ton concrete block going into the sea off the coast of Taranaki in New Zealand. It’s a piece that can be read in several different ways and, at the level of rules and regulations, this gesture simply translates as the “dumping of waste at sea.” I think I work with what are distinctly ambiguous gestures—perhaps they are becoming more pointed than they used to be but ambiguity has been in my work for years. As a deliberate working method I’m not trying to be blunt, not trying to go “this is wrong, so therefore, this is right.” I suppose that’s why Simon Fraser interests me now because he carries a complicated legacy. On the one hand there’s a heroic narrative around him and on the other hand there’s people saying he’s actually an explorer who’s not really been given the credit he’s due. Many British Columbians don’t know anything much about him and he died in relative poverty. It’s quite an interesting set of circumstances I’m trying to steer and balance. That’s not to say that the project doesn’t have an opinion, but I think if the ideas can address conflicting narratives as a point of tension then that’s where it gets far more interesting.
A lot of the issues you deal with are quite sensitive. How do you navigate those political situations, and have you ever been met with resistance? Such as the work you did in Western Australia, From where she was standing?
By giving people the proposition with as much information and sincerity as possible, and not leaving information out in order to get an outcome the way I might want it. It’s a process of careful observance of the divides and tensions that exist in a local context and working around the edges of that, because for me part of the requirement is a clear recognition that I don’t come from that place, that I’m there for some weeks, or a few months or I might come and go over a couple of years. I think many of my recent projects, by the nature of what they propose, are trying not to make a reductive or black and white issue of something but to find a space that complicates the rhetoric.
Read more about Maddie Leach’s visit to Vancouver here.