Looking from a bird’s-eye view with Caroline Monnet

An accompanying text by Deanna Nebenionquit on Caroline Monnet’s exhibition WANDERLUST

If you’ve ever been in the presence of a work by Caroline Monnet, you know what it feels like to feel small in an exhibition space. And if you’ve ever been in the presence of Curator Stefan St-Laurent, you know what if feels like to be comfortable in an exhibition space. These two have travelled from Québec to Sudbury to present an exhibition that is both relevant and timely for the city.

La Galerie du Nouvel-Ontario is a small artist-run centre located on Elgin Street in downtown Sudbury. The south facing gallery has large exterior windows that channel a flood of light and noise pollution from the nearby train yard. The small space feels historic, and it feels like it has a lot of stories to tell. We’re lucky to have had Caroline Monnet and Stefan St-Laurent put together another story through their exhibition entitled Wanderlust.

As soon as you walk into the space, you’re struck by an extremely long wall, perhaps 35 feet or more, of a very futuristic-looking wallpaper printed and installed by Blue Moon Graphics (Sudbury). The geometric patterns of the wallpaper are like an endless maze, both positive and negative elements represented equally. Overtop this wall are three distinct 60 by 60 inch canvases. These works (Edith, Caroline, Roberta) are from the Modern Tipi series created by Monnet in 2012 in her Montréal studio.

At the back of the gallery, you can see elements of the wallpaper exposed on the GNO’s indoor window which somehow manages to be a part of each installation in recent years. You’ll also notice a television screen is looping a black and white film with an eerie soundtrack produced by Frères lumières. This video is called Gephyrophobia (2012), which gallery staff pleasantly explain is the fear of bridges (but not in a literal way).

The 120 second, 16-millimetre film was produced by a team of colleagues and friends that Caroline works with often. I recognize some of the train tracks in the video as bridges between Gatineau, Québec and Ottawa, Ontario. My years in Ottawa make this video oddly familiar. The black and white filming makes it seem like this wasn’t too long ago, or perhaps it could be in the future. The rushing water of the Kitigan Zibi, or Ottawa River, plays an integral role in the film. I’ve noticed viewers see the rushing water first, whereas others will see the bridges connecting multiple cultures, or making them respectful elements.

If you carry on clockwise through the gallery, there are six square panels with geometric patterns hanging on the wall. You look back and forth between the wood panels on one wall and the geometric patterns in the wallpaper. And yes, you are correct in thinking that those motifs do somehow interconnect though in ways that you may not be aware of at first glance.

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The exhibition title is Wanderlust. If you do a simple Google search on the word, it means to have a desire to wander. To me, the word feels more like discovery than exploration, and beyond that, interpretation and reflection. It’s an exciting active word that has the potential to breach a new world of possibilities.

In this year of 2018, downtown Sudbury is on the cusp of change. Sudbury city council has endorsed new projects including the Elgin Street Greenway, Downtown Master Plan, and a series of advantageous new building projects. It seems like for the first time in many decades communities are coming together to (hopefully) support something new and positive for the downtown core and to revitalize the city.

The broader message of this exhibition intersects with the story that Sudbury is currently living in right now. As a community, we need to move forward with these projects collectively, and we need to make sure that voices are heard. And while there are differences in our community, there are opportunities for these differences to intersect and create something beautiful. In Caroline Monnet’s work you can see crossing lines in the Modern Tipi Series, you can see lines in the wallpaper and the wooden panels, and you can see the intersecting line evident in the bridge crossing over the Kitigan Zibi. As a viewer, the lines can be interpreted as maps that have been sewn together from multiple perspectives and media.

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The artist, who is of Algonquin and French ancestry, is thinking about intersections of her two cultures and how this forms her work and ideas. The eloquent and beautiful Caroline Monnet has a way of bringing audiences together to meet and discuss perspectives. It’s interesting to hear her talk about her work, primarily how it is conceptualized, how it’s made, who is involved, and who installs it. Each step of the way, the artist seems profoundly grateful.

At her artist talk, Caroline talked about the influence of the geometric shapes and patterns in her work. What I find most important was Caroline’s description of how she came across the use of the square and the use of sacred symbols. It was while she was sitting with the matriarchs of her family that she began to learn these ancient ways. And it was her education and the people around her that allowed her to use this knowledge and carry it out in a 21st century way using graphic design programs and modern printing techniques. 

I asked her what shape she starts with when she works. And rather than answering with a circle (my automatic assumption) she said she starts with a cube or a square. So from this cube or square, you can make endless patterns and endless possibilities. And it is true, through the maze you can see the square throughout. It is a balanced and robust shape and can work in any circumstance.

So the maze that you see running through the gallery, and the maze that is running through your mind is deliberate, and it’s structured.

Presenting an abstract exhibition in the first place can be a challenge. Especially when audiences are used to traditional forms of art. Abstract art, in my opinion, takes a while to ingest. You have to be comfortable enough to enter the space, and you have to be confident enough to open your mind a little bit wider to take in the information. It took me about four visits to go back and realize that the Modern Tipi series is a form of an installation in itself. The carefully folded linen over the stretcher reminds me that it is careful and deliberate work when building a structure or working on a project.

During my last visit to the gallery, before writing this paper, I took a closer look at the plywood works that I’ve been ignoring this whole time. Although I know there is an essential element hidden in the works through secret messaging, I had a hard time with the medium. It is seven-ply plywood that has been burnt using an electric system that I am not familiar with. The intensely crisp lines were burnt out, and the lasers left a negative black space. I took a photograph of this, and to my surprise, I was able to identify what looked like the bark on a tree. And it got me thinking that yes, at the base of all these projects and the base of all these ideas there is the natural raw ingredient. And these are the natural elements that we use to build these projects. So as we go forward in our little northern mining town with big plans, keep in mind that the natural elements, the guidance of the people that came before us, and the intersecting of our cultures is what makes everything great. By not forgetting who we are, how we’ve used land in the downtown core, and how we hope the people will use it; we can move forward and build these great projects using strategy, a bird’s-eye view, and collaboration and communication.

Caroline Monnet
June (detail)
2018
Laser etching on wood
24 x 24”

Deanna Nebenionquit is an emerging Indigenous curator from Atikameksheng Anishnawbek, formerly known as Whitefish Lake First Nation. Since 2014, she has curated a number of exhibitions for the Art Gallery of Sudbury | Galerie d’art de Sudbury, including Darlene Naponse’s bi mooskeg | surfacing, which was named the 2016 Exhibition of the Year (Under $10,000) by the Ontario Association of Art Galleries, and Mariana Lafrance’s to not be so lonely | pour ne pas être si seule.

Deanna would like to thank la Galerie du Nouvel-Ontario for agreeing to pay for translation services by Ms. Tenascon who is an Algonquin Speaker from Kitigan Zibi. She would also like to thank Danielle Printup (Ottawa, Ontario) and Ella Jane Myers (Sudbury, Ontario) for taking the time to edit this text.