Finishing off the year and ushering in the new one at the Canadian Museum of Nature is a powerful exhibition by the renowned and celebrated artist Lorraine Simms, titled Shadowland. Simms did two residencies in the Mammalogy Department at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where she came across many specimens of animals, aquatic mammals, and birds, some of which were endangered or extinct already.
Simms began to trace the specimens she found. Using photography and playing with lights, she began sketching the shadow outlined and the effects left on white surfaces. Later in the studio, she meticulously drew the shadows and outlines on paper with the measurements that she had taken to achieve a close-to-life trace of the specimens and their shadows.
The results are truly haunting and beautiful. They are traces of the real thing, just like the chemically-treated specimens can be said to be traces of the live creatures that once roamed. Life is an essence that has complex characteristics defining it, and it has been subject to much debate over the history of humankind. This discussion should be brought to the Canadian Museum of Nature, where it is all under examination. What is the nature of life? Do we only associate life with sentient beings? If so, what does the recent verdict in the United Kingdom that extends sentient status to creatures like octopuses, crabs and lobsters say about the subjectivity of such labels?
The words for the act of drawing and tracing in many languages are the same as the words for physically pulling. Drawing water. Tracing. Was Lorraine aware of the symbolism when she decided to use drawing as her tool for capturing the shadows these specimens were leaving? Are shadows the last traces of life? Plato once quipped: “Must not all things at the last be swallowed up in death? Can there be a trace left behind after death?”
I propose that the arts, be they fine arts, poetry, fiction, song, music or even dance and theatre, have always been the traces left behind when life encounters its mortal limit and, as it was long-promised, dissolves into shadows. “Our little life is rounded with a sleep,” (Shakespeare, The Tempest) but can the dreams be captured? It is an intriguing idea and one that has left a lot of hope for artists, writers, and poets. Our sense of survival feeds our search for a better representation. A better memory. Indeed, we don’t know what the ending brings, and in many ways, we shall never know. But can it be that our lives matter despite it all, and we can influence our existence? Can it be that every minute line, even if they are traces of a once lived sentient being is making a change for the advancement of life?
I hope so, and I hope you enjoy this immensely enjoyable and thought-provoking exhibition by Lorraine Simms at the Canadian Museum of Nature in our own Ottawa, which runs until April 18th, 2022.