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Nicole Dextras

Nicole Dextras. Yucca Prom Dress.

Nicole Dextras is a Vancouver artist who works with ephemeral materials: plants, water, ice, names, myths, clothing destined to last and yet never to be worn again.  It is her work, Toronto Island 2007, on the cover of On Site 20: museums and archives.  It shows a delicate organza skirt and a black velvet jacket caught, frozen in the ice, all the immanent life in clothing pinned the way that iridescent beetles are pinned in natural history museum specimen trays. 

Dextras has contributed several articles to On Site, beginning with 'Belonging.  Sous le pont', an extended series of installations under Burrard Bridge that crossed First Nations narratives with blackberry vines, willow branches, Mountain Ash berries woven and tied into fragile, but flexible structures (On Site 18: culture).

On Site 21: weather showed work she'd done in Dawson City in the Yukon, constructing moulds for large free-standing ice letters.  What does one write with 10'-high letters in ice?  Dextras wrote L E G A C Y .  She wrote names: Cléophase, Elphese, Gédéon – noms a coucher dehors.  The past  is the subject, the medium is the weather, the tools are un-constructed materials at hand.

If Dextras' winter material at hand is ice, her summer material is plants. Still ephemeral, still delineating the structures of other, past lives.  I just find this work so beautiful, the antithesis of the world of war On Site has been engaged with now for months and months.  War does grind one down.  Nicole Dextras's work does lift one up. 

Nicole Dextras. Sunday


Christina Maile

Christina Maile. Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) at a hydrant on Kings Plaza Station.

In 'Sewing the Landscape' (On Site 8: Sewing and Architecture), Christina Maile looked at the colonisation of hard urban surfaces by plants – resiliant, sturdy survivalists.  Since that article I have not ever passed by a stop sign, or a concrete median, or the gutter where the curb meets the pavement without looking for and finding a frilly green edge, or a sunny yellow flower, or now in November, lovely arrangements of seed heads and dried leaves.  Was there ever a text that changed my perception of the everyday city at the smallest scale so dramatically?  I don't think so.

Thinking of the city as a landscape that had been invaded by concrete is what actually happened, yet we perceive the opposite, that plants have re-occupied a landscape that never contained them.  Like the plants, we become guests in the city, rather than the city being an instrument that merely mediates the weather and facilitates travel in a much greater landscape.  If that larger landscape is under threat, as it is from enormous urban off-gassing, perhaps we need to reconceptualise our relationship to urban spaces, the landscape and to our own agency.  The mugwort, above, might be humble, but it is not self-effacing: concrete holds no terrors here. 

We have a call for articles right now for On Site 23: small things.  Looking at weeds on the sidewalk is a small thing.  Small things are seeds for larger ideas, for radical re-thinking. 



Julie Mehretu

Julie Mehretu, “Excerpt (Riot),” 2003, ink and acrylic on canvas, 32 x 54”.

Last night on art:21 there was a segment on Julie Mehretu, an Ethiopian painter in New York, who was working on a 10' x 85' long painting too large for any space in New York and so destined for Berlin.  She has a team of assistants who prepare her canvases which were shown as roughly 10' x 10'.  Projections of cities, taken often from GoogleEarth are traced in pencil on the canvas surface, so the photograph becomes a screen of lines, then another image is projected and another series of lines is added. Mehretu directs what aspect of each projection she wants and eventually starts to work into this graph of registrations of a city over time. 

It reminded me much of how architectural drawings used to be made, before CAD, with a team working on a set with layer after layer of information drawn onto the sheet, some pieces erased to make room for others, sometimes simultaneous information held by the same pencil line -- a dense haze of lines and tones by the end.  When I started drafting sometimes it was to update drawings on linen, and it was usual to work on both sides of the sheet. 

Anyway Mehretu starts to work into the basic information traced and drafted onto the acrylic surface of the canvas with ink and paint, sandpaper and hand, adding marks that connect the layers.  In Zaha Hadid's early drawings she did the same kind of isolation of certain planes, pulled out of conventional three-dimensional mapping, stretched to show urban spatiality rather than urban materiality. 

Mehretu's work is very much about mark-making, from the ruled lines, to floating colour patches over the lines, to expressive, agitated hand work like handwriting over it all.  She said at the end of the segment that it was all about making a painting.  The painting is the end point; the painting is not a vehicle for some other kind of message about urban, seething life – it is made by the response to that life.

The best site showing lots of work is at White Cube.


Donald Weber

Donald Weber. WHITE NIGHTS. Russia After the Gulag

In October the Canada Council announced that Donald Weber had won the 2009 Duke and Duchess of York prize in photography.
In the late 1990s Donald Weber worked with Rem Koolhaas' OMA and with Kongats Architects, Toronto on a project that won a Governor-General's award, but clearly photography is his medium as he has a long list of awards, citations and exhibitions.  His first book, Bastard Eden, Our Chernobyl came out in 2008 and he appears to live in Moscow, Kiev and Toronto.
With a recent Guggenheim Fellowship and the Canada Council grant he is writing a book about life in Russia, described on his website as 'the curse of power and the wounds it inflicts on those who don't have it.  It's the 18th Century with jets flying overhead'.

Weber's project is enormous: enormous iniquities in an enormous continent.  THE LAST THING THEY SAW. Soviet Execution Sites is a suite of photographs that documents 'the conversion of the idea of public space and private refuge into a charnel house, from which no escape is possible'.  From 1936 the NKVD project cleansed Georgians, Poles, Ukrainians and suspect intelligentsia deported to death camps.  The photographs of the sites - bits of forest, fields, skies through winter tree branches, houses which had been no refuge, windows that witnessed these terrible acts. 
BASTARD EDEN. Our Chernobyl series shows a territory - the Exclusion Zone, not abandoned but rather occupied by a society that has chosen this area because it has returned to pre-modern life, because modern life is afraid to live in the site of a nuclear accident.  These are landscapes and people that look uncannily like northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, without big shiny pick-ups able to drive to a Wal-Mart on the horizon.

Weber's photographs are seductive, especially WHITE NIGHTS. Russia after the Gulag: inky, velvety interiors, snow blown landscapes, wind blown trees, a litter of leaves.  What makes romance impossible are the titles and the opening texts that accompany each suite of photographs.  These are startling, setting up the photos but not actually preparing one for their impact. Beauty is not innocent here.  It is desperate, resigned beauty: mothers desperate, sons resigned.

His questions are simple: for Chernobyl, what is life in a post-nuclear world? In The Lost War. The Russian-Georgian Conflict in South Ossetia, something that for most of us was brief news headlines as the glamourous Beijing Olympics filled our television screens, Weber's eye is absolutely unflinching.  And it wasn't a small tempest; clearly it was war, as always.  It is always war.

Donald Weber. THE LOST WAR. The Russian-Georgian Conflict in South Ossetia


After-War. Kristina Norman



Kristina Norman is a visual artist and documentary filmmaker in Tallinn, Estonia.  Her 2009 video, After-War, which was part of a larger installation shown at the 2009 Venice Biennale, revolves around a Soviet WWII memorial, Monument to the Liberators of Tallinn (from Nazi Germany).

In  2007, Soviet soldiers' graves were exhumed and, with the large bronze Soviet soldier in the monument, taken from their original location in the centre of Tallinn to a cemetery on the outskirts of the city.  

With the collapse of the USSR, the former eastern block countries that had acted as a buffer between Russia and the west, including the Baltic countries – Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, embarked on a program of de-Russification.  In the construction of a postcolonial identity including language, customs and political structures the former occupiers are either expelled or demonised.  Of course this is very difficult, much intermarriage and cultural hybridisation has occurred and identities and allegiances become hotly politicised.  For seventy years Russians had been relocated to all the Soviet republics, occupying the top levels of bureaucracy and power.  Just as Zimbabwean white farmers cry, 'But we've farmed here for generations; this is our land, our country', so do Russian Estonians.  The removal of the heroic statue of a Russian soldier to the margins of Tallinn and the periphery of history caused riots, now known as Bronze Night.

After-War documents this divide between nationalist Estonians and Russian-speaking Estonians.  It is available on her website  Scroll to the bottom, it is about 10 minutes long.  It helps if one spoke Estonian of course, which I don't.  However, it is so clearly an interrogation of the politicisation of war memorials.

Is there any generosity in the postcolonial state that would herald any kind of reconciliation of the past?  There must be sometimes, otherwise the whole world would be full of Rwandan-like massacres, or the bloody and painful battle for borders and ethnicity in the former Yugoslavia.  South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for all its faults, still stands as a model.  Kristina Norman's video is humorous, moving, troubled.  Her art tackles the problems of reconstructing a national identity by taking the statue as a kind of tragic monolith, mute, clumsy and vulnerable to appropriation by political interests.

Kristina Norman, After-War. Golden replica of the bronze soldier Image Kristina Norman, © Courtesy Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia


For a really nasty example of what Kristina Norman is mediating with After-War, try this video from EstonianTV.  Yes it is a riot, yes it stems from the removal of the Soviet war memorial, but the commentary, so anti-Russian, is shocking in its racism and violence.  Clearly the bronze statue was a match to the tinder of post-USSR ethnic resentment.  Surprising too how many references there are to WWII, and the Soviet liberation of Estonia from Nazi occupation.  WWII continues.




2nd Street SW. Calgary, Alberta


Story House. Timothy Taylor

Timothy Taylor.  Story House.
Knopf Canada 2006  ISBN 978-0-676-97764-6

It is quite exciting to read a newish Canadian novel and to find it's about Vancouver and gosh, it's even about architects.  Rare, and strangely flattering. 
The core of the book is a three-storey International Style building: two wings connected by an open stairwell with a big skylight on the top.  It is described as a diagram of returning, from sophisticated 'international' materials and surfaces at the top, at the interface with the sky which in this book usually has an airplane in it, and at the bottom, shaggy fir beams still with bark on the edges as the building hits the earth.  Great diagram.

There is a father, a famous Erickson-type architect who may or may not have designed this building, whose personal life is full of anger, women and recalcitrant needy sons.  There is a son, a famous Rashid-type architect, unusually sensitive to his women who generally look after things, being, unusually, both brilliant engineers (a reference to Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda here) and unsentimental multicultural new Canadians who are lucid, clear, piercing, rational.
Architects: all about men, their obsessions and preoccupations with their manliness – within the family, within their relationships but never in their architecture where they are canny and decisive, with conceptual complexity tossed off as glib invention in client meetings.  Well, this is probably true to form.  Romantics all, with dark visions of unsolvable conundrums.  The reader is seduced by the details here, the materiality of being an architect.  The men are brilliant, so sensitive to land and site, so hopelessly in love with despair.

Like Timothy Taylor's Stanley Park, Vancouver's sense of its complex, sophisticated and grounded self scents these pages with spotty rain, mud flats, the easy access to the North Shore, the hot grit of East Hastings.  Each sentence is dense with place. Taylor's sentences are also dense with architectural reference: our young hero's new second-hand Boxter is Lubetkin blue – a reference so obscure and yet so delicate, encapsulating all that nostalgic heroism of 1940s British modernism that influenced a generation of immediate postwar British-Canadian architects in Vancouver, a post-colonial dot on Pevsner's map of modernism, a page in Donat's survey of the outposts of Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry sensibilities. 
Vancouver has this effect on one.

The Story House is also about the difference between making statements and asking questions.  The novelist is evident here — a plot, a situation about two sons of a fairly unpleasant genius-y father gets decorated with a million things from the Big Bang, to Haida Gwaii, to Gordon Matta-Clark, to boxing, to Rock Paper Scissors, to architecture school projects, to counterfeiting, to reality TV — the plot is the centre.  It holds, but only for the patient reader.  Although nominally about architecture, it is a slice through complex contemporary existence, but only a novelist would be so hyper-aware of the complexity of each and every character.  In ordinary life one simply couldn't function with this degree of knowledge.

Nobody in this whole book is shallow, stupid or unthinking.  Everyone thinks to absolute distraction.  Elliot, the marginally older son, is a con with a bourgeois heart of gold.  Graham, the other son, is a typical Martha, cross because he tries so hard and is sooo boring.  When the problem of how to restore or even to shore up their old modern building with inadequate foundations (one brother thinks Matta-Clark, the other brother Haida long houses), the plan is described for the first time as a building, not just the provocative fragments we have so far been allowed, that still, by page 360, have not made a definitive object.  And it is all the more powerful for this, for architecture is fragmentary, buildings aren't.  Buildings stand, they can be photographed, etc, but their architecture is not material.  Anyway, on page 360 we get the strategy: cut the building in half, pivot one side away and fill in the new void with glass. 

Boy, am I disappointed.  How 80s.

When the building is wrapped up with plastic on page 373 we are back in magical space again.  Whatever, it falls down in the end.  Just as well, its metaphorical value had overwhelmed all the protagonists, the reader and the author.


Tim Atherton

Prince Albert, SaskatchewanTim Atherton has contributed two photo-essays to On Site in the past: Edmonton's back lanes and fences in On Site 18: culture, and Prince Albert in On Site 19: streets.  He documents the small and insignificant which gain terrific power simply by being noticed and legitimised through collection.  The camera extricates its subject from the anonymity conferred on the ordinary.

The next issue of On Site will look at small things: micro-urbanism for example, rather than the 'master' plan, houses of less than 500 square feet. It has been a sobering year for hubris and grand designs; perhaps it is time to relearn how to cut our coat to fit the cloth.  Examples from the past abound: Prince Albert for example, overlooked because development pressure on it has been slight - new building happens on the highway leaving the downtown (above) intact.  This fine little building was, once, ordinary fabric with limited ambitions.  Did it ever need to be more? 


Tim Atherton's blog is a lovely thing: photography and the things that influence it in the widest sense.  His entry on Sigfried Sasoon for Remembrance Day shows a fragment of Sasoon's Soldier's Declaration, his handwriting all defiant and firm.  Earlier on Atherton has a collection of photos taken at the Somme which as he points out would have been illegal if not suicidal.  A bomb explodes in front of the camera, razor wire photographed looks like some exotic cactus in sepia. 

Anyway, Tim Atherton doesn't send On Site anything anymore as his energy goes into this blog, which is actually a magazine in itself.  This raises a question: do we need magazines still? 


Remembrance Day 2

There is a wide swath of war graves at the Burnsland Cemetery in Calgary and every Remembrance Day, while the big ceremonies are held at the Military Museums and the cenotaph in Memorial Park, a very small contingent of reservists, a reedy piper, David Bercuson as an honorary Colonel in the Canadian Forces and a padre hold an 11 o'clock service. 

Heavy equipment grinding up rocks, or salt, or whatever it is they do in the City gravel pit next to the military cemetery is the audio backdrop, and in past years it has been interrupted by loudspeakers from the car lots on MacLeod Trail broadcasting 'Ron, line 2".  The field of headstones and graves has no flowers, just bleached grass and trees along the roadways.

Call me an aesthete, but I find this overly utilitarian and bleak. When I watch at this time of year all the services and ceremonies from Europe and the shots of the Commonwealth War Graves throughout the Netherlands and northern France with each grave lovingly tended by the children of the village, or the adjacent city, planted with flowers so tender, so beautiful, the dear old vets in tears in front of one of the standard issue grey granite headstones in a garden, my heart aches for the paucity of our attention to the gravestones we have here. 

They are all men, on the Calgary stones.  During WWII we had Currie Barracks, Sarcee, Lincoln Fields; Calgary was a base in the Commonwealth Air Training Program, and so many of these very young men – just nineteen, or twenty, from Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Poland – died in training accidents.  Does it matter if you crash on an Alberta field or in Sicily?  It was war, and you were dead.

I approached the City of Calgary a couple of years ago to propose that we set up a programme whereby grade school classes adopt a military grave and, besides researching the fellow in it, make it beautiful.  Interest was less than zero, it was actually hostile. The rules for civic cemeteries are clear: no planting allowed.  This has something to do with ease of mowing I understand.  This is beyond embarassing, this is an insult, and I feel I must apologise to all the young men who died in Calgary in both world wars for this. 


Remembrance Day




When Does A War End?

this morning, a war ended for a 26 year old.
son, a husband, a father, a brother.
but just begun, a new war for his loved ones. the un-winable war of loss.

grief is glass shards. embedded in heart muscle.
it cuts the past, the present, the future. ragged, not tidy.
it cuts the three year old son’s, his children’s, his children’s children’s past, present, future.

always the empty place setting at the Christmas table.

this I know. 







the Berlin Wall 2

the trailer for The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

This film came out in 1965.  The Berlin Wall had been up for only four years.  Clearly they weren't filming at the wall itself, it was actually shot in Dublin, however this film indelibly established the 'look' of the Cold War in the west for a generation: black and white, winter, rain, night, raincoats and absolute despair.  The wall was a space: a GDR-controlled zone that 5000 people successfully crossed between 1961 and 1989.  Officially, 171 were unsuccessful.  This view of the wall was the only one I was ever given, so the function of the segments of the wall that still stand as an instructive memorial to the partition of Germany and Berlin, gaily covered with not very good art, I find completely trivial. 

This film, and other films of the 1960s when the Cold War wasn't that cold – it was a state of high tension and fear – these are the best Cold War memorials.  John Le Carré's moral dilemmas, his cynicism, his inheritance from Orwell: these are the memorials. In a line from Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, through Orson Welles, the dark espionage genre of Le Carré, and Len Deighton, and then all the films made from the books: this source material shocks us into the 1960s again. 




the Berlin Wall

photo: Landesbildstelle Berlin.

This year is flooded with documentaries on the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989.  Just two days before Armistice Day, this is the first year I have noticed the closeness of the dates. The Great War armistice and the subsequent Treaty of Versailles (now a film based on Margaret MacMillan's book) set up WWII; its ending shifted into the Cold War, which we now feel ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The opening of the east to the west has always been thought of as a great blow for freedom, but if this was the only result, there wouldn't be the rise of neo-Nazi parties in Europe and an increasing nostalgia for the old life in the Eastern Bloc, where everyone was employed – this keeps being mentioned in the revisitations to the territory of the old GDR especially. 

Are wars really ever ended? or is war a constant that keeps shifting into new arenas and new forms.   In On Site issue 22: WAR, we have two related articles: Açalya Allmer, a Turkish architect, discusses the dispersal of the actual Berlin Wall itself, leaving Germany on postcards, in pockets.  The other article, by Markus Miessen, takes on the new borderless EU and the confusion of identity in the newest, most Eastern members.  Walls on borders are the most literal expression of warring opposites.  Does removing the wall, thus removing the border, remove difference?  It seems not. 

Markus Miessen. ECE Berlin


Arcade Fire's Intervention cut to Sergei Eisenstien's Battle Ship Potemkin of 1925.  The original YouTube posting might have further information on this video for those who know how to read it.  I certainly don't.

When you look back at all the American pop songs of the 1960s especially, not protest songs, but just ordinary songs, it is remarkable how many refer to distant war, to waiting for someone to come home, to letters, to loss and dying.  At the time it all seemed just like boy/girl romance, partings and such.  But now I can see how embedded the Viet Nam War was in American popular culture. 

Arcade Fire's Intervention has as its repeating chorus line, Hear the soldier groan, 'We'll go at it alone'.  Of course being a soldier can be a metaphor for many things – general desperate struggle, and it might be so in this song.  However, soldiers are also real soldiers, and metaphoric or not, they must be embedded in our society now at some level to keep reappearing in contemporary song lyrics. 


The Aesthetics of Terror

Harun Farocki. War at a Distance (2003)

This is an online exhibition that keeps adding entries.  The image here is from a video by Harun Farocki, War at a Distance.  In it he looks at the photographic ways that targets are tracked from surveillance cameras to guided smart bombs: complete abstraction where war is conducted entirely through images. See the whole exhibition here.

When I started to put together the issue on war, all of a sudden all sorts of references started to come to the fore, mostly from Europe.   We are at war: Canada, the USA, Germany, Denmark – ISAF is a multilateral coalition, plus there are wars all over the planet.  Yet never here do we hear the phrase, 'there's a war on' telling us to conserve, to be careful, to be patient.  Is it because in World Wars 1 and 2, the forces were volunteers, rather than the professional forces we have today? Rather than all the men in each family, all the boys in each Grade 12 class going off to war, the Canadian Forces are some sort of distant organisation. Does this contribute to our abrogation of interest in the war we are currently fighting? 

I found the Aesthetics of Terror while looking for an image of the shooting of a Viet Cong prisoner by the chief of police in Saigon and up came Claude Moller's image:

Claude Moller. If Vietnam Were Now (2004)Moller's piece refers to the sanitisation of images presented to us in the media.  So edited are they, we hardly know what is happening.  Perhaps this is the source of our current disinterest in the war in which we are involved.


Hard Rain Project

Mark Edwards' Hard Rain project consists of drastic photos of environmental problems, each captioned with a line from Bob Dylan's A Hard Rain's A'Gonna Fall.  The project is shown in outside displays, on temporary hoardings, pinned to railings – in the public domain.  The Hard Rain project has already been shown in 50 cities around the world, none in Canada however.  Dylan's Hard Rain is made, here, to anticipate today's accelerating disasters. For example, 'Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world' underlines a tsunami image.  This might seem obvious except that Dylan's 1962 lyrics were generally thought to refer to Cold War nuclear annihilation.  This reinscription of the lyrics by way of images, plus the tune itself making one inevitably sing the captions, prevents the passive gaze: the tune leaps into the brain, with a kind of synaesthesia the photos rewrite the lyric.  Each line links a contemporary fact – deforestation in Haiti perhaps, with the global inevitablility of disaster.  The line brings it home.


Kenya Ceramic Jiko


reproduced from 'With Our Own Hands'. IRDC 1986

Jikos are traditional charcoal stoves in Kenya made from scrap metal: a small drum has a grate set in the middle.  A fire is made below the grate, pots sit on the top of the drum.  It is a form brought from India to Kenya by railway buildings in the 1890s.  They are inefficient and consume a lot of charcoal.
Kenya Ceramic Jiko (KCJ) is an improved version adapted in 1982  from the ceramic charcoal stoves found in Thailand.  The top chamber is lined with a pottery liner made from clay, rice husks and ash cemented to the metal. The grate is either pottery or metal and the drum is now waisted: the fire is in the bottom chamber, the grate is small and the top flares out to hold the cooking pot.  The KCJ is 50% more fuel efficient.

The Mountain Gorilla population of Central Africa is near extinction because of deforestation due to the production of charcoal.  A workshop has been set up for the local manufacture of ceramic Jikos to reduce the demand for charcoal in areas with massive refugee populations, such as Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  This will reduce the illegal harvesting of wood in the nearby Virunga National Park, the last refuge of the Mountain Gorilla.

This comes by way of the World Challenge 


UN blue

United Nations blue:
The UN emblem started as a publicity button for the 1945 San Francisco Conference where the UN Charter was drafted.  It was designed by Donal McLaughlin (1907-2009), an architect by training and head of graphics and visual material in the OSS (US Office of Strategic Services, later the CIA).

The original insignia showed the globe, centred on the north pole, with North America on the central axis.  In 1947, this orientation was changed by 90° so that the Greenwich meridian is at the centre, and all of South America is included.  

The blue colour was meant to represent peace, the opposite of war which has traditionally been red.  Blue was also the colour of the US Army, a relationship that started with the guerrilla nature of the War of Independence (1775-83) where blue uniforms offered more protective colouring than the opposing red British Army tunics.

PMS 279 is now the official UN blue colour, however Pantone system was not developed until 1963.   At the time the flag was adopted, in 1947, the background colour was US Army gray-blue.

How curious and conflicted is the iconography of the UN, with its headquarters in New York and Geneva, its flag which at first privileged the United States and then Europe but now most significantly west Africa, its colour which came from a traditional US Army uniform colour but is now considered a universal cerulean blue, its globe wreathed in olive branches as Palestinian olive orchards are bulldozed to build a security fence ignoring dozens of UN Resolutions, the optimism of its original goals and the cynicism of the Security Council.  In theory the leaders of every country can address the United Nations Assembly, but only if the United States gives them a visa to enter the US.  It has, from the beginning, had a global reach based on the nation-state, which globalisation ignores.

However, its colour, especially when you consider its CMYK values, is extremely optimistic: the colour of sky on a sunny day, no black in it, so no shadows, no clouds, no pessimism.

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