Durham Art Gallery

The Vocabulary of Water

An exhibition that is void of water in image and actuality but full to the brim with watery imaginings.

On the banks of the Saugeen River, Durham Art Gallery is delighted to host an exhibition that features Lake Ontario. Artists Rebecca Jane Houston and Kelly Jazvac both address the Lake. Kelly considers it from deep below its surface, while Rebecca sticks to the shore. They are concerned with the place of plastics, specifically microplastics, in and around the great aqueous body.

Microplastics are tiny bits of plastic debris that are found in the environment. These plastic particles are chunks, flakes, shards and unravelled threads belonging to consumer and industrial objects that have not broken down. The video, Forward Contamination (2017), by Kelly Jazvac features the work of scientist Anika Ballent. Through a microscope, we watch Anika sort sand, rock, wood and microplastics found in a core sample taken from Lake Ontario. The plastics in the sample have made their way into the deep muds that cradle the freshwater.

As we watch, we hear a conversation between Kelly and the planetary geologist, Catherine Neish reenacted by voice actors. They speak of possible human microbial transfer to interstellar bodies, planets far, far away, and the care that is taken by space agencies to avoid this kind of contamination. As their conversation progresses, a drum track enters gradually rising in volume, making it difficult for the actors to hear each other and for the viewer to listen to them. Eventually, one can catch them yelling about NASA’s Planetary Protection Treaty while Anika continues to meticulously sort.

In Hope is Our Only Hope (2019) handmade, handheld clay vessels sit gently atop a mound of sand. Rebecca Jane Houston has transferred a portion of Lake Ontario’s sandy shoreline to the Durham Art Gallery. Viewers are invited to harvest plastic waste found within the mound using the bowls to contain it. At the end of the exhibition, Rebecca will return the borrowed sand home to Lake Ontario, free of pollution, preventing the microplastics from returning to the lakebed.

From this exhibition comes a flood of questions: What is the vocabulary of Water? How do we speak, about, to, and with Water? Who speaks for Water? And how do we honour our relationship with it? Through the vocabulary of Water, can we expand our thinking around plastics, contamination, and human impact in relation to the precious liquid resource? Is Lake Ontario so different from the Saugeen River located across the street from Durham Art Gallery? Do plastics not sit along  its shores? What contaminants lay beneath? What settles into the bottom? Into Us? Here on Earth, which agencies prevent against the contamination of this planet?

To help work through the questions prompted by the work of Kelly Jazvac and Rebecca Jane Houston, curator Jaclyn Quaresma turned to Elder Shirley John.n Please click the .pdf on the right hand side for the converation in full.

Gallery /

Durham Art Gallery 

Artists / 

Rebecca Jane Houston,

Kelly Jazvac.


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