Concordia professor’s artwork examines the ecology of whales on the St Lawrence river
A 21 metre-long, life-size blue whale is suspended in mid-air at Fonderie Darling.
The creator of this hand-painted Kraft paper whale is Cynthia Girard-Renard, an award-winning artist and an associate professor at Concordia who teaches painting and drawing in the Department of Studio Arts.
With the help a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant that allowed her to hire three students from the Faculty of Fine Arts to research and create the sustainability-minded exhibition titled Sans toit ni loi: the Cetaceans of the Saint Lawrence River, which opened this fall and has been temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Girard-Renard paints and writes poetry about animals, our relationships to them, and to one another. She received her MFA from Goldsmiths College, London, UK (1998) and for more than 20 years, has been the subject of local and international exhibitions.
In 2018, she was awarded both the Prix-Louis-Comtois for a mid-career artist and the Takao Tanabe Painting Prize. She has also been the recipient of grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec.
Sitting in the Fonderie Darling among her hand-crafted sea urchins, crabs and lobsters, Girard-Renard discusses her research process and vision for this exhibition.
Since Agnes Varda’s 1985 film informs the title of this exhibition, who do you feel is the vagabond here?
I think it’s the whale, more so than the viewer. Whales are nomadic, they travel in the ocean and have no country. At the end of Varda’s film, the protagonist dies in a ditch and it’s like a whale beaching.
Do you feel there is a dark tone to the exhibition, as there is in the film?
I think that might come from the soundtrack of explosives, drilling and ship horns playing in the space. These sounds are related to the exploitation of natural resources in the Saint-Lawrence River. I link that to the GNL project in Saguenay, Québec. There’s a lot of people trying to stop it because there would be too many boats in the Saguenay River. The LP record playing in the exhibition is from 1979 and was produced by Roger Payne, a marine biologist. He’s the one that brought the first recording of whales to the public. It has a nostalgic, melancholic, end-of-the-world kind of feeling. In the exhibition there is an oversized black and moving record on the wall, it’s like a black sun. Maybe that’s where the viewer feels really estranged.
Could you tell us about the process of making the whale?
I received a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) that allowed me to hire students from Concordia. With Catherine Boisvenue-Ménard, Marley Johnson, and Xavier Bélanger Dorval, we went to Tadoussac in August 2019 and met with the Groupe de recherche et d'éducation sur les mammifères marins (GREMM) to see how they were working and the habitat of the whale. Since then a humpback whale came to Montreal, and I was not expecting that! We took notes and did some interviews on our trip to Tadoussac. From there I thought it would be wonderful to create a big life-sized blue whale. Everybody told me it’s crazy and that it would not work! Especially men. The funny thing is, because I’m a painter, I started by painting the paper, but I wasn’t sure about the structure. The whale was created in my studio last December 2019. I had three weeks to install it here at the Foundry. It was a long process and the team here was wonderful. It was really a team effort, and we had to be 12 people to lift the whale up.
It’s political in a way because it cost me only $200.00 in paper, maybe $100 in gouache. It’s all hand painted, sewn, or just glued. The show doesn’t ask for many resources or cause pollution. I was very careful with that. I wanted to bring as much poetry with as minimal expense and material possible. And to make it magical, that was my aim too.
What is the relationship between this piece and the gallery’s location?
This space used to be a foundry for ship pieces so in a way one could say they produced iron whales, like the pieces would go in the river and they would meet whales. I like this, and to be close to the Old Port too, and there’s a reversal. The painted pastel colors play really well with the decaying industrial environment. There’s a real tension there. Mass destruction of whales started with the industrial revolution, to get oil for lamps and sewing machines. Before they started to dig petroleum, London was lit with whale oil.
When I was making the piece, I wanted to cherish my whale and the fauna, as a way of caring for them. I wanted to find a positive outcome, and not make people more depressed. I believe that we can find solutions through the imaginary and by trying to think anew. I wanted my whale to give energy and be generous. I wanted to show the beauty so that people might create attachments. By creating attachment, maybe they would care for the fauna and flora of where we live. When I create a character, I get attachment to it as the author. It’s like a psychic attachment. I care so much for my whale and I’ve been crying a lot since confinement, because she’s alone. I feel like coming to sleep under her belly just so I can keep her company in this isolated time.
Are you working on any other projects?
I’m working on bats and whales. Bats are one of the smallest mammals and whales are the biggest. They’re at opposite spectrums but they both use echolocation and are both kind of queer animals. One is a bird mammal and the other a fish mammal, so they are both strange in a way. One really scares people and is seen as extremely repulsive, whereas everybody loves whales, so they are at opposites but have a lot of links. Both are also endangered.
In Canada, it’s mostly the bear, wolf, and beaver that dominate our imaginary. It’s not the bats or the whale, not in Eastern Canada. Whales and bats are not really part of our imaginary here, and as artists we might need to create an imaginary for people to get attached and to say “okay, we are in this together, we should care.” I see my work as a documentary. I want to bring awareness about fauna issues, it’s very important for me.
Sans toit ni loi: the Cetaceans of the Saint Lawrence River is currently closed due to pandemic guidelines. Subscribe to the Fonderie Darling newsletter to stay informed of its future reopening date.