An artist from Kosovo was talking on a panel in Toronto recently about her encounter with the foreign, the strange and the remote. "I learned that when they said fish, they meant cod," Flaka Haliti said. "All other fish had a name." She was also struck by another strange linguistic habit of the locals on this voyage to the end of the earth: "They said that something was an ugly fish. I thought this was strange. What was an ugly fish?" The discussion with inhabitants of Fogo Island, Nfld., inspired Haliti to produce a series of brightly coloured, whimsical fish drawings called Ugly Fishes of Fogo (none of them are ugly).
Haliti had been to this island off the north coast of Newfoundland as artist-in-residence at its Fogo Island Arts program, a retreat that has become internationally known. A bunch of recent participating artists were in Toronto to discuss their voyage to these exotic climes and the art they created there. A selection of their work is on display at Toronto's Scrap Metal Gallery until Sept. 23; it was there that the panel took place.
The German director of the arts residencies and the curator of this show, Nicolaus Schafhausen, is also known as the artistic director of the Vienna Kunsthalle. He has brought artists to Fogo Island from the United States, Britain, Sweden, Lithuania and just about everywhere. As a result, the place is becoming known in international high-art communities – and not just for its luminous, eerie landscape, but for its great luxury. The art studios up for grabs are gorgeous, architect-designed boxes, separated by great rocky spaces. The residency is associated with the chic Fogo Island Inn, a modernist destination for tasteful travellers who are already bored with Chiang Mai and Capri, where a gallery shows the work of visiting artists. "This studio is the one I will never have in my life again," Haliti said.
One of the things that artists are encouraged to do when there is interact with the local geography and culture (they hardly have a choice). There is something ethnographic in many of their approaches to it – and their impressions remind us of how very foreign this subarctic space is to the rest of the world. Even if comfortable urban Canadians haven't been to Fogo, they have at least heard the word "Fogo" – from the words to "I's the B'y" ("Fogo, Twillingate, Moreton's Harbour, all around the circle."). But to international artists it is close to Timbuktu, a place with a disappearing language, even.
Marlene Creates – a Newfoundlander, whose ancestors were actually from Fogo Island – presented a mesmerizing video about this language: a lulling film called Sea Ice, Conception Bay Newfoundland, March 2014. It shows passing water and ice, shot from over the bow of a ferry. Newfoundland phrases for different kinds of ice float over the screen. ("pummy … slatchy water … a knot of ice … tippy pans … pancake ice … way ice … a neck of water") The artist claims she has recorded 80 different local terms for forms of ice. This vernacular is in danger of disappearing, as is the ice itself.
Augustus Serapinas from Lithuania became fascinated with a weathered wooden shed he found on the island and assembled a truncated version of it in the Toronto gallery. I was charmed by his ingenuousness in this: He didn't seem to realize that the reassembled old wooden shed is something of a staple of Atlantic Canadian art. I have seen more than one shed reconstructed in a white-walled gallery before; the gesture is both sentimental and clichéd. But it is good for us to experience a little bit of what it feels like to have our clichés discovered in this naive way by Europeans: we are the exotic for once.
The idea of belonging to a place – nominally the theme of the exhibition – is complicated in the postcolonial world and particularly fraught in an era of rising xenophobic nationalism. I always wonder if a strong sense of belonging is necessarily a good thing. I tend to think it isn't. The combined impression of these rather melancholic works seems to support this view. The ecology of the place seems important to all these highly visual people, but it is not simply venerated; it is questioned. Zin Taylor's work, for example, is a video and set of photographs of lichen, along with images of striped clothing, made by a local seamstress, that echo the lichen's natural patterns. The effect is to make the natural environment seem gaudy and surreal rather than barren and grey.
Leander Schoenweger's piece is a ghostly human form, leaning against the wall of the gallery as if it were just another visitor, a shape dressed in jeans and a hoodie. But when you move to its front, you see the hoodie is empty; the man does not have a head. And yet, a faint breath – an actual draft – is emanating from where his head should be. This is a brilliantly creepy piece – horror movie stuff – but it too is a commentary on the familiar and the foreign, the homey and the uncanny.
Artists often talk of places as uncanny, and of places where they, for some magical reason, create better than others; this tiny tip of Canada seems to be one of them. But Fogo's artistic importance is not exactly new. In 1967, an influential approach to documentary film was pioneered on Fogo Island. An NFB filmmaker named Colin Low made 27 films about and by the people of Fogo. His idea was to let the community members tell their own stories and to talk to each other about local concerns through film. This was part of the Challenge for Change program and became known as "participatory video."
Perhaps there is something inherently inspiring about that northern Atlantic isolation and its hardships. Whatever the cause, the development of it – by a variety of institutions and levels of government – has led to a consciousness of Canada in influential places in Europe, of which Canadians are for the most part unaware.