Q+A with artist Nadia Belerique
Apr 15, 2019
Toronto artist Nadia Belerique presents a new large-scale photo installation, above and below and so on forever, on the bus terminal windows at TTC's Castle Frank Station as part of Evergreen’s Don River Valley Park Art Program.
Castle Frank sits at the edge of the Don Valley and the project brings the river up into the city, surrounding the viewer in a landscape that is as natural as it is altered, inhabited and manipulated.
The installation runs until June 9, 2019. Just before the launch, Nadia Belerique sat down with Don River Valley Park Art Program’s Curator, Kari Cwynar to talk about the Nadia's artistic process and some of the discoveries she made along the Lower Don.
Kari Cwynar: Nadia, I’m thinking back to when we started talking about this project almost three years ago. You work in both photography and sculpture – usually a combination of both – but for this particular project we started off with photography in mind. In some ways, this is one of your more “classically” photographic projects.
Nadia Belerique: I'm also trying to recall the beginning. I remember that there were a whole bunch of ways of trying to enter the river, figuratively and metaphorically.
There’s a sculptural element of photography even if it's in a straight form, because you're always photographing three dimensional objects in the world, and then flattening them in the image. Last year, I was coming out of The Weather Channel, my most recent project before this one, with an interest in more straightforward photography – or photography of the world, rather than photography in my studio.
Once the site for this project [the bus terminal windows at Castle Frank Station] had been finalized, I wanted to see how effective it would be to be as simple as possible – to just photograph the river. A lot of the time I question what photographs do. Can they do something in an active sense? I'd been working on so many sculptural projects, and I wanted to think again of the possibilities of a straightforward photograph.
KC: Let’s go through the process, because we’re calling this a simple photographic project, but there were many steps involved. From walking through the Don Valley, to literally entering the Don River, collecting objects from the riverbanks, and then combining things that were already found in the ravine with objects from your studio. There were multiple photo shoots at different times of day, and then paring down hundreds of photographs to a final selection of five images. You then re-photographed these final images in your studio through a pane of glass. How was that process for you and how did you engage with each step?
NB: The process grew as we went. The first step was to really engage with the river, whether walking alongside of it, or later actually getting into the river. That was so important to me. I wanted to change the perspective of, or relationship with, the Don River that most people have – seeing from the water rather than looking at the water. When we first started working on this, I remember wanting to show the horizon of the river – looking east from the pathway beside the river across to the highway. I was kind of obsessed with that view because it was the only one I'd had.
KC: You were initially talking about waterlines, flood lines and the horizon line – this horizontal view that you see from the Lower Don Trail.
NB: Yes, but that shifted quickly after I had actually gone into the river and had looked straight down at it. Which was not dissimilar from how I had been thinking about photographic perspectives in some of my past works, except that usually it was the other way around, looking up.
KC: You were saying that in some of your past work you encourage the viewer to look up, as you've taken a photograph from underneath something. And this reverses that, looking down.
NB: Yes, but what I liked about this view is that it felt like looking down and up at the same time because of the reflection on the water. There was still this reference to what was above you, seeing the sky reflected in the water. I had both views at the same time. I noticed that instead of a horizon line, I was seeing the bottom of the river in relation to the surface.
KC: In past projects, you’ve altered how a photograph is taken and presented. And you did something similar here in that you shot these photographs out in the Don Valley, but then you re-photographed them in your studio, through a pane of glass, adding stickers and artificial shadows. I like that it creates an artificial surface and a kind of confusing sense of depth. At what stage did you decide to bring glass into the project?
NB: The idea of using glass was definitely an early thought, but I didn't know at what point it would come in. Castle Frank Station is a kind of glass box, almost like a light box. I had thought about putting glass in the water when I was shooting but then I realized the water was glass already. There were all kinds of moments where I felt that some kind of solid yet transparent surface was needed, but I wasn't sure exactly what, when or how. It was later that I wanted to take the site of the photograph – the depiction of the river – and the site where it’s presented – Castle Frank Station – and I wanted to smash them together.
KC: I know that the relationship to the site was important to you, and in many of your projects you try to think in a site-responsive or site-specific way.
NB: Yes, and here there are these two sites. That was an interesting challenge. I kept going back and forth between the Don River and Castle Frank Station. It raised so many questions about my thinking about site-specific art or about what engaging with the river really means or what engaging with site really means. I was thinking through the relationship of water to glass and vice versa, the reflective quality of looking down at the water versus looking at the images on the windows. I was always trying to solve this mind-body problem – what the images are depicting and where you’re actually standing when you’re looking at it – and trying to bring these two places together. I was thinking, too, about the windows at Castle Frank as a film-strip, a linear sequence of images that mimics the flow of the river, as well as the resonance of the river as a pathway and the transit station that thousands of people pass through each day.
KC: You mentioned earlier about the tension between reality and artifice, thinking about what is naturally found in the river, what is natural to an urban river like the Don in 2019 versus what we think should be natural to a river. So, in this way, too, mapping the river onto this transit station that sits at the edge of the ravine doesn't feel entirely unnatural. You're creating an alternative view of the river and showing a very complex portrait of it.
NB: The site creates that complexity because at Castle Frank, you're looking straight ahead at the images, but the river is now below you, right? I was constantly thinking about that. It’s very much relational to the body. We both talked about the idea of the river kind of bubbling up around us, into the city, and I kept thinking about that image.
KC: This isn’t your first project that engages with water, whether poetically or here more literally.
NB: Since my residency on Fogo Island [in 2015] I've been thinking of islands in general. So I wasn't thinking about water specifically, but something that water represents. Thinking about floating kinds of identities, things that seem like they have borders, but are malleable, fluid and formless.
KC: Did your perspective of the Don River change over the course of the project?
NB: Yes, but that mostly came from physically drifting along it. Being in the canoe.
KC: You worked with Seth Scriver, an artist in Toronto, who has long been collecting rare bottles from the riverbanks in the city.
NB: I thought of Seth early on, as a kind of guide to the river. Experiencing the river by canoe with Seth was so important to me because I was able to physically map it. I grew up in Mississauga and so I guess I’m from the Humber River. The Don was east, it was the highway. I learned so many things in researching this project, like how polluted it had become. The water is generally hidden in Toronto. There’s the lake, the waterfront, the rivers but the city feels landlocked. That was part of the reason I wanted to take these photos. Taking pictures of the river and bringing them up out of the ravine was the first impulse I had.