Her voice, the waves, like silk.

by Kim Kitchen. 

Documentation by Cameron Lamothe.

We would like to acknowledge funding support from the Ontario Arts Council for supporting this exhibition of work.

Exhibition essay by Alexander Rondeau

North Bay (ON) based artist Kim Kitchen’s solo exhibition at Between Pheasants Contemporary situates the self-reflexive relationship between artistic production and disability by using video, photography, and sound recordings that document her journey to the shores of Lake Superior as part of a research residency in 2019. The central driving force of Her voice, the waves, like silk. is a video work titled SILK, which is accompanied by five large scale photographs adorning the chickenwire outdoor enclosures (agriculturally referred to as “runs”) of the coop, and a wooden miniature library housing copies of an artist booklet inside the coop. 

In 2014, Rheumatoid Disease came to Kim Kitchen with severity subsequently challenging her mobility — she was bedridden for much of the following three years. As a result, Kitchen thoughtfully shifted her practice away from tactile mediums such as sculpture and installation to sound and media art. Too, long distance travel had become incredibly difficult for the artist and must now be done incrementally with tenderness and comfort. Formerly, Kitchen and her family took annual vacations to Lake Superior, though with the onset of Rheumatoid Disease, this has not been possible for some time. Inspired by North Bay based artist-run centre Near North Mobile Media Lab’s “Northern Ontario Mobile Residency”, in which participants travelled the North in an RV retrofitted into a mobile media arts studio, Kitchen suddenly had discovered a way to return to the shoreline she so loved. In the summer of 2019, Kim Kitchen and her partner, Perry, and two dogs Poa and Padington, travelled westbound for the artist’s research residency with the singular objective of experimentation, and determining Kitchen’s capacity in exploring the overlapping linkages of disability, shifting from a plastic to media arts practice, travel, the artistic histories of Lake Superior, and the cultural and historical formulations of landscape across all the aforementioned tenants. 

While not expressly documented in the photographs or the video, the RV — as a central force within the family vacation’s role in normalizing inherent social and cultural power dynamics in landscape photography —  becomes a complicated figure providing Kitchen the necessary accommodations to venture on long distance travel, while also offering an inroad to critique the historical masculinization of the photographic medium within the landscape. As photographer and scholar Deborah Bright argues, the family vacation trope of fleeing the urban for the ‘healing’ nature of the rural is a subset of a cultural movement catalyzed by financial gain of the tourism industry.[1] The modernist dichotomization of urban vs rural enforced promulgated notions of needing escape: that the other side of the fence could be greener, if only for a couple weeks. Photography remains central in the preservation of such ephemeral road trips whereby self and landscape documentation becomes the key trophy of travels, all the while furthering the settler colonial project of dispossession of the land by firmly anchoring a sense of settler belonging therein. Photographs and family archives of road trips and summer vacations spent roaming the landscape also become enforcements of both ritual and cycle; revisiting old images sparks the need to take on new and exciting adventures, and every year the archive must be added to.[2] As is made clear by Kitchen’s self-portraits of her nude body on the shoreline, her artistic interest of locating her own body — and its arrival — at this site probes a myriad ensuing questions.

The invisible role of the RV within Her voice, the waves, like silk. not only locates Kitchen’s work within a larger history of lens-based and media work while confronting the history of travel and landscape, but also considers the body-object relationship between Kim Kitchen and the RV as the only suitable extension of abilities in doing this work. A regular vehicle does not properly orient Kitchen’s body; some objects and some spaces, as feminist queer scholar Sara Ahmed argues, can not accommodate some bodies as they can others.[3] Insofar as an object has the ability to accommodate a body, it also begins to inform the orientation of that body’s abilities through the object, and the ways in which an object can align itself with a body can therefore impact what a body is and is not able to do.[4] Moreover, bodies are shaped by their histories and repeated gestures, which thus inform the body’s tendencies.[5] Kitchen’s annual road trips created a tendency and an orientation for her body to move towards the shoreline, which was disrupted by her limited mobility and the inability of objects — beyond the bed — to accommodate her needs for several years.[6] Bodies, Ahmed continues, are also socialized as gendered further impacting a body’s relationship to objects and the ways in which bodies exist within different spaces.[7] 

Circling back to Bright, she argues that the colonial, white, heterosexual male gaze has historically almost exclusively held canonical status in landscape photography as these male bodies are not culturally given the same attachment to the natural world as cisgender female bodies; the female body, as culturally distinguished by its reproductive system, has been idealized as the natural landscape itself.[8] Given the cultural imbalance in these gendered associations, the white cis-het male body has been afforded higher significance in creative endeavours pertaining to the natural world and the landscape.[9] Importantly, the very shoreline appearing in Kitchen’s photographs holds much significance in the cultural masculinization of the land within nationalist mythologies. Early establishment of Canadian artists working in the landscape, such as the famous Group of Seven, were celebrated for their bushwhacking abilities to navigate through a rugged landscape as part of their artistic undertakings. Kitchen, here, along the shores of Lake Superior, where the canonical Group themselves also visited while undertaking yearly autumnal trips to paint the same shorelines, questions the art historical celebration of male, abled bodies working in the genre of landscape. By bringing her body to the forefront in these images, Kitchen, as a disabled feminist artist, instead looks to feminist fore bearers such as Ana Mendieta and Laura Aguilar as art historical guides in thinking through body-land relations. That the Group of Seven were celebrated as strong and rugged artists able to trek North and paint becomes an important art historical backdrop against which Kitchen’s photographs push back upon. The true “work” from Kitchen’s practice in this exhibition comes not from the lens-based productions or the performances they document, but in getting her body to the shoreline and in turning to media arts as a tool for advocacy: the work of her practice — and the emergent pieces — manifest through the entangled, self-reflexive intra-action of ability and artistic production.

I did have a very clear message to take with me a piece of silk that I bought years and years ago” she starts in SILK, her voice softly drawing us in as the screen fades from black to the shallow, sandy ebbing waters of Lake Superior. In death and birth, the body is tender and immobile and often left in stillness during both moments of passage. In both, the body is also often wrapped in textiles of some sort. The way the textiles in Kitchen’s photographs connect her body to the edges of the photographic frames suggests that her body is in neither stage of beginning nor finality. Rather, the introduced textile suggests that her body is metaphorically situated somewhere in the nexus of both becoming, and unbecoming; a rebirth through surrender. These spiritual passages and pathways perhaps hold more importance and prompt increased contemplation for an artist like Kim Kitchen. Her sincerity, warmth, and humility in thinking through complicated ontological and epistemological questions of becoming, being, and unbecoming further help frame just how wonderful Kitchen’s offerings in Her voice, the waves, like silk. are when cultural and art historical systems of power tell us otherwise. For Kitchen, these pieces are not the end product, merely just the beginning of her new trajectory. This work surmounted many obstacles and was many years in the making, but she did it. And it’s fucking beautiful. 

[1] Deborah Bright, "Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men: An Inquiry Into the Cultural Meanings of Landscape Photography”, in Exposure, 23:1 (1985), 3

[2] Ibid., 3

[3] Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, (Durham & London, Duke University Press, 2006), 51

[4] Ibid., 51

[5] Ibid., 56

[6] Ibid., 51

[7] Ibid., 59

[8] Bright, Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men, 11

[9] Ibid., 11

Kim Kitchen is a multidisciplinary artist currently working in audio and film as a result of a debilitating illness that transformed her reality. Kim explores collective cultural understandings of the female body as it finds itself in the natural world. Previously, her practice was largely tactile, focusing on painting, sculpture, installation and performance. Now, sound art and film currently lend to her practice of critical inquiry of body-land relations and the self-reflexive relationship between ability and artistic production. Kim’s community activism is inclusive, celebratory, and exuberant. In contrast, her work is introspective, thoughtful, and prompts quiet reflection. Now more than ever, interdependence is fundamental for this disabled artist.

Between Pheasants Contemporary would like to publicly acknowledge and thank the Ontario Art Council’s support through the Northern Arts Project grant to make this exhibition possible.

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