Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Coyote, an exhibition at Casa, Lethbridge

Work by Leila Armstrong

November 1 - December 27 2014

It was pre-dawn and, for some reason I have subsequently forgotten, I was driving down an East Vancouver side street. The light had that amazing quality it has just before the sun crests the horizon and everything was eerily still and quiet. Just as I was turning left onto Renfrew Street, a dog trotted across the road. No, not a dog at all. It was skulking, head down. That’s how I recognized it was a coyote.

I have such a vivid recollection of that moment. It seems both dreamlike and hyper-real because of the lack of all other movement and the super saturated quality of the light. It was an encounter with something unexpected. Had it been a dog, I wouldn’t remember it so vividly two decades later.

I have romanticized stumbling upon what many would describe as nuisance wildlife: a non-domesticated animal that annoys and even threatens. We idealize wild animals as majestic and stately, examples of what it means to be unhindered by societal conventions, until we encounter them regularly within the limits of our domain: the barnyard, the pasture, the city park, the school ground, and our backyard.

In November 2009, the Saskatchewan provincial government launched its Coyote Control Program and began offering $20 for every coyote killed (the paws of the animal are submitted as proof of a kill). By May 2010 over 71,000 coyote had been destroyed. Five years later, hunters receive $25/coyote. Biologists and conservationists have decried the hunt, pointing out that coyotes are crucial to keeping gopher, fox, and deer populations in check. Some point out that coyote populations are cyclical and that “nature” will keep things balanced. In April 2010, 37 footless coyote carcasses were discovered in the Cypress Hills in Southeastern Alberta leading Alberta Fish and Wildlife to conclude that Alberta coyotes were being poached for the Saskatchewan bounty. Interestingly, had the culprits been found, the most severe charge they would have faced was littering.


Nicholas Jardine and Emily Spary write that “If a single vision predominates in modern Western society, it is that of a passive and disempowered nature, slave and victim of human agency.”[i]

The coyote defies this vision. In spite of efforts by humans, coyotes are the most effective, non-domesticated, mid-to-large sized animals in terms of expanding their range and population in response to human encroachment. Coyotes thrive in close proximity to humans, living off our detritus, livestock, and pets. Yet, in rural and suburban areas, there is a perception of coyotes as vermin and nuisances. Last year a coyote attacked a Labrador retriever jogging with its owner along Bridge Drive pedestrian path in Lethbridge. On August 28 of this year, CBC reported a Calgary man fought off a coyote in his living room with vacuum cleaner.

My goal is to utilize the coyote as a focal point to address anthropomorphism, hybridization, and adaptation. Rachel Poliquin describes how taxidermy

…always tells us stories about particular cultural moments, about the spectacles of nature that we desire to see, about assumptions of superiority, our yearning for hidden truths, the loneliness and longing that haunt our strange existence of being both within and apart from the animal kingdom.[ii]

It is the desire to hang personal narratives onto dead and mounted animals that gave birth to the works in this exhibition. If taxidermy embodies an “irresolvable tension” between animals and objects,[iii] by physically imposing miniature scenic narratives onto their bodies and bases, I underline that coyotes are part of our cultural imaginary, perpetually teetering between the romantic, moonlight howler and backyard menace.

It is my hope that these works resonate beyond the simplistic enjoyment of the objects themselves. According to Bill Brown, “we look through objects (to see what they disclose about history, society, or culture – above all, what they disclose about us), but we only catch a glimpse of things.”[iv] It is my intention that Coyote is a conduit to old narratives reworked and re-imagined, to new meanings, and – for some – to a better understanding of our environs and the amazing potential of adaptation.

Leila Armstrong

[i] Nicholas Jardine and Emily Spary, “The natures of cultural history,” Cultures of Natural History, ed. N. Jardine, J. A. Secord, and E. C. Spary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 4.
[ii] Rachel Poliquin, The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012), 10.
[iii] ibid, 5.
[iv] Bill Brown, “Things Theory,” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1 (2001): 24.

1 comment:

Soror Iris E. said...

It was an enchanting exhibit.