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arts and environment

Grass in the Sky: A Visual Installation by Pepa Chan, Kailey Bryan and Mimi Stockland

Curated by Pepa Chan

Port Union NL

by Martin Poole

Photo Credit: Pepa Chan

Port Union has withstood many changes. Ever a patchwork of old and new, with a perimeter of tattered-looking buildings laid by social reformer, William Coaker, it lends to view an epoch passed. During my childhood, these buildings were mostly abandoned, settling more and more into dilapidation with the passing years. Their purpose was only whispers of imaginings, mere shells telling little yet stirring an immense curiosity. After the moratorium passed these buildings were slowly repaired. With many of them prepared to function again—for industrial pursuits and tourist destinations—the town came back to life.

Photo Credit: Pepa Chan

Many questions arise when we consider the act of preserving the past, and the past itself. For instance, after the town was mended was the past mended with it? If not, how can we preserve the events that shaped the town and people of the past? Of course, we do have historical records of events. We have museums and interpretation centers. We have folklore, mythology, and relatives who can tell us of the old times. Even with this, do we really know the past? Do we know the individuals and families who were burdened with domestic arrangements while adapting to ever-changing and ever-dangerous occupations, unpredictable Newfoundland weather, and an over-arching social reform?  

Photo Credit: Pepa Chan

Grass in the Sky, a visual installation by Pepa Chan, Kailey Bryan, and Mimi Stockland, seeks to rekindle the phantom histories of Port Union by amplifying possible happenings, or potential lived experiences within the rural Newfoundland of the past. The artists aim to achieve this through visual metaphors with varied media, including: sculpture, textile, crochet, machine knitting, poetry, and film projections. Siding with the premise that every house contains an imprint of the experiences that occurred within it, they will together use an abandoned house to—as noted by Chan—“reimagine the phantom histories and make the house alive with them again”.

Photo Credit: Pepa Chan

With their combined multidisciplinary skills they will transform an abandoned house into a meditative space of art and imagining; a place that one can engage in experiences of their own. After the alteration, the house will still speak for itself, for each installation will accessorize the room instead of taking it over. This method lends well to the overall intention, that the art speaks or manifests a mood that already exists for the artist’s personal interpretation of the space. Given that the house and the artist provides two layers of inspiration, the viewer is left with a third; an account of their experience within that confronts all as a grand piece of art. The house, as such, is given another life, as it will now be felt in another context.

Photo Credit: Pepa Chan

Houses have great potential for art, for they are largely symbolic of their own, especially when we consider the physical organization and how it affects our state of living. Houses are unified, in the sense that they form a shared living space, for people to regroup after the pull of employment and necessity had separated them. Houses are separated, with many rooms and spaces suited for specific purposes: the porch that transitions between arriving and leaving, the kitchen where meals are prepared, the living room for entertaining, the bedrooms for privacy, and even the sub-spaces: the stairwell, hallways, cupboards, attic, etc., are all equally important. In a way, the house is a physical space that divides the family experience from the rest of experience, and as such, it contains a reality of its own. As French philosopher Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space explains:

“For our house is our corner of the world. As has often been said, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word. If we look at it intimately, the humblest dwelling has beauty”. (1)

Photo Credit: Pepa Chan

I would like to show by example the importance of art that aims to alter the physical world surrounding us. In that it sends a strong response by virtue of the viewer submerged within it.

A few years ago I went to see Laurant Grasso’s Uraniborg at Montreal’s Musée d'art contemporain. I went there blindly, having no knowledge of the artist’s previous work, and so I had no idea what to expect. And it was through my eventual irritation with Grasso’s work that I made a positive error. Grasso had designed what can be loosely described as a floor of an office building, with narrow hallways turning at right angles to more narrow hallways, set with windows that faced adjoining rooms, and a few ‘breather’ rooms in between, containing large projection screens. It was opening night so there were more people than on regular nights, all of which walked stiltedly around others in the corridors. In order to see some of the visual installations we had to crane our heads in tiny windows while tucking in to the wall away from the crowd walking the narrow hallways. After getting a feel for the layout, I went into the ‘breather’ room. It was only when I watched one of the motion pictures that I realized that our shared discomfort was on purpose. The video was of a murmuration of starlings effortlessly moving across the sky. In contrast to us—the viewers, bumbling about, it was an interesting lab test.

Photo Credit: Pepa Chan

The point of this digression is to illustrate that sometimes art and viewer are inseparable, that when art permeates our environment we sometimes complete it. And so, we then experience an opposite effect; not the effect of going to a gallery to see art dangling from white walls, but an effect that blurs the boundary between art and reality...however, tenuous that distinction is.

Photo Credit: Pepa Chan

Grass in the Sky will also challenge the viewer. Not in the sense of an opposition between artist and art appreciator, but rather it will allow the viewer to confront themselves, and in particular, to reaffirm or change their notions of domestic outport life in the midst of modernization, while forming an important distinction between the past, and the historical.  

Photo Credit: Pepa Chan

Who knows by what feelings this project will be received. Experiences will always present and pass by, and sometimes remnants remain that either allow one to remember or it becomes something else. Our reactions only serve to reveal who we are, and in part, what the past can be.   


(1) Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Beacon Press, Boston, 1994.

© CUSS Journal