By Jerelyn Craden
A few years back, 2017, marked Canadian installation artist John Notten’s first exhibition at the Agnes Jamieson Gallery, “The Tent Project.” Now, he’s back with his much-anticipated, “Unpacking the Weekend,” show of 20 installations, a provocative look at a ritual that Canadians hold dear – cottaging in God’s country.
“Unpacking the Weekend represents my artistic practice and thought over the past two-and-a-half to three years,” Notten said. “So, in that way, it makes it kind of a COVID project.”
Opening on Tuesday, June 28 with an opening reception on Saturday, July 9, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., Notten – a modern-day philosopher through his art – will share insights into his creative process, challenges, and activism at 3 p.m.
“Some people have lots of money to donate to certain causes,” Notten said, “others can write about them. What can I do? I can make art.”
A Toronto resident, Notten heads up north often.
“Unpacking the Weekend is about balancing those things in our lives that we feel warm, cosy, fuzzy, nostalgic about, almost in an idealistic/romantic way, like a canoe or a Muskoka chair,” Notten said, “with a realization that some of these objects actually have a complicated history that is sometimes quite painful.”
“The canoe, a great gift given to the Europeans by Indigenous people,” Notten said, “was turned into an object of resource extraction. So, when I get in my canoe, I have to balance tipping, but I also have to balance the idea that I love this craft, it reminds me of my childhood and trips that I have gone on, but I’m also aware that we can historically connect this object that I love with a long and painful history of resource extraction that started right in the very beginning.”
Laurie Carmount, former AJG curator and a huge fan and supporter of Notten and his work, loved Unpacking the Weekend and contracted the 20-piece exhibition over a year ago.
“In the very first piece that you’re going to see in the show,” Notten said, “is a dock on a peaceful lake. But then, there’s something going on under the water. So, the dock triggers some memories that are warm and beautiful, but below the surface is a different world that may suggest that the impact of our presence on the landscape is not insignificant.”
Notten was born shortly before installation art was born in the ‘70s. “I studied fine art at York University when installation art was a pretty big deal. Everyone was making installation art in the ‘80s and I continued in the ‘90s and the thousands and never stopped. I want to fully engage the viewer in an experience that doesn’t just involve standing in front of something and looking at it and thinking about it intellectually, but rather to allow them to walk around it, through it, inside it, stand on it, ride it. I’ve made things that move and the viewer sits in it. Allowing for a full experience. That’s why I love installation art so much.”
Once Discovered, Never Forgotten is a piece made entirely of marshmallows – Notten’s comment on the Orillia monument to Champlain. “For me, to take something like a monument that is made out of the most permanent materials you can find, namely granite and bronze, and then choosing a material that is completely the opposite – marshmallows, which are exceedingly sweet, very white, and very temporary gives the monument a story. The monument has been taken down around the country along with Sir John A. MacDonald and the Egerton Ryerson statue. Statues that pay homage to colonial power that are being challenged.”
Recalling viewers’ reactions, Notten said: “At first, people don’t realize what it’s made of. They’re contemplating this image of Champlain and then you see this big smile come across their face as they realize what it’s made of. They start to ask why did he remake this Orillia monument to Champlain out of marshmallows? What could that possibly be about? I don’t think there’s one answer. When it showed in Toronto, people loved the piece and it started a lot of discussion.”
Notten’s family plays a key role in his life.
“My wife, Luana, is an incredible supporter and inspiration for my art,” he said. “She has wonderful ideas and offers great critiques. She has a very keen eye and a very blunt way of saying, that’s working or that’s not working. And, she’s always right.”
“I have a piece at Nathan Phillips Square in City Hall right now called Over Floe which is about the environment and rising sea levels. Floating icebergs on one side of the water and on the other are houses, a bank, a school, a factory and a truck half submerged that look like they’re floating away.”
Last summer Notten’s icebergs floated in Lake Ontario at Ontario Place and were anchored with very long steel cables that went down to the lake floor with big concrete blocks.
“Engineering is a big part of my work, which I love,” Notten said, adding that he works alone. “Even very large sculptures like the ones at Nathan Phillips Square. Each of those icebergs is the size of a car. I made them all myself.”
Notten’s first show at the AJG was about tents, “but also about tents in terms of homelessness, desperation, and fleeing countries like Ukraine and having to live in a tent, when I get to live in a tent for a camping adventure,” he said. “Some people have to live in tents out of necessity.”
“For opening night, I invited all of my friends to bring their tents and they allowed us to build a little tent city out back and we slept overnight and had a campfire for celebrating the opening and the artist talk at the gallery.”
Notten takes great care designing installations that are recyclable, usable, “and won’t go to the landfill.”
Unpacking the Weekend runs until August 24.
See more of Notten’s art on Instagram at @johnnotten and at his website at johnnotten.com.