Expansion to Exhaustion with Elinor Whidden – Simon Rabyniuk

The following essay, Expansion to Exhaustion by Simon Rabyniuk, was written for the catalogue that accompanied Elinor Whidden’s exhibition “Images of the Old West: Roadkill Redux” at the Thames Gallery in Chatham, Ontario in June 2013. Whidden’s art practice combines sculpture and performance with photographic documentation to create iconic images that reenact a nostalgic colonial past. Putting the past in conversation with the present, she scavenges from both the colonial pages of history and the scrap yards of the present day to re-stage contemporary versions of historical moments. Re-using both scavenged materials and old history, Whidden fabricates unlikely new scenarios in an attempt to understand why history repeats itself, with each era using and exploiting with the same self-interested greed. Rabyniuk investigates the theme of expansion to exhaustion as it relates to Whidden’s new work and also as it relates to so many of our present-day crises. Through Whidden’s work, he laments the “portrait of a human system unresponsive to material depletion, only re-adapting once it has experienced collapse.” Sadly, expansion to exhaustion is a typically human way of using: a mis-use that allows for no re-use or recycling.

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In 2013, the saturated media environment is flush with information about social, economic, and ecological crises. We individually name each crisis, such as Urban Sprawl, The Financial Crash of 2008, Global Warming, and so on. They are represented as singularities but are connected to each other and reinforce each other through their shared trajectory from expansion to exhaustion. Information itself is not knowledge, and access to information does not itself instigate the process of forming networked relationships between discrete pieces of information, otherwise known as making meaning. Elinor Whidden, as artist, investigates the theme of expansion to exhaustion, making our understanding of the present moment more meaningful by intertwining contemporary and historical contexts, materials, and symbols.

For her exhibition Images of the Old West: Roadkill Redux, Whidden continues her investigation into the visual culture of the North American Frontier. Through sculpture and photography, she re-stages the landscapes and characters of the Old West using present-day materials and technologies. Whidden’s work contains a sense of contaminated temporality, rich with the narrative of the social, economic, and ecological transformation of North America. The first experiments within this larger body of work sought to invert the relationship between the car and the human. Whidden broke down and reconstructed components of a car into packs that she wore while traversing Buffalo’s interstate-laced landscape on foot. The emerging themes of car culture and endless expansion became rooted in the historic analogy of the European fur trader opening new markets at the edge of the known world.

The historical references in Images of the Old West: Roadkill Redux scan forward in time to the end of an era. Whidden continues her practice of transforming post-consumer car parts into autonomous sculptures and props for her staged portraiture. Her materials are sourced from scrap yards, memorabilia trade shows, and archives. Created through the accumulation of rusted mufflers, torn apart and fabricated into the likeness of sun-bleached bison skulls, Head-Smashed-in-Engine-Block-Buffalo-Jump (2010–present) exudes a sense of loss. Leaving behind the Voyager and Mountain Man, Whidden takes up the subjects of the “anonymous” cowboy, plainsman, cavalier, and bison hunter. Her portraits are presented alongside archival photographs. Both sets of images frame the imposing Buffalo-Jump. Entering these works requires a process of reading backwards and forwards in time, recognizing the historical content of the works while also feeling the material links of the present.

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With the end of the Western Frontier came the collapse of an important resource, the bison. While their exact population exists only as modelled estimates, recorded accounts attest to seemingly unending herds grazing from Mexico to Alaska. The bison were an economic engine. Europeans and Aboriginals hunted them for both sustenance and commercial trade. As a resource, the bison provided Aboriginals with independence from European governance. One hundred and fifty years of commercial hunting brought a seemingly unending commodity to collapse.1 Mid-nineteenth-century travel writing describes the plains of North America as feeling desolate, littered with this slaughtered species.2 The bison’s collapse had implications for both European and Aboriginal populations, since they were integrated into the economy of both the Frontier and the urbanizing East.3

In 1890, the approximate date of origin for the archival photographs included in the exhibition, the United States Census Bureau declared the American Frontier to have been settled.4 These images document systematized stacks of bison bones whose scale dwarfs that of the workers constructing them. With the inclusion of Whidden’s own photograph, A & L Auto Recyclers, Windsor, Ontario (2010), a sense of historical repetition is created. It records an organized mound of scrapped automobiles in an open expanse. The image has been digitally manipulated to share the aesthetic qualities of those century-old images alongside which it is presented. The archival images suggest a thematic source for Buffalo-Jump, while A & L Auto Recyclers points to the source location for the sculpture’s materials.

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The bison as resource were exhausted; however, bison bones provided a new resource to exploit.5 New supply chains were initiated by emerging industries such as the Michigan Carbon Works company based in Detroit. They sought to purchase bison bones by the ton from the West for use in industrial processes. The mounds of bones present in the archival photographs are direct documents of this trade. Whidden’s own pile of metal skulls is caught between this history and that of the present-day scrap yard. Buffalo-Jump holds a symbolic tension between representing loss
— as in the near-extinction of a species, and scrapped cars — and gained resource — as in recycling bones and metal. Within a few short years, all of the bison bones within a profitable distance of the transportation nodes connected to the East were collected. Like the bison population, the bone trade itself collapsed. Images of the Old West: Roadkill Redux explores symbols of a culture rooted in expansion to the exhaustion of its resources. It is a portrait of a human system unresponsive to material depletion, only re-adapting once it has experienced collapse.

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Footnotes:

1. William A. Dobak, “Killing the Canadian Buffalo, 1821–1881,” The Western Historical Quarterly (Spring 1996): 52.

2. Rena N. Coen, “The Last of the Buffalo,” American Art Journal (November 1973): 84.

3. William A. Dobak, “Killing the Canadian Buffalo, 1821–1881,” The Western Historical Quarterly (Spring 1996): 41.

4. Robert Porter, Henry Gannett and William Hunt, “Progress of the Nation,” in Bureau of the Census, Report on Population of the United States at the Eleventh Census: 1890, Part 1 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1895), xviii–xxxiv.

5. LeRoy Barnett, “Ghastly Harvest: Montana’s Trade in Buffalo Bones,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History (Summer 1975): 4.

Image Credits:

1.         Images of the Old West: Anonymous Cowboy
Image from the Images of the Old West: Roadkill Redux photography series.   Character posing with Side Mirror Musket and HSIEBBJ skulls. Digital image mounted on found Cabinet Card – 5×7 inches. 2013.

2.         Head-Smashed-In-Engine-Block-Buffalo-Jump – Pile of Skulls
Scavenged mufflers, exhaust pipes, steel. Pile of skulls approximately 7feet tall x 12feet in diameter. 2010 – 2013.

3.         Head-Smashed-In-Engine-Block-Buffalo-Jump – Detail of Pile
Scavenged mufflers, exhaust pipes, steel. Single skulls approximately 28x18x9inches. 2010 – 2013.

4.         A & L Auto Recyclers, Windsor Ontario.
Pile of scrapped cars outside Windsor, ON. Digital Image – 7×10 inches. 2010.

5.         Images of the Old West: Anonymous Frontiersman
Images from the Images of the Old West: Roadkill Redux photography series.   Character posing with Side Mirror Musket and HSIEBBJ skulls. Digital image mounted on found Cabinet Card – 4×6 inches. 2013.

Elinor Whidden received a BA in Canadian/Environmental Studies from Trent University, a BFA from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and a MFA from the State University of New York at Buffalo. She has exhibited throughout North America, recently showing work in Newfoundland, Ontario, Alberta and Detroit, MI. In 2004 Whidden was featured as an emerging artist on CBC’s Zed TV and in 2007 she attended the Walking and Art residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts.  Whidden is the recipient of numerous grants and awards including creation grants from Nova Scotia Culture, Tourism and Heritage, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Canada Council for the Arts. Whidden’s work has been included in various biennials including the 2010 exhibition of Beyond/In Western New York. Find out more about her work at: www.elinorwhidden.com

Simon Rabyniuk is a Canadian visual and performance artist as well as principal at the research and design studio Department of Unusual Certainties www.DoUC.ca