Confession: Around late March last year, as many of us found our lives dissolving further into a science fiction reality, I felt myself pivoting from the already increasingly digestible and ubiquitous TED talk corner of the web and into videos of graduation keynote addresses. Videos of motivational pep talks soon followed, along with supercuts of film scenes showcasing hard-won redemption with platitudinous speeches like: “No matter how hard life gets, you keep pushing.” More and more, as I lost myself in the overflowing sea of thoughts spurred by these charismatic pronouncements, I felt glad to be living alone. There was no one to barge in on me unironically watching these carefully crafted and performed monologues often urging the viewer to imagine beyond their immediate selves and to grip onto the one thing we all have within ourselves: Hope. I set aside whatever skepticism I had prior to this spell, and willfully ate it all up.
The very fact this anecdote is delivered as a confession, something done in private and without the puzzled gaze of concerned loved ones, attests to the hokey nature often at the crux of inspirational-laden language which continues to pour out of the average Instagram influencer’s feed. We see these seemingly poignant morale-boosting phrases deployed by ad campaigns, by media coaches, by Justin Bieber (see his albums: ‘Purpose’ or ‘Justice’) or by that quiet friend from school who now has a lot to say on ‘energy points’ and the astral plane.
There’s also the ever-expanding section of Etsy, offering handmade crafts designed with saccharine affirmations and sentiments in the form of text-based home decorations. Under “Home and Living” and its subcategory “Wall Decor”, you can pick out your framed stock print to match the ambience of your living arrangements. You can get one that says: “Be Fearless”, or “You are Brave”, or “Just Breath” or a favourite, “Always Choose Happiness”. Perhaps you are not an Etsy person and don't want to pay for shipping/handling, or are overwhelmed with all the inspiration from your Pinterest feed. In that case, simply walk into your local Walmart and for the low price of $12 plus tax, get a similar set of typographical decor seeking to uplift and ease you into the right headspace.
In September 2019, artist Graham Wiebe was a few weeks into adjusting to his new environment of Victoria, BC, feeling things out after relocating from his home of Winnipeg, MB. While on city transit one afternoon a fellow passenger pulled a rock, with the word “Peace” inscribed on it, out of their pocket. The kind of trinket you’d most likely find in the “Home and Living” section of Esty. The passenger held it in their palm and stared at it intently as if it was a deity that could manifest the word into existence simply by having persistent eye contact with it. It was their version of an alternative prayer. Unlike my private indulgence with inspirational messaging from the sequestered screen of my personal computer, this bus passenger’s “moment of zen” was nothing to keep private. This brief happenstance, along with gathered impressions of his new surroundings, will go on to redirect the artist’s thinking and visual practice in a new direction.
A few weeks before packing up to move out west, tragedy struck and things halted for Wiebe. “It’s all gone”, read one local news headline. “Loss so profound”, read another headline. Forty-three minutes after midnight on July 22nd, 2019, the Winnipeg Fire Department received an alarm from the city’s North End. On the corner of Schultz and Jarvis Ave. was a warehouse that occupied an entire block. The warehouse was a multi-purpose building but predominantly used as studio space by artists from all corners of the city including Wiebe.
First responding firefighters arrived at the premises within seven minutes of the call to witness thick smoke spewing out of the building’s second floor. The fire grew and worsened. After hours of continuous wrestling with the spreading inferno, the building crumbled. Fortunately, no one was harmed. A week passed by and you could still see smoke fizzling out of the ashes. Wiebe who had been working almost exclusively within film photography lost ten years of accumulated work along with all of his studio equipment. He had almost nothing to pack up and so his planned relocation also meant a clean slate in his artistic practice.
Directionless and listless, questions of mortality naturally crept up. And so, while acquainting himself to his new surroundings in Victoria, Wiebe discovered a local psychic and decided to pay a visit. His objective was simple: To get an estimated date of his death. This is from an artist whose eccentric photography work, not unlike his own general coltish disposition, always comes laced with a spirited yet lopsided sense of humour. Wiebe becoming curious about his own expiry date was both a real curiosity as much as it was a theoretical inquiry with a wry ironic distance. His appointment with the psychic fell through so he made art about it instead. The psychic who never returned my call became one of the first objects he created as part of this new chapter in his life and artistic practice. For Wiebe, there was no looking back. Tragedy became an opportunity to begin anew. This is where we see sculptural elements begin to accompany his previous photographic inclinations—leading to an installation work that doubled as his graduate studies thesis presentation, Inspirational Stones. The installation gathered an assortment of partially rejigged readymade objects and lateral photographic fragments. By and large, they act as analogues to a terrible year, the possessive fog of grief and anxiety that followed, and the palette-cleansing possibilities that surfaced thereafter.
Among other things, Inspirational Stones hosted a sculptural concoction that included everything from a floor vent, repurposed speaker cabinet, a gothic-inspired railing vestigial, oil-scented humidifier (which spewed its aura around the piece), a fake half-burnt campfire, and window blinds that lined the cabinet, beaming out soft orange light. The cherry on top of this meandering assemblage was a piece of Esty-inspired home decor, the word “Love” in bolded cursive, laser-cut from varnished MDF. Wiebe mish-mashes a kind of self-preservation shrine to cozy up to in an apocalyptic scenario not far from the one outside of our windows today. It is a surreal simulation that professes an oasis of sanity. It verges on absurdity, but that’s all we got in a world riddled with endless doubt. There’s an allure to somehow keep believing in the grand seduction of inspirational messaging, self-help literature, strength crystals, a rock that has “Peace” engraved on it, or just keep filling our shopping carts with scented humidifiers until a new sense of sanity emerges. In the face of an ever impending doom, the collection of work in Inspirational Stones, intimates with a deadpan wry voice that says: ‘sure, you do you, whatever gets you through the day’. For Wiebe, unsurprisingly, humour is a central part of this. Most of his new objects and spatial arrangements discursively use the delirium of tragedy to tease out the many—often seemingly irrational—ways we cope, the new habits we develop, and how the grid of consumer culture makes this all the more complicated.
Several of the objects gathered here are often advertised to consumers as “therapeutic” or meant to bring about a semblance of respite, however flaccid. Just like humour itself, they act as a comforting pill for navigating the dystopian reality we find ourselves in. But even as these readymades come with vacant promises, they continue to proliferate in the market giving their sheer ubiquity the power to sway. Although in some sense, the objects in Wiebe’s installation aren’t living the lives they were manufactured for, and as such, are hallowed and dead, he gives them a new critical successive life while reorienting our relationship with them in the real world.
A personal favourite and centerpiece of this oeuvre is one that hovers and gives the space a reflective ambience. To harken back to a site of tragedy, Wiebe re-imagines a fragment of his former studio from Winnipeg, the one taken by the fire. The minimalist installation Flies includes dead flies in the light fixtures of the gallery just as appeared in his previous workspace. It is a lyrical palimpsest to the impermanence of life, its fragility, and what we do with that very knowledge. In a more physically corporal piece, the knowledge of impending death is confronted in the form of premature obituary photos. The artist’s very alive parents who like their son, wade through the same dark humour, asked Wiebe to capture their likeness ahead of their future funeral ceremonies. The towering image pair—Mom and Dad—was taken virtually during the height of the pandemic lockdowns. They rest atop a 3-D printed finger heart gesture like the one Taylor Swift would’ve made ten years ago. In an interview conducted back in 2011, the singer explained why her fans credited her for initiating the heart symbol. She commented, “It just means something between ‘I love you’ and ‘thank you’...A sweet, simple message that you can deliver without saying a word.” Whether winking at a decade-old fad or questioning its half-felt pleasantry, Wiebe continuously tiptoes between sincerity and his trademark head-scratching lampooning.
Playing in the background while writing this was the Montreal band Ought’s track “Beautiful Blue Sky.” I couldn’t help but align the song with Wiebe’s work. I observed the band's own toggle between an affectless yet sharp-witted knock on the sunny make-belief of suburbia, and a real underlying jittery angst. Over and over, the singer repeats the chorus: How’s the family?/ How’s the job? / How’s the church? / Fancy seeing you here / Fancy seeing you here, as if programmed to continuously deliver small-talk. The lyrics continue in the same repetitive manner: “Time and off again, time and off again”. Until it concludes with:
It's all that we have, it's all that we have
Just that and the big, beautiful blue sky
I'm no longer afraid to die
Cause that is all that I have left
As a last result, the singer invites us to gaze upwards at the heavens, away from the tyrannical landscape below. For many caught within the curse of the contemporary or wrestling through a low humming but consistent foreboding existence, the expanse of the sky and its promising horizons may bring about a transcendental solace. Or perhaps, holding a stone with the word “Peace” on it may also bring on the occasional spiritual whiff. Alternatively, if you are like me, beleaguered, and easily charmed by motivational speakers, then more power to you. Inspirational Stones recognizes this earnestly. But it also can’t help but make its own tenuous seams visible, giving itself up for satire.