Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better

By: Amanda Robertson-Hebert

“Between takeoff and landing, we are each in suspended animation, a pause between chapters of our lives. When we stare out the window into the sun's glare, the landscape is only a flat projection with mountain ranges reduced to wrinkles in the continental skin. Oblivious to our passage overhead, other stories are unfolding beneath us. Blackberries ripen in the August sun, a woman packs a suitcase and hesitates at her doorway, a letter is opened and the most surprising photograph slides from between the pages. But we are moving too fast and we are too far away; all the stories escape us, except our own. When I turn away from the window, the stories recede into the two-dimensional map of green and brown below. Like a trout disappearing into the shade of an overhanging bank, leaving you staring at the flat surface of the water and wondering if you saw it at all.”
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

Melanie Billark’s window display, Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better, features cascading plexiglass boxes of self-contained permaculture. Tiny moss habitats stack inside these cubes like vibrant, blooming, green nesting dolls surrounded by dark, rich soil. The installation reads like surreal, whimsical poetry, both enchanting and bemusing. The white of the walls and floor position us in an imagined space that gives the viewer the freedom to access their own fantasy of what these living forms represent and allow us to engage in its dreamy nuances. Billark presents us with this work gently and subtly, free to interpret these objects liberally from our own perspective.

Deeper underlying themes sequester around the urban landscape and our relationship to it. City life and the culture we subsume prompts and beguiles us into believing we are not participants of a living, breathing, constantly evolving organism. We are part of a transforming ecosystem immersed in commerce, commodity, globalization, industry and the process of seeking individuation from the collective conscious. Urban development takes pleasure in this form of deception—moulding and stacking concrete slabs into customizable living abodes, our culture is complicit in bulldozing terrains and the histories contained within the land. Our participation in modeling capitalist culture fogs our memory of how nature provides what we need, how it sustains us, and teaches us the reciprocal relationship we are intended to have with nature. Billark’s work provides a soft entry point into these thoughts and feelings.

Irish moss foraged from Toronto’s back alleys are the core of “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better”. The appeal to cultivate these mosses comes from a deep sympathy for a species often ignored, resented and pulled from between the cracks of pavement, and is an attractive metaphor for subliminal and psychological themes of being uprooted in many senses. Being uprooted aptly describes Billark’s move away from her rural upbringing to pursue her art education. In these forgotten corners, she finds a companion and friend that speaks to her. In collecting mosses, she finds a beauty she otherwise feels deprived of in the city. Weeds, unwanted in our gardens are often native, resilient plant medicines. This resiliency is the crux of urban survival. So in the corporeal act of foraging and rewilding indigenous plants, we sit between two awkward points of being:

Our contribution to and our deviation from nature and nurture.

Regardless of where we self-identify in this parable, we are navigating a hall of mirrors, or a looping paradigm, not knowing what is the former and what is the latter. We ask ourselves if we create beauty for our own consumption and pleasure, or for altruistic, benevolent purposes. The deeper you foray into that maze, Billark’s installation oscillates towards puzzling psychological territory surrounding the observer and the observed, the ethics of captivity, living art, and furthermore, who is caretaking to who?

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better describes the question Billark asks herself when creating these self-sustaining moss gardens. She feels they are stronger than she is. They grow boundlessly under stressful conditions. Within the contained structures, the recycled nutrients from the soil and moisture conditions within the cubes produce an environment where the mosses live in a constant germination phase. As a scientific experiment, she maternally watches over her habitats, affectionately monitoring changes through acts of observational research. In previous studies, she notes the success of the mosses, which occasionally flower depending on external environmental conditions. She understands the experiments are conditional and ephemeral, and that the growth is attributed to a constant state of stress within the created plexiglass environment. This symbolism resounds to city life and the pressures to boom and bust, break through and thrive in created superficial environments.

The installation is anchored by the presence of a surveillance dome mirror. Passersby may be captivated by their reflection amongst the mystifying and abundant plexiglass cubes in floating white space. The dome finds us in a pleasing distortion of being contained within a fisheye lens. We see ourselves among the art, belonging to it, and it belonging to us. We are elegantly framed within the window space, the mirror reflecting us back to ourselves, and multiplying the quantity of moss cubes we perceive. The glass window reflects back to us the city street and the traffic of the busy intersection. We can envision ourselves in these multiple facets of reality but also contained within the art’s metaphors. Reminiscent of Hans Haacke’s ‘Condensation Cube’, Billark’s moss cubes absorb moisture and systematically condensate and to sustain the living habitat. The condensation provides a haze over the cubes, blurring our view of its contents. We are succumbed to nature’s own timelines and removed from the commodity of these beautiful, curated moss parcels. The condensation intensifies in direct daylight and the presence of body heat, when we are most susceptible or desiring to view the art. The containers cool and the contents become clear once again as the sun sets, amusingly when spectators are not privy to their presence. We are brought inward to appreciate the overlooked, the overstepped, and the underdog. We are invited to be patient or to entirely miss the enticing spectacle of beauty found in alleyways and dark corners from whence the moss came. Thus we return to the source of its creation, the beauty she found in forgotten spaces, where these nomadic, urban moss specimens were originally found.

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