Move the earth, move your mind at the Bonavista Biennale

It's the seemingly magic rocking of a glow-in-the-dark light through an old Elliston root cellar, or the floating of a would-be boulder through the sky.

The Bonavista Biennale, which takes place on Newfoundland's Bonavista Peninsula, isn't a traditional art festival or confined to a single space.

This year, there are installations in 10 separate communities along the coast, forming a rough 100-kilometre loop.

Movement is the main focus for 2019 and the motto is FLOE.

That movement is the travel of a metal stick-figure like home through the peninsula. It's also a movement of mind, in pieces of art that challenge your beliefs about Newfoundland and Labrador — where it's been, and where it's headed.

"I think artists, particularly contemporary artists, are a seed for innovation, they're a seed for new thinking of meaning, new thinkings of place and possibility," said Matthew Hills, the director of the art gallery at Memorial University's Grenfell Campus and one of three curators for this year's Biennale.

The Biennale ran for the first time in 2017, with 26 artists presenting pieces in 24 different locations on the Bonavista Peninsula.

Hills says his goal for the Biennale is to be more than a periodic art exhibit — it's to see the Biennale leave behind a "residue of creativity," and a sense that Newfoundland and Labrador is a dynamic place.

"As a province, when we deal with out-migration, when we deal with an aging population, when we look at some of the financial and fiscal challenges that we are facing, there can be a tendency to look at the past and consider previous mistakes," Hills said.

"I think what contemporary art offers us, what artists offer us, is a creative way of thinking about new possibilities, about moving forward."

Move your community

That hope for a dynamic community serves as a call to action in a Biennale piece at St. Mary's Anglican Church in Elliston.

Created by Jane Walker and Barb Hunt, the piece lines fabric flowers around the interior of the small church to spell out a message: "this slow loss reminds us to move."

According to Walker, the phrase came from a class she taught at St. Mark's School in King's Cove, where she asked junior high-aged students about moments where they see loss in their communities, and moments where they saw hope.

Walker says the students spoke about the 2014 closure of a pool in nearby Plate Cove and subsequent protests.

"To me the word move has this duality, in that you can read like loss is something that makes us step back or move on or let it go, or it's something that drives us to do something about it," she said. "I wanted the piece to be able to be read in those two kind of ways, depending on the way that you interpret it."

The small church in Elliston, where only six parishioners remain, according to Walker, is a perfect place for the piece.

"With the installation and the way that you walk up to the church, the way that all of these flowers are already sitting outside the church, almost like foreshadowing what you're going to find in here, I think that's a really beautiful transition into the work," she said.

Garrett Barry/CBC
Garrett Barry/CBC

"This work in particular, if it was installed in a white-cube gallery, wouldn't make sense. The context would be totally removed."

Walker says the work is designed to be open-ended, and people can read "move" in several ways. To her, the installation of the artwork is a "move" itself, sparking a deeper conversation about loss and hope in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Move the world

Just down the road in Elliston, visitors to the Biennale are invited to shut themselves into a root cellar and "feel like a kid" again.

Sean Patrick O'Brien has installed a work that uses a flashlight and the power of phosphorescence to allow you to trace lingering shapes into solid rock below.

"The work creates a shared experience of the strange and beautiful wonders of the universe," reads a description on the Biennale website.

Rocks were also the focal point of a kite-making workshop in Port Union that was held on Thursday. Participants took impressions of boulders on paper, and then attached the would-be boulders to a kite to fly through the sky.

Meghan Price, who led the workshop alongside painter Suzanne Nacha, said the event was "inviting people to think about this idea that rocks are always moving."

"I think it goes back to the idea of accessing that earth time-scale, and maybe in order to engage with it we need to speed it up a little bit," she said. "Because our, you know, our life span is so short and our attention spans are even that much shorter."

Price has her own art on display in Port Union as part of the Biennale, an exhibit of paper in the shape of boulders.

Just like the kites, these boulders move quite a bit faster than your regular boulder would, using lightweight and ephemeral ideas to challenge our impression of rocks as solid and unchanging, she said.

"In my practice at large, as an artist, I'm really interested in the problem of understanding how old the earth is, and accessing that timescale," she said.

Move your history

Hills says the Biennale, and contemporary art as a whole, presents tough questions and challenges for its viewers. For him, there's examples in Camille Turner's work — which explores Newfoundland's role in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade — and beyond.

Garrett Barry/CBC
Garrett Barry/CBC

"Her scholarship recovers a particular history, and yes it presents some challenging histories," he said. "But I also think that's true for Jordan Bennett's work in Indigenous histories and the influence of Beothuk culture in the peninsula in particular."

Turner's work, called The Afronautic Research Lab, gives a perspective of a time traveller, someone returning from a future where stories of Newfoundland's role in the slave trade have been aired.

"There are, sort of, narratives and stories that I think Newfoundlanders ... that you tell yourself. And when these are challenged, it's difficult," Hills said. "But I think, if people come away thinking more critically or reassessing some of those stories that we tell ourselves, or complicating them in certain ways, I think that's the idea of Camille Turner's work."

Turner has told CBC Radio's On The Go that her work is an effort to place Newfoundland as a location of black history.

Bennett's work is part of an effort to showcase Beothuk and Mi'kmaq history in the Bonavista Peninsula.

"What I wanted to do was to bring to light, with the use of visual culture … to kind of show that history in that area, to show that this was a place of settlement by Indigenous people," Bennett said.

Bennett says there's a contrast in Bonavista, where John Cabot is celebrated for his so-called discovery of Newfoundland and Labrador, but where the cultures of peoples who were living on the land before his arrival have been relatively ignored.

"Thinking about process of recovering culture, the cultural vitality," added Hills. "So really engaging with a national and international conversation in contemporary art, and those are important themes that we're asking questions [about]."

The 2019 Bonavista Biennale runs until September 15.

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