Interview with Maddie Leach, Part 2

This is Part 2 of an interview with New Zealand artist Maddie Leach. Click here to read Part 1.

The complexities of the relationships you’re building in your process seem to reflect the way your viewers have to approach your work. It’s sort of the antithesis to the way a lot of artistic consumption happens today, which is in quick, digestible tidbits. The fact that you can’t do that with your work speaks to the level of engagement that you invest in the research process.

My good friend David Cross who’s an artist and a curator always asks, “What’s retrievable for an audience?” What about the backstory, essentially. I often have to find ways to frame these stories in a way that the research becomes apparent to people in different contexts. I can do it as a slideshow within an artist’s talk, or as a publication, but the work itself is difficult if you just encounter a piece of it. I’m thinking a lot about the way my work keeps refusing to be whole. It is partial; you might experience an aspect of it but perhaps not all of it. With If you find the good oil for example, hardly anyone saw the block going into the sea, only about five of us, but there was also a large painted text on the façade of the town’s public gallery and a series of letters and a photograph that appeared in the local newspaper and later a book. I can describe it as a constellation of parts—so the work can be seen in multiple ways, and only some people will manage to see all of it.

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If you find the good oil let us know, 2012-2014. Courtesy of the artist.

In this way my works definitely resist cohesion, and I think some critics would say that type of practice makes it really difficult to “get the work.” I wonder sometimes myself, am I just making this really hard for people? Is there too much work to do on the part of a visitor or audience? You have to go in and read a publication or you have to look at a website, there are clues to follow and imaginative effort to make. It’s interesting how some people will and other people won’t, and I accept that.

What I like about your work is that it doesn’t try and turn your research into an archive.

Through my research process I often discover fantastic, interesting texts and images and think, yeah, I could put this all together! But the question is how to make it into an artwork and not a research archive or display. I return to questions around the connection between things, what are the possibilities of this material, and what is created by leaping over gaps and placing disparate claims together. I’m really interested in the idea of asking an audience to engage their imaginative powers. I think sometimes you can have found material all laid out in front of you, and it’s undoubtedly interesting but you’re not actually asked to undergo a process of active connection between components, because the documentary process has provided everything for you. I think it’s always good to resist that. I’m also aware that heavily researched art is a current trope in contemporary practice and we need to continue to question its effects. You can get really caught up in finding and uncovering remarkable things which are just amazing in themselves. I think the challenge is to say what is the artwork going to add, what does it complicate?

Reading other articles and texts that have been written about your work, the word ephemeral comes up quite a bit. And it got me thinking about whether or not your work is ephemeral. There might be no resulting archive, but you’re making an impression on people’s memories. Even your meetings in Vancouver had people saying “I haven’t thought of that before.”

I often think it’s not about a disappearance, but rather something that moves into another form. A good example of something that didn’t “disappear” is a project I made where I put a custom-built 16-foot sailboat on top of the national museum in Wellington as a temporary sculpture commission [My Blue Peninsula, 2006-07]. It was there for about seven months on the roof. Then the boat came off the roof, and I was left with this large object and a fundamental storage problem. It was a fully functioning sailboat, and I was attached to it. I kept it. I kept it in someone’s boat shed, then it was on my driveway, then in my garage, it moved back and forth. After having had it in storage for nearly a decade, last year I decided to give it away to a friend of the guy who helped me build it. I also gave him the set of plans we had used and we agreed that it ceased being an artwork. It has moved into the world as a boat and it’s no longer My Blue Peninsula. It’s not my project anymore. In this way, the project has ended and has taken another form. There was also One Shining Gum—a project that involved sending one whole Eucalyptus tree (cut into logs) to Chile—that eventually was burned as firewood. There were the barrels of water that got lost in Jakarta [The Blue Spring/Mata Air Murni, 2015] and are still in existence in the world in some form—probably poured out into a river or a drain, who knows where they are, it could still be sitting in its containers in the back of a Jakarta warehouse. So these objects might be seen to undergo a sort of disappearance, but their physical presence is transformed.

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My Blue Peninsula, 2006-2007. Courtesy of the artist.

One of the most memorable moments I’ve had as an artist was with If you find the good oil. I was sitting with executives from Australian Worldwide Exploration (an oil company with rights to drill and extract in New Zealand waters), in this huge boardroom and I was asking them if I could get my concrete block out to sea on one of their supply boats. But first they had to understand the project and I told them the whole winding narrative of the whale oil that wasn’t whale oil. I remember thinking how amplified the absurdity of the situation was. They all listened very attentively and then said “…Hmm.” I realized at that point that not only had I taken up three men’s time and interrupted their working day, but they had listened to this complicated story about the movement of a substance, and I think it was at that point I became really aware that the work was operative right in that moment, in that imprint of the story. No matter how small, perhaps it’s still something they might recall. I wouldn’t go as far to say it’s about changing hearts and minds, but I’m increasingly interested in these moments of intervention into contexts where poetic concepts don’t normally circulate.

Read more about Maddie Leach’s visit to Vancouver here.

Interview with Maddie Leach, Part 1


Maddie Leach shooting the Fraser River. Photo Credit: Mackenzie Reid Rostad

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.


Unveiling of a bronze bust for the Simon Fraser Monument, October 4, 1911, New Westminster, BC. Photo Credit: City of New Westminster Archives

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

Intertextual: Art in Dialogue


An excerpt from Prison of Grass by Howard Adams was read at grunt gallery on August 3.

CAG artist-in-residence Dylan Miner co-hosted with Amanda Strong an Intertextual: Art in Dialogue reading last week at grunt gallery. Dylan selected two texts to read aloud as a group: the introduction and first chapter of Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed and selections from Howard Adams’ Prison of Grass: Canada from the Native Point of View. Both centered on historical conflicts in the late-19th century between the Métis community and the Canadian government, with a focus on Louis Riel.

The excerpts were in response to Amanda’s show at grunt, which comprised three sets and a collection of dolls from her upcoming stop-motion animation, Four Faces of the Moon. The 12-minute short film will make its world premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.


More than 35 people were in attendance to listen, speak and learn about the Métis experience, history and culture. Bannock and tea was served to bring an atmosphere of visiting, a reference to Dylan’s ongoing series, The Elders Say We Don’t Visit Anymore. 

Intertextual: Art in Dialogue is a roving reading group held within various Vancouver galleries. The program aims to examine/critique and create/support a community based in text, recognizing the process of selection and concomitant erasure that occurs in any process of representation.

Dylan’s solo exhibition at Gallery Gachet runs through August 28. Click here for more about his practice.



Dylan Miner and the Doctrine of Signatures

Plant walk through Stanley Park

A plant walk through Stanley Park organized by Gallery Gachet and led by Cease Wyss.

I’m leaning against a tree, attempting to commune with it, shaded against the hot afternoon sun in the middle of Stanley Park. The trees represent our grandmothers, but I can’t even recall the species we’re among. Fir? Pine? Oak? I was always terrible with names.

Some people are hugging their leafy grandmothers tightly. I spot several closing their eyes, deep in thought and spirit. We’re in the middle of a plant walk organized by Gallery Gachet and led by Cease Wyss, an artist and self-designated “Indigenous Plant Diva.” It’s hard to not be taken with her charismatic way of speech, which imparts knowledge about the use of things like cedar bark in beguiling narrative. We learn that thimble berries and others in the rose family are good for the circulatory system, for muscle aches and high/low blood pressure.

The early summer walk was an introduction to traditional medicinal plants and what’s known as the doctrine of signatures, or the language of flora that can be read by color, texture and shape. Dylan Miner, an artist-in-residence at the CAG’s Burrard Marina Field House Studio, is conducting research on local plants as part of his ongoing series Michif, Michin (the people, the medicine).

The Métis artist and director of American Indian and Indigenous Studies at Michigan State University is interested in projects of reclamation. He uses social practice to address contemporary indigenous issues. First introduced to traditional medicine through stories of his grandfather’s grandmother, Dylan decided to revive that knowledge and, using his privilege as an artist, engage it within the gallery space.

The series involves gathering plants native to the region where he will exhibit, and creating detailed representations of each. “I think of this as collaboration with people who know that knowledge and with the plants themselves,” he said at a gathering over tea and bannock at Gachet, a continuation of another series titled The Elders Say We Don’t Visit Anymore. “I think plants are sentient beings and have knowledge…I’m not simply harvesting them; the plants are participating.”

Read more about Dylan’s thoughts on plants in Vancouver on Justseeds, an artist collective focused on social, environmental and political engagement. The opening of Michif, Michin (the people, the medicine) will be August 5, from 6-9pm at Gallery Gachet. Dylan will also lead an Intertextual: Art in Dialogue talk with the CAG at grunt gallery on August 3.

For more of his writing, visit the Justseeds’ blog.


Diane Borsato and Ikebana Intrigue


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Practicing the kakei (a beginner’s rules and specific angles for basic upright arrangements) in the Burrard Marina Field House. Image, courtesy the artist.

With a practice rooted in performative interventions, our newest Burrard Marina Field House artist-in-residence Diane Borsato explores the effects of minimal gestures on larger social structures. Her work—which in the past has dipped into the varying fields of mycology, astronomy and beekeeping—surprises with an immediately established intimacy. A feat for her projects which typically take years to develop and execute.

She is currently focused on Ikebana, or Japanese flower arrangement, for an upcoming exhibition at the CAG in 2017. Diane has long held a fascination for Japanese aesthetics, and her interest in the ephemerality of flowers has early beginnings in her university job as a florist. As part of her research in Vancouver, Diane has been visiting with local practitioners and organizations, including the Vancouver Ikebana Association (VIA).

Hollis Ho, a teacher in the Sogetsu school of Ikebana, introduced Diane to some of her students and gave a preview of their work for an upcoming exhibition at the Nitobe Memorial Garden. The special two-day show will be the Sogetsu school’s first large-scale outdoor exhibition in Vancouver, and opens this Friday (July 29).

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Arrangements by students of Sogetsu teacher Hollis Ho, preparing for an installation at the Nitobe Memorial Garden at UBC. Courtesy the artist.

Diane also met with Kuniko Yamamoto, president of the VIA, and Judie Glick, a former head of the association. The VIA will participate in the 40th Annual Powell Street Festival this weekend with a display and twice-daily demonstration at the Vancouver Buddhist Temple.

Her next meeting was at the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre. She toured the centre’s garden with director-curator Sherri Kajiwara and Nick Sueyoshi, of the Vancouver Japanese Gardeners Association. Diane had a chance to become familiar with plants native to the Northwest Coast, as well as some Japanese transplants. The climate this year has been particularly encouraging to a loquat tree (biwa), which produced fruit for the first time since it was planted—perhaps an auspicious sign for Diane’s work to come.

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Practicing the kakei (a beginner’s rules and specific angles for basic upright arrangements) in the Burrard Marina Field House. Courtesy of the artist.

Continuing her research, Diane visited the Nitobe Memorial Garden with Naomi Sawada, a fellow student of Ikebana and manager of public programs and promotion for the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery. A stroll through the quiet garden on a hot summer’s day was perfect for a conversation about the development of Diane’s project. Inazo Nitobe (1862-1933), for whom the garden was named, was a vital figure in bridging the culture of North America and Japan.


Diane Borsato with Naomi Sawada in the Nitobe Memorial Garden.


The Mystery of the Bust, Part 3

Today CAG and Field House artist-in-residence Maddie Leach ventured to Pitt Meadows Quarry to conduct research on local granite extraction for her forthcoming project. Located along the Pitt River, the quarry is currently the largest and only active granite producer in the region. Upstream from New Westminster, the Pitt and Fraser Rivers converge to make for a convenient artery when transporting large cuts of granite. We learnt that LafargeHolcim—who currently oversees operations of the quarry—use this channel for transporting aggregate to be used, primarily, in roadway production. Although the quarry has been in production since 1900, it is unclear whether it produced the missing plinth.


Maddie Leach (right) and Rob Breaks (left). Photo Credit: Mackenzie Reid Rostad


The Mystery of the Bust, Part 2

Maddie Leach dives straight into the nitty gritty upon visiting New Westminster. We spend a couple of hours at the New Westminster Museum of Archives, flipping through yellowed newspaper articles and writing down the record numbers of historic photographs. Maddie is able to piece together a rough outline of the Simon Fraser Monument, but some details are still missing.

A walk to the original site is in order. Heading northwest on Columbia Street, the investigation moves to Albert Crescent Park. We look for clues that might tell us where the exact location of the monument was, but find only tall grass and a panoramic view of the Fraser River.

Trying for another perspective of the current monument, we head across the water to Tannery Park. A path leads straight down to the mudflats, and Maddie snaps a few photos of the water. Our search for physical traces of Simon Fraser continues.


Maddie Leach shooting the Fraser River. Photo Credit: Mackenzie Reid Rostad