Natural Speculations: Multi-Species Daydream: a garden in the depths of winter by SK Maston and Merle Harley3 November 2022
By Cason Sharpe
If the past two pandemic-burdened years have taught me anything, it’s that humans are very strange creatures. Without context, the way we behave—how we live, communicate and move through the world—sometimes makes very little sense. Take art, for example: what strange impulses, to make art, to share it with others, to build sacred halls for its display. These were the thoughts I was having as I ferried across Lake Ontario to the Toronto Islands this past February to visit Multi-Species Daydream: a garden in the depths of winter, a site-specific installation by SK Maston and Merle Harley.
A culmination of the duo’s term as artists-in-residence at Artscape Gibraltar Point, the exhibition invited visitors to the Toronto Islands to experience what Maston and Harley dubbed “a multi-species ecosystem, a collective daydream of a garden oasis.” In order to glimpse this phantasmagoria, visitors committed to a multi-pronged journey including an evening ferry ride from the city to Ward’s Island, followed by an icy shuttle across a desolate road in a refurbished motor coach, driven by the keeper of a nearby lighthouse. After the bus ride, visitors walked single file down a winding, unlit path until we met a small clearing surrounded by a cluster of studio buildings. At the centre of the clearing stood a seemingly vacant greenhouse roughly the size of a four-person tent with a campfire in front; inside the greenhouse lay our oasis. We explored the installation in groups of two or three, armed against the night with a set of miniature flashlights from a bucket by the greenhouse entrance.
A shin-high wooden platform, painted in dappled blues, soft purples and swirling greens, curved its way around the perimeter of the space. Branches scaled the greenhouse walls, their bases growing out of the platform as though their seeds had been planted there several seasons ago. Two oblong holes cut into the platform became pools of water, with gauzy blue fabric, grass, and stones skimming along their surface. Our flashlights revealed a menagerie of plants and animals placed gingerly along the edges of the platform, tucked into corners, and wheat pasted across the walls: paper cutouts of green caterpillars and blue-stippled dogs; colourful bouquets of flowers in crayon and pencil; a childlike rendering of a cat, its head comically large on its amoeba-shaped body. These images, as well as the photographs projected onto the side of the greenhouse—shots of open fields, serene bodies of water, zoomed-in studies of leaves—were solicited via open call from over forty participants and scattered across the installation, creating an ecosystem as aesthetically diverse and unexplainably harmonious as its real-life counterpart, the presence of which could be felt just beyond the greenhouse door.
With respective bodies of work that span painting, installation, comics, and textiles, Maston and Harley moved across form in order to animate various non-human positions. In Worm’s Eye View (2020), Maston created an online video game in which players adopt the avatar of a pillbug to dig through the soil of an interactive digital landscape, while Harley’s Swamp Snake comics (2020) offered meditations on our changing environment from the perspective of a sly marshland snake. Striking a balance between humour and reverence, both artists applied a surreal and lighthearted touch to the mysteries of planet Earth, the secret depths that only insects know. Together they spent the winter on the relatively secluded Toronto Islands, where they passed each day watching bushes full of robins and tracing the footprints of coyotes through the snow. The first public collaboration between the two, Multi-Species Daydream represented the organic synthesis of complementary sensibilities over a season of shared observations.
Winter introduces certain observational limitations, a maxim made manifest in the careful attention to light throughout the exhibition. Artificial sources included the beams of the projector and the miniature flashlights, a series of bulbs hidden under the platform’s oblong pools, and the dim light of an open studio where visitors were encouraged to take-five and warm themselves with mugs of hot apple cider. Of course there were the inescapable lights from our phones, the requisite camera flashes and the ubiquitous glow of incoming texts. We might also consider the moon and the stars (both of which shone brighter than in the city), and the campfire (somewhere between the natural and the human-made). When combined, these sources of light were still no match for the late winter evening, which forced each visitor to adjust to a murky middle ground between visibility and pitch black.
From outside the greenhouse, you could trace a visitor’s experience of the garden oasis by following the beam of their miniature flashlight; meanwhile, the projector’s beam was interrupted by a collection of brambles, the projected images overlaid by shadows. Half-visible through our masks and only partially able to see, visitors were taken out of context, if only briefly, and returned to a wild both simulated and real. As I wandered the installation, with miniature flashlight in hand, I wondered what lessons we might learn from this earth if only we took the time to listen and look. Perhaps we might learn how to be better neighbours, perhaps we might learn how to see in the dark. Just like Maston and Harley’s ecosystem, these claims are only speculation, but what is human nature if not the impulse to speculate, the result of which we call art.
- See Sara Maston, “Worm’s Eye View,” https://saramaston.com/worms-eye-view/
Multi-Species Daydream was produced between January 31 and February 28, 2022 at the Winter Island 2022 Residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point on Toronto Island.
Feature Image: Detail view of Multi-Species Daydream by SK Maston and Merle Harley. Photo by Merle Harley.