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Mike MacDonald Digital Garden

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Essay by Robin Metcalfe

For more than a decade Mike MacDonald has been investigating the relationship between particular species of butterflies and the plants on which they nectar. The most striking correlation that he reports is that all of the native plant species favoured by butterflies have medicinal uses: ones that traditional Native ethnobotany recognizes and that contemporary medical science increasingly acknowledges.

An artist of Mi’kmaq ancestry–born in Cape Breton but a resident of Vancouver for the past two decades–Mike Macdonald benefits from his access to both systems of knowledge. He studied traditional Native medicines first in the bush, with elders and medicine people, and then in the scientific literature, supplementing both of these sources with his own observation.

In the course of his research, Macdonald has documented many butterfly and plant species on video and in 35-mm photography. His 1994 video installation, Touched by the Tears of a Butterfly (produced in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, Québec for the group exhibition, Métissages) includes a remarkable sequence of a Monarch butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. The “tears” of the butterfly are bodily wastes that accumulate during metamorphosis. Released, they break the seal of the chrysalis and allow the butterfly to emerge.

Some of the video footage from this last installation recurs in Digital Garden, the artist’s first solo exhibition in his native province.1 The video is rear-projected onto a free-hanging scrim of translucent silk that moves gently in the current from an air ecologizer. This fluttering recalls the delicate trembling of a flower, bending with the weight of a nectaring butterfly. MacDonald’s video is silent, recalling the meditative calm one sometimes finds in rural settings, a silence that is also sound on a finer scale. Stillness calls one to pay attention, to be still oneself and to attend to what is quietly going on all around.

In Digital Garden, one does not hear the voice-over of the nature documentary: the disembodied naming voice of scientific authority, or the seductive interpreting voice of nature tourism. The dominant media have conditioned our experience of nature, packaging it as information or as narrative spectacle. Television places everything in a frame, offers immediate gratification of our curiosity, our desire for knowledge. On TV, we know what we are seeing: the medium eliminates any delay between observing and naming. Once named, each element of the spectacle passes on to make way for the next.

Mike MacDonald’s video aesthetic is about a different way of looking, one that beckons us to linger, that does not immediately resolve the image into data. “Data” meant “the given” in Latin – given by whom? The gods, perhaps–but the word now has the flavour of something taken rather than humbly received; of appropriation rather than gratitude. What MacDonald gives the viewer is structured by his knowledge, but he does not offer an account of it (except orally, when he is himself present). His gaze respects the mystery of its object: its resistance to simple description and categorization. He does not allow the given to interfere with the gift.

In the physical design of his installations, MacDonald alters the viewer’s conventional relationship with the video monitor as television screen. His 1987 work, Electronic Totem, consists of five monitors stacked in a column that echoes the form of traditional West Coast totem poles. In Seven Sisters (1989), he placed seven variously sized monitors in a row on the floor, a formal analogue of the mountain range that gives the work its title. The same mountains appear, at certain moments in the playing cycle, in a panoramic view spread across the seven adjacent screens.2

MacDonald’s interest in the sculptural aspects of video is evident in Digital Garden. Here, video projection on silk frees the image from the frame, and allows it to hover on the tenuous, ever-changing membrane of the scrim, a fabric woven from the secretions of larval moths.

In Digital Garden, MacDonald has employed fibre in several forms as a support for the image. Along the north wall of the gallery, he has hung a row of eight solid-coloured men’s long-sleeved cotton shirts, in traditional medicine colours. On the east wall, facing the video projection, hangs a cotton quilt edged with forest green. Each shirt, and each panel of the quilt, bears a laser-printed butterfly image in rich, brilliant colours. A row of 16 laser-printed plant and butterfly images on laminated paper, similar in form to pictorial placemats, occupied the south wall. Shirts, quilts, placemats–each suggests a relationship with the body. One might dress in the colours of the butterfly; or wrap oneself in its image as if in a cocoon; or ingest the healing attributes of the medicine plants on which it feeds.

The object of these images is, in many cultures, a symbol of rebirth and metamorphosis. MacDonald’s work investigates the butterfly as an agent of healing, able to lead an attentive observer to plants with medicinal uses. The Monarch butterfly prefers to nectar on echinacea (purple coneflower). Now popular as a source of medicines to strengthen the immune system, it has attracted the attention of researchers seeking more effective treatments for AIDS.

The increased cultivation of echinacea in recent years has given Monarchs lots of places to nectar on their migrations north and south. Unfortunately, as MacDonald notes, when they arrive in Mexico, they often find the pine forests of their traditional wintering grounds clear-cut, and die as a result.3

The butterflies and the plants on which they nectar form a delicate and ancient web of interdependencies, spanning the continent. The ephemeral video image of this relationship calls on another kind of healing: the need to right the ecological balance that enables a diverse range of species to co-exist. MacDonald’s artistic practice includes the propagation of “butterfly gardens” consisting of plants–mostly native species–that butterflies favour. A series of these plantings has been installed on the grounds of Mount Saint Vincent University as part of this exhibition.4

Such gardens are a specific instance of restoration ecology, which promotes the biological diversity that existed before European settlement introduced destructive monocultural uses of the land, and aggressive non-native species. Digital Garden is thus an environmental intervention with both ecological and cultural aspects. Its timing also identifies it as MacDonald’s response to the five hundredth anniversary of John Cabot’s landing in Atlantic Canada, on 24 June 1497.5 Like the voyages of Columbus, the memory of that event has occasioned both celebration (notably by the government of Newfoundland and Labrador), and mourning and resistance, particularly by Native communities.

Last summer, with a friend, I was climbing on the rocks near Herring Cove, not far from Halifax. The wind from the sea kept in constant motion the small hardy plants that sprouted from cracks among the quartz and limestone. Mysterious worlds inhabited the tidal pools and crevices. The more we looked, crouching on our haunches and peering under leaves, the more complexity was revealed. A curious little girl, watched from a distance by her mother, approached, retreated, and approached again, and asked, “Are you people who discover things?” Columbus and Cabot were men who “discovered” things. The continents that they found were not lost to begin with, but came to be lost (to their original inhabitants) through being found. As discoverers, the European explorers represent the authority of naming: of placing a flag and assigning a category. In the same way, scientific discovery often assigns its own name to what may have already been known.

In Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451, television has so thoroughly absorbed social life that going for a walk is a serious sign of deviance. Mike MacDonald, working in the medium born of television, points the way to another way of looking at, and knowing, the natural world. While not antagonistic to scientific inquiry–indeed, such looking is the empirical basis of science–the experience offered by Digital Garden escapes from the categories of the named, to a place where that which is found has not yet been lost.

– Robin Metcalfe

1. In 1993, the Confederation Centre Art Gallery and Museum in Charlottetown, PEI, hosted Secret Flowers and Selected Works, the artist’s first solo exhibition in Atlantic Canada.

2. Electronic Totem appeared in the exhibition, Pe’l A’Tukwey, the flawed but historically important 1993 exhibition at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, which showed, for the first time, a broad representation of contemporary work by Mi’kmaq and Maliseet artists. Seven Sisters was included in Indigena: Contemporary Native Perspectives, organized by the Canadian Museum of Civilization as a critical response to the Columbus quincentenary. Both exhibitions were on view in Halifax at the same time in early September, 1993.

3. Mike MacDonald, “Touched by the Tears of a Butterfly,” in Métissages, the catalogue of an exhibition at Le Centre de sculpture Est-Nord-Est, in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, Quebec, 1996, pp. 46-48.

4. At Mike MacDonald’s behest, the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History, which until recently used pesticides on its lawns, has also begun to plant butterfly gardens on some of its grounds in downtown Halifax.

5. The precise location where Giovanni Caboto landed his ship, the Matthew, is not known with any certainty. Newfoundland asserts a strong claim for Bonavista, and Nova Scotia argues for a site somewhere in Cape Breton, the island where Mike MacDonald was born.

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