The Past Powers Niagara

While doing a writing residency in Welland this past Winter, one of the highlights of my interactions with that community was a midnight walk around King and Canal with artist and activist (and I like to call him a ‘cultural arsonist’, as it amuses him) James Takeo. We talked – or more exactly, I listened – as he pointed out the abandoned docking spaces and some of the former factory sites. Amidst the disarmingly casual, but very insightful, comments he made about that city (such as calling it the #rustbeltwonderland, which I have appropriated repeatedly) was that Welland is a city that was always about working, and now that much of that work is gone, doesn’t know what it is, yet, or might be, in the future.

I took that gem away to consider, especially when I returned to St. Catharines, which shares many historical tropes with the Rose City. I was also reading Cataract City (Craig Davidson’s novel takes places in the gritty reality of Niagara Falls, not the shimmering colourful falling water), and this reflection by the main character stood out: ‘If you grew up in Cataract City and managed to finish high school, chances are you took a job at the dry docks, Redpath Sugar, the General Motors plant in St. Catharines or the Bisk. Plenty of the jobs were simple enough that any half-competent person could master them by the end of their first shift. One of my schoolmates’ dads filled sacks of iced tea mix. Another drilled holes in ignition-collar locks. The only question was whether you could do that same task eight hours a day for the next forty years.’

This latest tangent from your intrepid #artcriticfromhell is spurred by two exhibitions on display right now in wider Niagara. One is in Welland: Atlas: Memories Forged In Steel which ‘focuses on the 1940s through to the 1960s as that was the peak of Atlas production and staff. The exhibit highlights the significant impact the company had on the community and the families connected to Atlas.’

The other is The Power of Niagara: ‘This exhibition includes archival photographs, by both amateur and professional photographers, on loan from OPG Niagara, alongside the contemporary video work Ice Forms, American Falls, Niagara, by filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. The exhibition explores artistic responses to the iconic site and the massive hydroelectric facility at Niagara Falls.’

Though intersecting in ideas and concepts, these are very different exhibitions, formally. That may also be informed by how one is more nostalgia than celebration, or that one survives (Niagara) while the other (Atlas) seems to exist more vibrantly in memory and the artifacts shared. Amusingly, since my coming to Niagara, I’ve visited the Atlas ruins several times, but haven’t been to see the Falls yet…..

Atlas Steels, Yousuf Karsh

Atlas is more community focused, and isn’t what I would call ‘art’ so much as history. Attending the reception, it seemed more a space to invoke and recall memories about the plant and the many familial connections that people in this region share, based around Atlas. However, a highlight of the exhibition are the many images shot by Yousuf Karsh (a friend who’s both a labour historian and photographer lent me the book of these) that are portraits of the workers at the plant. Karsh was renowned for his portraiture, oftentimes of the powerful and affluent, but the manner in which he captures Steel Worker George Guglielmo, Atlas Steel (1950) expands that oeuvre. From the late Karsh’s site: [Karsh] had never photographed in an industrial plant before. The images would become Atlas Steel’s 1951 Annual Report, and would join Karsh’s work with Ford of Canada and Sharon Steel in the book Industrial Images. The official caption for this image read:“When Karsh first saw George Guglielmo standing watching him with face protector uplifted he was reminded of an ancient Roman gladiator. George’s parents came, in fact, from a village near the Eternal City.” That personal touch is prevalent throughout the entire space: there are objects and ephemera that connect to the plant, but also news clippings and information about how Atlas was present in the community, through events and other sponsorship that shaped the city as much as any product forged in the plant. At the opening reception, the words of the current president of Atlas were manifest in the conversations between familiar and new faces: “There’s a lot of industry from this area that may not be quite what it used to be many years ago, but there’s always that lineage of family.”

Steel Worker George Guglielmo, Atlas Steel, Yousuf Karsh, 1950

Niagara is an impressive installation, both in the size and arrangement of the nearly two dozen images, showcasing the hydro-generation efforts at Sir Adam Beck II: many of the shots are by workers themselves, offering a similar intimate, ‘inside’ view as was offered with Atlas. The stark ‘power’ of these photographs surround you in one of the two rooms that make up the exhibition. The monochromatic images fill the room, and though ‘instructional’ and strongly historical, have an aesthetic sensibility. I’m a fan of Brutalist architecture, and its associations with modernism and industry, and there’s a quality here of the momentous nature of industry (in a more positive sense, rather than the ‘madness’ so to speak, of Stalinist five year plans or the ‘Great Leap Forward’). Massive feats of engineering have a power, an awe inspiring nature. When in conjunction with something ‘naturally’ capable of silencing us, as a species, such as the Falls, the alternating – or contested, ahem – ideas of our seeming ants before these things, but having also built these things, as industrious ants, must be in the mind of the visitor. Curator Deb Antoncic has pointed out that the images stretch across several generations – like Atlas, again – as the images are on loan from Ontario Power Generation. Scenes are not just from the aforementioned building of Sir Adam Beck II (1950s) but reach back to the 1920s and earlier efforts in hydro-generation efforts with the ‘power’ of the Falls.

Ontario Power Generation

The display is didactic, but not excessively so, and the video component in the room further on (all the images line what may have been a dining room, and this allows for pausing and paying attention to the details of the story being told) is calming, and almost trance inducing. This slow loop is sublime, in a manner Frederick Edwin Church would appreciate. A past exhibition at the Riverbrink, The Falls, also displayed many artists’ renditions and responses to the power of that site, stretching back decades).

The ‘nature’ (sorry, no pun intended) of the Riverbrink (having been Samuel Weir’s house, and the collection there is more historical than contemporary – his interest in Quebec sculpture of the late 19th century is an aspect of Canadian art history that isn’t explored much, anymore) is conducive to The Power of Niagara. You can visit it and then go upstairs and see Asta McCann’s Centre and Periphery which examines the Group of Seven through a lens of rural and urban spaces, and consider how Niagara (the entire region) wouldn’t exist without the Falls and other waterways, whether the Welland Canal or Twelve Mile Creek, in terms of commerce, or the potential to ‘tap’ the falls to facilitate progress through ‘power.’

The Power of Niagara (curated by Deb Antoncic) runs until the end of August at the Riverbrink Art Museum and Atlas: Memories Forged In Steel is at the Welland Museum will be on display until the end of January, 2020. Images are courtesy the Riverbrink Art Museum and the estate of Yousuf Karsh.