The smell of red cedar
By Christine Clark, June 2012
Emilio Portal creates a temporary memorial to commemorate the Lekwungen people.
The first time I met Emilio Portal, he had been accepted to create an installation at a gallery space I was then coordinating. In the beginning, his plan was to create a little shelter out of bamboo and other discarded items and to live in this hut for the entire length of the show, which was a month long. Interestingly, his ideas evolved the more time he spent feeling out the space and eventually, by the time his scheduled month had arrived, his installation became a performance during which he played a cajon (a box drum) in the night “To Honour the Spirit of this Forest,” as he called the piece.
It was a beautiful experience. Emilio was playing his cajon for the great lost forest and its peoples who once lived in the concrete-covered place we now know as Victoria. He was playing for the African slaves who once lived in coastal Peru, a people who were not allowed the freedom to play music and so developed an instrument, the cajon, that could, should the situation demand, disappear back into what it really was, a box or a dresser drawer. He was playing for the oppressed, for the people and the places; playing in the night, in the September rain, like a great heartbeat honouring the spirit of what has been lost.
During a recent interview, sitting under dappled sunshine in a quiet corner of Cook Street Village, the 30-year-old artist, musician, designer and builder mused, in his dream voice, that “in some ways my work is about grieving. The only way to honour what has passed is through grieving. It’s precious. Western culture doesn’t want to deal with grief or death, [and yet] it’s so essential to life. You can’t live a whole life if you can’t grieve the loss of your parents.”
About his newest installation, called “islands,” a creative and ongoing performance at Open Space that began May 14 and ends June 25, Portal, who holds an MFA from the University of Victoria, a BFA from Laurentian University and a Bachelor of Environmental Design from Dalhousie, says, “I want to create a temporary memorial in the gallery to commemorate the Lekwungen people. [When the treaties were signed] it was two different systems and people colliding. The First Nations people couldn’t speak English very well. Their laws didn’t fit inside the European system. This entire city was dependent on their destruction. They used to live downtown in the Inner Harbour, but now they have been pushed out to Esquimalt. The Songhees Reserve. Sleggs’ is in their backyard. It’s not very desirable.
“These people have incredible value and wisdom, and our ancestors crushed them. It was probably not a personal decision. They were working in a culture of oppression, but we don’t have to perpetuate that. There must have been some secret wisdom to the way First Nations lived [sustainably],” says Portal, who has spent a number of years with Dakota, Nahuatl and Wixarika elders. “I’d like to honour this in art, because if we don’t, we’re going to drown in this consumerist system, in the lie.”
It’s important “knowing about ancient culture and about [what’s happened] since Columbus, that there was a way of seeing the world before that. Common sense says that that is all gone and it doesn’t matter anymore, but I don’t believe that. I believe it’s the future. The Earth and the gods are going to make changes in the world beyond our control. If we can control our egos and be open to the world and maybe if we’re open to the past, maybe then we can hold that as something to inform future generations.”
About his work, his art, Emilio Portal is refreshingly noncommittal and decidedly non-specific. He rails against the power of the institution in art, the university and the gallery system, with what he sees as their uncompromising obsession with “critical, analytical and creative thinking.” He states that, “those things don’t need to be manifested with materials. I don’t like this whole explanation thing with art. You could have just written about it. Why bother making the object? All materials have a history that’s rooted in the Earth. There are a lot of art theories talking about the psychological impact of work. It goes on and on, but it doesn’t address the actual history of materials.”
At Open Space, by the second day of his ongoing installation, a delicate zigzagging U-shaped barrier built in situ out of cedar 2x4s stretches across the main room of the gallery. Within the U is another structure of the same material enclosing what appears to be a tablet similar to the things public works committees install to commemorate people and places of importance. The very air is thick with the fragrance of moist cut wood. The atmosphere is gorgeous. On the cut ends of each piece of lumber is stamped Haida Forest Products. Here is the forest again, and here are the people. Not in the mysterious past, but very present in the now.
As an experience, Emilio, in person and in his art, resonates. The talk and the work are so rich and so intricately textured. This is an artist with insight, an artist of mystery, revealing the process only as the process is revealed. This is not an intellectual exercise. This is about engaging the entire self, the mind and the body, the memory and the imagination, not only his, but ours. Just the simple smell of cedar, in fact a sensory powerhouse, awakens an entire interlocking chain of ideas, images, and other older (and personal) sensory experiences: the forest, the exploitation of mass logging, saw mills, survival, forestry practices, sustainability, home.
And so at Open Space, and also at grunt gallery in Vancouver from May 28 to June 23 (a similarly themed installation about Qiqayt history), Portal will be honouring the past, illuminating the present and preparing for the future, using materials from the Earth to build an ongoing dream of remembering, in a little space he’s created for himself in this big, crowded, endless world, without explanations, full of mystery and spontaneity.
Christine Clark is a Victoria-based artist who writes about artists in Victoria and beyond. See her blog at http://artinvictoria.com.