K U N G H I T I S L A N D F I N D S
Artist in Residence Gwaii Haanas – Haida Gwaii Museum & Parks Canada | July 2017
We cleared the most southerly point of Gwaii Haanas, Cape St.James, then headed north toward Kunghit Island. The day was calm & sunny, Staas guided the boat to Boyles Point, a remote beach where restrictions were in order to stay to one area due to a mysterious finding. We discovered fresh bear scat as we walked up the beach toward to woods so we stuck together, hiking to an isolated beach on the south side of the peninsula. I planned to rest on the beach -we had been on the move for a few days and I wanted to take this two hour stopover to soak up some of the spirit of what I had seen and felt on Gwaii Haanas.
I ate a little snack then wandered toward the water, bending to pick up a bright blue piece of plastic, then another. When I tired of bending, I sat on the sand and pulled at the clumps of seaweed baking in the sun. After only a few minutes it became obvious that this secluded place was not immune to the worldwide issue of plastic waste. For two hours I covered about 35% of the sandy area, bending and sitting to collect what I could of the washed up waste. I hardly noticed two ravens following me, making plays for my bag. I placed a few pieces of driftwood over my things, my heart heavy with the implications of what I was experiencing.
The following week, myself and the two other Artists in Residence were welcomed at the Haida Gwaii Museum to disseminate our ideas, thoughts, photographs and our creative ramblings of our time in Gwaii Haanas. I had no previous plans for the plastic waste that I had found six days earlier except to count it, however once I started to sort it, I found myself revisiting the feelings that I had experienced on the beach: overwhelment, sadness, fascination, disappointment. I took on what felt like systemic emotions, or what I thought ought to be the correct way of dealing with the scourge of plastic waste. I colour sorted, laid out in columns on cream coloured crepe fabric and counted. To my astonishment, in that blip of time -two hours- I had collected 891 pieces of plastic waste, 337 of those pieces were under 1.5 centimetres.
The following five days at the museum were something of a revelation to me. As an artist and as a person completely in love with and concerned for our natural environment, I found the conversations with museum guests interesting beyond the numbers, beyond the facts, and beyond the future. Every single person that talked to me felt responsible. Each person wanted to talk about the problems and many were disturbed that this would somehow happen in Gwaii Haanas -sacred land, land that had been home for centuries to indigenous culture, countless people who were raised with ‘yahguudang’ (respect) as the main precepts for how to live their lives.
The children I spoke to went immediately to trying to solve the existing problem but were willingly guided to ideas around prevention and behaviour modification. Parents were actively concerned, grandparents seemed even more upset than the younger generations. I heard stories of involvement in small as well as massive clean up projects, of fear of climate change from those who had been evacuated from their homes and land due to some of the hundreds of forest fires that were raging through the province of British Columbia. And myself, I told the story again and again: Gwaii Haanas, Kunghit Island, one person, two hours, eight-hundred and ninety-one pieces of plastic waste.
My take away from this experience continues to unfold. British artist Tony Cragg did something very similar in 1978 and almost 40 years later, I make this action as a clear thread of my time in Gwaii Haanas, and of being aware of the experiences of this being human in a world of consumption. I am still unsure what will happen to these plastic pieces but I do know where my challenges lie: aestheticizing one of the most pressing issues of our time, ignoring the issues, becoming over dogmatic; making pretty out of waste. All this sits and squirms in my mind as I move on to my next Artist in Residence position at Earthskin in New Zealand.
Haawa (thank you) for every piece of rubbish you pick up and for each time you find a way to avoid making more plastic waste.