By Darren Lum
What you see is not the full scope of what something is to everyone who sees it.
This was the main takeaway from the opening for Unpacking the Weekend, the latest exhibition to open at the Agnes Jamieson Gallery in Minden.
Toronto-based installation artist John Notten sees things in ways that lead to questions, for himself, his role as an activist artist, for society and for others who hold a different perspective. He takes everyday objects and re-imagines them into new creations to intrigue and challenge conventional thought. Notten was in Minden to open his show and spoke to a small, but captivated crowd about his work and his exhibition at the Minden Cultural Centre on Saturday, July 9.
As stated on the cultural centre’s website, “This multimedia, interactive show explores the holiday routine of “heading up north,” reimagining the mundane objects of cottage country and the commonly held colonial narratives associated with them. It examines assumptions that lie at the heart of “the north” and the impact that the power and privilege of the weekend ritual has had on Canadian history, culture and identity.
Notten, who grew up in Orillia, has an affinity for the outdoors, loving to camp and explore by canoe. He recognizes there are different perceptions when it comes to something such as the canoe, which can represent escape and connection to nature. However, for others these pieces of equipment can be something else entirely. There is a physical balancing while paddling his canoe on the water and a symbolic balancing of what the canoe is to him as a vehicle of escape to the way it was used by Europeans to extract resources during the colonization of Canada. Where he has feelings of joy with using the canoe there is also pain for Indigenous peoples.
With camping, his tent represents a temporary shelter where he feels at peace and is enabled to escape the modern world to strengthen his connection to nature, which is different to how refugees, who have escaped conflicts and difficulties and see the tent as a temporary structure and have hopes of a transition to something permanent.
This is Notten’s second appearance at the Agnes Jamieson Gallery, which was made possible by former gallery curator Laurie Carmount, who appreciated his work. The 20-piece exhibition was contracted more than a year ago. In 2017, Notten showcased his work with “The Tent Project.”
Notten acknowledges with his development as an artist has led him to see the world a little differently than when he started creating art.
What provided the impetus to his work early on was encapsulated by the Andy Warhol quote: “You need to let the little things that would normally bore you thrill you.”
One example he presented during his presentation to illustrate this was how he saw the potential and the aesthetic beauty of a garbage can with a flip lid. It led him to use dozens of cans to create a scaled down version of a cathedral, which possessed the architectural cues of the famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Or how he saw the potential of a wheelbarrow, which he transformed in a self-sustained planter where it not only provided produce for people, but an outdoor place to rest in downtown Toronto.
His motivation for his work has evolved and now includes the quote by D.M.R. Bentley, who said, “You need to let the little things that were once “homey – cozy, familiar and comforting – become the opposite – strange, mysterious and disconcerting.”
When speaking about his largest and key piece of the exhibition in Minden, Uncannyda, which is a visual narrative of the many experiences he had with his canoe, he wants people to think.
“So, I show it to you at the end of my presentation, because I think it summarizes in a way that that balance or the grappling that I make between those emotions. And for anybody that may think for a minute: “Oh, are you saying, maybe I should feel guilty when I get in my canoe or sit on my dock? No, but I think you should think about the place that you’re sitting on this land that we’re on right now and the privilege of being here and in our cottages and in our homes or in our canoes. And so I will continue to canoe but when I canoe I canoe with a different knowledge with a different understanding just because I’ve examined history,” he said.
The exhibition Unpacking the Weekend is on until Aug. 24. The Minden Hills Cultural Centre is located at 176 Bobcaygeon Road in Minden. The centre is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from Tuesday to Saturday. Admission is by donation.See more of Notten’s art on Instagram at @johnnotten and at his website at johnnotten.com.
For more information, visit the Township of Minden Hills website at www.mindenhills.ca