Stitching My Landscape (2017) is Gruben’s first large scale work of land art and it is deeply tied to memory, family, and healing. The core visual elements of red material stretched across ice are embedded in a recollection Gruben has of her brother harvesting seal: during the processing a long, vivid, red string of fresh gut was flung out taught against the white snow. Consisting of 111 ice holes connected with red broadcloth, Stitching My Landscape extends for nearly a thousand feet. It was installed April 23rd, 2017 on an expanse of the frozen ocean surrounding Ibyuq Pingo. Pingos are ice-filled hills created by permafrost, that have functioned as navigational aids and hunting viewpoints for generations of Inuvialuit people. Ibyuq is part of the Pingo Canadian National Landmark and is a defining feature of the horizon south west of Tuktoyaktuk. It is estimated to be at least 1000 years old and features deeply in local cultural memory: Mangilaluk, a man who Tuktoyaktuk elders refer to as the community’s first chief, passed on the story of three polar bears who came to Ibyuq Pingo looking for women to be their mothers.
Ibyuq has been a site of profound comfort and healing throughout Gruben’s life. In 1997, she spent a night on Ibyuq with a friend. They had crossed the channel that winds around its base on a driftwood raft lashed together with a rope her father had given to her specifically for that purpose. That night, she used a needle and a thread coated in charcoal from their campfire to hand-stitch a traditional Inuvialuit facial tattoo that would ultimately consist of three lines on her chin: one mark for each of her sons. Thirty years later, in stitching the surrounding sea ice with red broadcloth, the artist has expanded an intimate, personal moment out into a communal, global context via entwined sculptural and performative events.
Gruben prepared over 300 metres of broadcloth in a labour intensive method that involved splitting it in half by hand and rolling it into large balls. Preparing the site took a small team of community members. The artists’ solo, performative process of rolling the cloth across the ice from hole to hole was an act of endurance and of careful devotion, as her body physically generated the familiar pattern both of raw stitching, and the beautifully worked delta trim that adorns Inuvialuit drum dancing parkas. Aerial views reveal the sheer scale of the piece. They also reveal stunning marks in the snow: footprints, and sled and skidoo tracks. These are the usually invisible traces left by the artists’ process, by everyone who was involved in supporting the process, and by those who visited the piece after it was created. The background audio for the film is the sound of a traditional chisel that had belonged to Gruben’s father, working the ice. It has been slowed down such that each moment of contact becomes reminiscent of a heartbeat.
Exhibition curator Tania Willard has written about the piece: “In skills-based arts the act of making something beautiful also becomes about valuing what you have, the gifts and harvests from the land. Principles of hard work and relationships to the environment are expressed in traditional art forms.” Drawing on a simple aesthetic of white ice and red lines that zigzag across the landscape, the work simultaneously evokes suggestions of traditional clothing and means of subsistence; the strength of family and community; and the potential for healing, and for being healed by, the land.
– Kyra Kordoski
Excerpted from ‘Shift; Rise: Maureen Gruben’s UNGALAQ (When Stakes Come Loose)’ a catalog essay for Maureen Gruben’s solo exhibition UNGALAQ (When Stakes Come Loose), on view at Vancouver’s grunt gallery, June 9 – July 29th, 2017.