Michael Belmore: Materials and Deep Time
As people, we may modify and intervene, make a mark or deliver a blow, but we are only a small part in the sequence of what has come before and what will come after. At this overwhelming time of increasingly accelerated societal and climate change, I have appreciated how artist Michael Belmore’s work has us consider glacial speed and the permanence of natural materials. In this consideration, there is transcendence beyond this mere moment. The elements of Earth are resolute and will remain. Belmore’s oeuvre is a contemplative murmuration of this statement of fact.
Working with materials as rigid and challenging as stone and metal, Belmore intimates what they provide for comfort, referencing hearth and home. His work also considers ways of gathering: like a glacial erratic external force may move us to migrate to a different place, far from where we began. Upon arrival we leave our trace in the landscape.
Purchased in 2017, Belmore’s Lost Bridal Veil is on view within the granite enclosure of the Gallery’s Water Court, the Michael and Sonja Koerner Family Atrium. The island of Manitoulin referenced in the sculpture’s title is linked to the island of Manhattan, represented on the work’s metal plates. Into the surface, Belmore has etched the waterways that flow to and from New York, once Lenape land. These connect the "island" of North America, “trade routes, bringing wealth, bleeding resources, offering life and taking life,” which he likens to “blood, part of a circulatory or vascular system, a cycle that flows outwards, eventually finding its way back.”
In a recent conversation with the artist, we spoke about his choice of materials, his technique, as well as the meaning behind this particular work.
Lost Bridal Veil is made of multiple sheets of copper. For you, material is intentional for many reasons. Can you tell me why you chose copper?
As a material, the patina can allude to many different colours. With my initial copper piece, the intention was to create the colours that exist in a landscape. Copper can facilitate that desire – greens, reds, purples, blues and browns. It can mimic what we see in a natural environment. The thickness of the copper is also intentional. I hammer the surface to create a landscape, but beyond the beauty of the landscape there is something beneath that surface. We build our lives from the copper, steel, soil and wood from the ground. This is part of what the materials offer us as a community, a society. The 1/8 inch (0.3 cm) copper plate is beautiful, but I also recognize the utility of what the material provides.
It is amazing to think about how we use it, and its importance in our lives – how it offers warmth and light. If you look at any of our dwellings, there is much copper in our walls, from electrical lights to wireless technology. Imagine all of the copper wires, connecting houses; all the poles down the roads connecting us to each other in a way that is often hidden. It can be like fire, that thing that keeps us warm, giving you a sense of security, because it provides you light and allows you to stay connected to others.
For Anishinaabe it is an important material, as it is seen as a connection to the Thunderbirds and Mishibizhiig – the Manitous – our great spirits. Where I come from, Lake Superior, it is told that this raw material is their dried blood. For this reason, it has a preciousness and importance. In Western society, it is considered a valuable material as a commodity, but lacks the connotations of preciousness, compared to gold and silver. It holds utilitarian value because of what it provides for the comfort of home.
The technique you use to create the surface of your works in copper is labour-intensive. Can you explain the process you use, of chasing and repoussé?
Chasing and the French term repoussé are traditional metalsmithing techniques used to create, for example, a chalice. “Chasing” is to hammer a piece of metal in one direction, and “repoussé” is to push from another direction in order to create a three-dimensional representation. It is a technique I use to communicate how we impact the land. What I do is imprint the landscape on the material – the lakes and rivers. I hammer the shoreline, and as I push down into a relief material, usually sand, that action pushes up the land. In effect, it creates the land, making the copper look topographical. The copper pieces are maps. They are accurate, but only as accurate as I can swing a hammer. I am always considering how we go about being caretakers of this land, this idea that we make mistakes, as I do with my hammer, and yet we continue forward.
Duration is also intentional in your work. You don’t cut corners or make the process any easier or faster. Why?
A lot of my work speaks to deep time: the process, endeavour and persistence when looking at how a rock can be worn down on a shoreline or on a beach to become sand. I think about how long that would take. It happens and we know it happens, but we as human beings can't comprehend the time it takes – millennia – to wear down something as hard as stone to sand. Instead, we get stuck in our own mortality. It comes back to that idea of making or leaving a mark. My marks are made in copper and stone, two of the most durable materials on the planet. The intention is to have a larger and longer conversation with the environment and not to linger on one's own worth.
Considering the subject of this work – shorelines – and of many other works, what is it about the meeting of water and land, and the flow of the water that speak to you?
I don’t think I have resolved that yet, as far as understanding why. Within the Anishinaabe tradition it is understood that there are three divided worlds, the world above and the underworld beneath the water are the domains of the Thunderbird and mishibizhiw (the underwater panther) – and between this sky and this below, we exist. It is mesmerizing in a way, that our existence is quite precarious between these two realms.
In the October 2017 issue of Art in America, writer Anya Montiel refers to Truman Lowe’s Ottawa, which was shown in the Land, Spirit, Power exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in 1992. The work references the confluence of the Ottawa River (Kichi Sibi) with the Rideau (Pasapkedjinawong) and Gatineau (Tenagagan) Rivers and quotes him on the importance of water and our relationship to it. I know he is an artist you value. How has his work informed yours?
I had the honour of meeting Truman at the Land, Spirit, Power opening and talk to him in front of Ottawa. It was amazing to have the opportunity to speak to such a kind and gentle man. He has greatly influenced my work. He brought curiosity to understanding his materials, which made me curious about understanding the materials I choose to work with. He uses the material I find the hardest – wood. As well, he is an artist whose work talks about persistence and observing.
The work’s title references Bridal Veil Falls on Manitoulin Island in northeastern Ontario. This island is an important place to the Anishinaabe people. Can you tell me more about its meaning and the Falls?
The island is seen as the heartland, the centre of the Anishinaabe people, the central hub where our communities gathered and collected medicines, a place that is important to us. It has a long history. It’s just home, in a way. For me, it was important to create work that drew on that. Lost Bridal Veil recognizes a cascading moment when things changed with the coming of colonization. The map itself, rendered on the copper plates, is of New York City, another island, one that bleeds resources. I use the island of Manhattan to signify the "island" of North America, to transpose the micro to the macro.
At the Gallery, Lost Bridal Veil is installed in the Michael and Sonja Koerner Family Atrium – the light from the skylight reflecting off the water in the glass-bottomed pool. Considering copper as a commodity and the pennies people throw into the pool, there is an interesting conversation between the elements in this space – the sculpture, the granite rock architecture, the light and the water. It is moving to encounter your work in this setting.
It is the one place in the Gallery where you can see water and sky. It is beautiful in the winter, when it is dark with no sun coming through the skylight. It is a reflective piece, and that notion that I wanted it to be a celebration of landscape while also recognizing the material as a commodity works here. People intrinsically feel it. This is an important part of my practice – the subtlety of the message and calmness, but made through the brutality of hammering or cutting through stone and metal, making marks that are difficult to render but leave you with something soft and comforting. That is the beauty of copper, whatever the patina, it always emanates warmth.
Michael Belmore's Lost Bridal Veil is on view in A116, the Michael and Sonja Koerner Family Atrium, at the National Gallery of Canada. The artist's work is currently also on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario until November 2021. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.