May 18, 2020

Where is Clarington?

After the pandemic, it may be that visual art exhibitions no longer principally take place in urban centers.

To get to the Visual Art Center of Clarington, for example, take the 401 past Ajax, Whitby and Oshawa. Continue all the way to Bowmanville. Make a left.

At present, the Visual Art Center of Clarington is closed, until further notice. All planned activities and exhibitions are canceled or postponed, except for the digital incarnation of an art piece by Cole Swanson titled The Hissing Folly.

Documentation from the phragmites harvest at Thickson’s Woods Land Trust, 2019. Photo by Jamie McMillan

An online video beautifully documents the construction of the mysterious “Hissing Folly.” (A “folly,” in architecture, by the way, is defined as “a costly ornamental building with no practical purpose.”) Cole Swanson’s folly, built within the gallery space, is made of phragmites thatched over a wooden frame.

Phragmites are an invasive species. They came to Ontario from somewhere in Europe in the 1920s. They are huge plants, over five meters tall, which form dense thickets of vegetation, crowding out native species such as wild rice, cattails, and native wetland orchids. Cole Swanson partnered with Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority to collect and remove the phragmites from the Thickson’s Woods Land Trust of Durham Region in an operation involving chain saws.

The video, which shows the harvesting of the towering reeds, features a lovely sighing, rustling sound which emanates from the phragmites as the breeze whistles through them. That same hissing sound is reproduced on speakers within the installation.

The completed folly, pictured below, has a serene simplicity and attests to the long history of thatched structures. They go back 5000 years.

The Hissing Folly by Cole Swanson

Interior of the Hissing Folly by Cole Swanson

Phragmites are a disaster for Ontario’s wetlands and Cole Swanson seems to find this a fitting metaphor for the whole shit show of colonialism as he gamely wades into a “dense thicket” of ideologies. I really like this artist’s confidence! He does not pretend to have a solution to problems caused by invasive species in Ontario’s wetlands or by “the colonial, consumer, and cultural systems” which conveyed them here. He spends his energy collaborating with various stakeholders in the region and stirring things up to create this thought provoking art piece.

Covering the crops… In 1880’s Sussex, England. Photo from Thatching

Devil’s Colony

I happened to see another art piece by Cole Swanson, at Hamilton Artists Inc., last year. The Devil’s Colony is described by the artist as a “cross-disciplinary exhibition that examines the sociocultural, material, and scientific relationships between humans and an often-reviled colonial species, double-crested cormorants.”

Prior to being enlightened by Cole Swanson’s art piece I was totally down for reviling these appalling birds. For example, on a sultry summer afternoon last August we rented a kayak and paddled down the Humber river. At one point, we entered gang territory, and by this I mean we were surrounded by thousands of cormorants, perched on dead trees — trees they killed! — on either side of the river. They literally growled, in menacing unity, as we rushed by.

Photo courtesy of

What is with these birds?

In his show in Hamilton, Cole Swanson replicated a bird blind. He also showed films of the huge numbers of double-crested cormorants nesting in Tommy Thompson park, on Leslie spit. For this exhibition he worked with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and under the mentorship of an environmental biologist from York University. I really like the way this artist works with scientists to explore the way various plant and animal species, including humans, continually alter the natural world. Cole Swanson seems to be able to do this without judgement or didactic scolding.

The cormorants make bulky nests full of sticks and other materials, like rope, deflated balloons, fishnets, plastic debris, parts of dead birds (yes). Cormorants love the colour blue (like me) and Cole Swanson documented the blue festooned nests of the Devil birds, as part of his exhibition in Hamilton.

Nest Samples is a photographic archive of nests containing human-made waste products selected by the cormorants at Leslie Spit. They evince the material and colour preferences of the birds while providing a glimpse into the after-life of commonplace materials. – Cole Swanson
The Blind is an installation artwork that recreates the scientific observation blind within which environmental researchers are able to observe the world’s largest colony of double-crested cormorants at Toronto’s Tommy Thompson Park. – by Cole Swanson

Cormorant populations suffered greatly from exposure to DDT in the 20th century and their numbers were decimated. Over the last few decades the birds have made a comeback. So much so that they are now viewed as destructive to sport fishing stocks. Some scientists, however, insist the birds actually protect native fish stocks, since they feed on invasive fish species whose presence is harmful to human interest. People loath these creatures, so much so, that they are now threatened by massive culling efforts.

Photo by Peter Wallack, from Great Lakes Echo

The show in Hamilton included photos, video and a life-size sculptural representation of a bizarre creature formed from non-biodegradable materials gathered by the cormorants.

Spit Spectre (sculpture), human and cormorant-foraged materials, textiles, PVC, and earth by Cole Swanson

What is it about this sculpture that makes me uneasy? Oh yeah…