Reminiscences of The Western Frontier – An interview with artist Elinor Whidden

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An almost ghostly hollow shell of a tent clenched to the edge of a rock. At first sight the material may seem organic, but looking closer one discovers that it is made out of windshield wipers from cars. In another picture a lone figure poses, gazing out upon the epic Canadian landscape, with a musket in her hand. At its end a rear view mirror catches the sun.










Henry Fords utopia was to see a ”car in every driveway”. He envisioned this before it was a reality, but the last century’s aspiration for economical growth and progress, in the name of speed, has accumulated a culture that provides not one but often two cars in every driveway. The Artist Elinor Whidden confronts the “utopian” aspect of this culture. Her performative pieces use the automobile and the symbolism of our surrender to Mr. Ford’s grand visions. She constructs devises from old car parts and transform them into artifacts that brings associations to the time of the Western Frontier; Canoes, Dogsleds, Knapsacks, Walking sticks, tents and snowshoes. She takes these rather ridiculous and “fraud” objects into nature, and reenacts the walks of the early pioneers and their fur-trade routes around Ontario. In the documenting footage of these journeys she plays the role of the lone explorer that conquers the land, however now burdened with the weight of technological evolution, with heavy knapsacks made of old car parts, and with a leaky tent, paradoxically made of windshield wipers.

Elinor is contributing to The Park of Many Paths, where she is constructing the lighting. PDA spoke with her to hear more about her artistic motives with this particular project and in general:

PDA: You have a very specific point of departure within each of the works I have seen, the car and the symbolic that evolves from cars in general. How did this project start?

EW: I took my graduate program in Buffalo, NY, and was immediately struck by the fact that you simply couldn’t get to campus by foot or bike. Car was the only option. And my response to that frustration was to do performances, where I carried these knapsacks made of car parts on my back by the highways. The Ideas of Paul Virilio, regarding progress related to speed and military logistics, inspired me. I investigated the phenomenon of “Dromomania” which is someone obsessed with walking, and began to develop this character obsessed with the act of walking.
Paul Virilio is a French urban planner and philosopher. He links speed and the risks of accidents in relation to speed with military warfare, and that the development of these constitutes how our society, in particular cities, is created.

PDA: Can you tell more about this subversion of tempo, where you are taking the car and its relationship with speed into the slowmotion of walking? Mania (as in Dromomania) can both mean insanity and passion. How does the phenomenon of passion, speed and freedom play into your work dealing with car culture?

EW: My objects are pretty ridiculous, ironic and fraud, and in some way deals with our idealization of progress, that we only succeed if we are moving forward, and that this can become sort of albatross (which is a metaphor for a psychological burden that feels like a curse, red.). So I was pulling these car objects from the scrap yard, refashioning them into something new and thereby underpinning how fraud they were from the beginning. And obviously, when I am flipping and subverting this relationship of the automobile that moves really fast and often carrying only one human into me carrying it on my bag, using the physical power of the human body, and the tempo gets slow, often ludicrous, it gets ironic. I think having a humorous critical voice is sometimes a good way of talking about difficult subjects such as colonialism and imperialism. I am addressing this mythology that emerged from colonialism of the white man, the explorer, alone in the untouched wilderness, which in my eyes has strangely been carried forward by the car culture today. There is something passionate, but also crazy about it, and I work this into my character, that keeps on going after the last motor has stopped.

PDA: So your work is both dystopian and utopian?

EW: Yes, I really do feel that we are coming to an end. I do believe that the automotive industry cannot sustain in the way it is now, and I do think there should be an end to this gluttonous consumption. But I also see a drive for innovation through other methods; it is hopeful, but unknown.

PDA: Your work might be a criticism of contemporary consumption, but I feel they also depict a love for the rugged landscape and for your country. So at first glance it might be an ironic comment on modern man’s relationship to nature, but I feel it is also a yearning for a retreat into nature despite technology’s invasion, Is that right?

EW: Art sort of illuminates your inside feelings, and the fact that I have spent a lot of time in the Yucon as a canoe guide and has been a lot in this sort of epic wilderness is a part of me that buys into this idea of Canada as this big empty and untouched landscape. It is for me both ironic and truthful that I do have nostalgia towards this idea, but that I feel that it is an imaginary picture. Nostalgia to me is yearning for something that doesn’t really exist.

PDA: Do you think there is an aspect of Canadian identity that idealizes nature in a manner that does not correspond how people’s actual relationship towards nature is in reality? Are you pinpointing this romanticism of a collective Canadian memory about conquering the land?

EW: Totally. Absolutely. That is definitely a paradox in Canadian identity, although it might be changing in the current generation. But in my parents’ generation and in mine for sure. Take The Group of Seven for instance, who were going into the landscape, ignoring that there is mining, that aboriginals exist, depicts this empty idealized nature, which actually doesn’t exist. And what I want to show is that I am aware of this paradox and also that I buy into it..

PDA: Lastly, how do your artistic motives play into a project like the Park of Many Paths and what do you get out of working with community engaged art organizations such as Mabelle Arts and PDA?

EW: For one it is always giving and interesting as an artist to work with others. I have since the beginning of my career been doing these performance pieces outside the gallery space. The first one was my friends and I walking with a scrap Ford Taurus on our backs, around the portage of Niagara Falls, which opened the Western Frontier. There is an aspect to the performance in the collaborative process that is very fruitful and transformative, which you can’t give to an audience in a gallery. Also I really respect what Leah (from Mabelle Arts red.) is doing and how she addresses issues of gentrification, place and identity, which are tough subjects to deal with. I am working on the lighting for the park, and trying to conceptually work towards themes of migration. First I had a hard time relating to this, since I am from Toronto and don’t have a story of migration. But I have traveled extensively in the country and experienced the difference in light and what time the sun sets, especially in the north where it sometimes doesn’t sets at all. So I’ve been collaborating with people from the community that comes from many different places, and working towards a lighting piece that reflects this sequencing in the light. So it deals with the fact that there might be another place that you call home, where the sun sets at a different time than where you are.

Read more about Elinor Whiddens art HERE.

One Response to “Reminiscences of The Western Frontier – An interview with artist Elinor Whidden”

  1. […] Sissel had the chance to speak with artist Elinor Whidden about her work and posted the interview here.  Elinor will be lecturing at the Design Exchange on September 20th at 6:30pm: Elinor’s […]

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