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Massy Interviews / Clare Wilkening

April 05 – May 05, Massy Arts will host The Southern Residents a new window installation by ceramic artist Clare Wilkening.

For the window pieces, a wall-hanging ceramic installation with over 180 individual tiles + a video installation, the artist represents each actual fish-eating killer whale local to the Salish Sea, a deeply endangered species heavily impacted by colonization, industrialization, and global warming.

The Massy Arts Gallery is located at 23 East Pender Street in Chinatown, Vancouver.

The gallery is open Tuesday to Saturday, 12pm to 5pm.

Entrance is free, and masks are mandatory.

To contact the gallery, send an email to:

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Click here to register for the opening night reception

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To celebrate Wilkening’s research, Rafael Zen interviews the artist for Massy Arts, investigating how artistic practices can be a way of addressing colonization, industrialization, and global warming.

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Clare Wilkening / The antidote to numbness

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Rafael Zen – The work you will bring to our gallery is based on deeply endangered animal communities impacted by colonization, industry, and global warming – more precisely fish-eating killer whales local to the Salish Sea. In your always-changing tile installation, you also allow viewers to question about environmental issues that are urgent in our current times. Why conveying this kind of message through art? Why do you think artistic practices can be a way of communicating serious and important social messages?

Clare Wilkening – Art can reach us in ways that reading facts cannot. What I want from this project is for people to get to know these whales on a personal level, to feel for their lives, and to come to consider them to be our neighbours.

What are they like, how to they live their lives together, what is it like to be one of these whales? They cannot change who they are and how they live, those aspects of them are on an evolutionary timeframe, and they are facing extinction within the span of a human lifetime.

So it is up to us to come to care enough to change how we live in this place, and to make space in our lives for them to live and thrive.

Sometimes when we are inundated with facts about an urgent issue, we can become numb. But whales and water can reach us emotionally in a special way. Art can reach that space as well, and can be an antidote to numbness and the maintenance of the status quo.

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RZ – You say that settler culture has had a relationship with whales based mostly on exploitation for resources, for entertainment, or for military purposes. But, you say, whales have our hearts and people come up to you to tell their whale stories, usually accompanied by tears and emotion. Could you explain this particular love for whales? What do people tell you when they approach you?

CW – I think it’s because they live in the water. Water is an emotional medium, and our moods can be tied to it. Mine are anyways. Think of when you are upset, how much drinking a glass of water can calm you down.

For me, jumping in the water can be a total emotional reset, and clear away whatever I’m holding onto in anger, sadness, or disappointment. Same with just taking a shower or washing your face. Swimming and being in the water is also a place of joyful experience, peacefulness, exhilaration, and laughing.

So I think that knowing that there are conscious beings out there, who have an intelligence that we can relate to somehow, and who are a part of the water, the ocean, just gets right into people’s hearts. Whales can bring us to places of awe and joy, sadness and grief, and hopefully, action.

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RZ – In the concept text for “The Southern Residents”, you say that there are many ways that we can turn things around to prevent species extinction, and that these whales can be a “way in” to that emotional side of the ecological crisis. How, in this work, you intend to evoke hope – and why do you say there is also moving thru death and loss?

CW – Many people, including myself, feel great grief when thinking about climate change, the ecological crisis, and mass extinction. This is an expression of the love we feel for the world around us. Grief, whether it’s personal or global, can be debilitating.

We need to process and go thru it. In the case of ecological grief, the scale of the crisis and of extinction can be overwhelming, and that can lead us to denial or avoidance. My work The Southern Residents has become as a place where we can come together and have a space to hurt about it.

And also, talk and learn and network, and figure out a way thru to a better outcome for these whales and for the wider ecological crisis. Hope for that better outcome comes from action, to disrupt the status quo and to imagine and create better systems and ways of living in this place.

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RZ – You also say that, in your work as an artist, you wish to challenge the gesture of sustainability beyond its current cultural logic: a means to maintain resource levels for future extraction at worst, and as a buzzword at best. How can artists help to shift environmental thinking from the language of sustainability and efficiency towards engagement in reciprocal and regenerative care?

CW – Artists can help our culture make that shift in a number of ways. Artists are deliberately creating culture, and that is powerful, and we need to keep that in mind.

First of all, we can incorporate ecological thinking in our studio practices: keep an eye on what goes down the drain. More broadly, we can embody and create projects that encourage openness of thought and creative imagination.

Creating a space and opportunity for people to feel seen or to creatively express themselves about a topic opens up a place to share what they know and learn from each other, and this builds the capacity that will bring about the societal-level shift towards reciprocal and regenerative care.

That is what I’m hoping to engage in my next project, Herring School, where people will have an opportunity to make clay herring that will be part of a large hanging installation of schooling herring, and at the same time share and learn about the ways we can regenerate herring populations throughout the Salish Sea.

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RZ – In your practice for this piece, you continually update the tiles with the births and deaths in the whale population, and you say you have a plan to do so for the rest of your lifetime. If you do so, how do you see this work changing over time? From the first tile to this upcoming exhibition, what has changed in the way you present this piece to your audiences?

CW – What has changed in the way that I present this work has been a refinement of the “rules” I initially set up for the work, as well as just a general growth of the project.

I started out with 28 tiles and just J-Pod, now I have all three Pods (J,K, &L) and nearly 200 tiles, as well has 4 different frame formats to fit different spaces as I take the work on tour to get in front of as many eyeballs as possible. In the beginning I had each individual whale on its own separate tile, except in the case of mamas with a calf who was less than 10 years old – they would share a single tile.

Over time I have shifted to have whole matrilines (family groups) on larger tiles. This reflects the whales’ matrilineal ties in a more satisfying way than mapping out family trees. Killer whales stay swimming with their mamas for their entire lives, that’s where their pod dialect and hunting culture are passed on down thru the generations.

Family groups are called “matrilines”. J, K, and L pod will congregate to socialize and to mate, but generally they travel in separate or loosely grouped matrilines.

I have also started including oval shapes alongside the whales. These represent the matriline’s ancestors: mothers, siblings, or calves who have passed on. When an orca passes away, I remove the tile from the frame and display it on the wall next to the frame, close to the individual’s living family. I don’t want them t just disappear, they are still part of the project. This has happened so far with L92 Crewser, J50 Scarlet, J17 Angeline, K25 Scoter, , L84 Nyssa, L41 Mega, and L47 Marina.

I have also added 5 calves, and there was a new birth this month. J Pod in particular has had a baby boom, which is welcome after the crushing loss of J50. Will this project document a population growth and thriving life for these whales, or a slow decline into extinction?

We have a choice and a role to play. We have to have a robust and growing wild salmon population in order to avoid extinction for the Southern Residents.

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RZ – Was there any book, or books, that allowed you to research for this project? If so, could you suggest them to our readers? Why these suggestions?

CW – Most of my research for this project was over the internet,, The Whale Museum in Langley, WA, and the Orca Behaviour Institute.

I turned to books for information on the history of killer whale capture and captivity, and about their culture, lives, and ecological role in the Salish Sea.

  • Listening to Whales: What the Orcas Have Taught Us, by Alexandra Morton,
  • Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator by Jason M.
  • The Whales, They Give Themselves, by Harry Brower
  • Spirits of the Coast: Orcas in Science, Art and History, by Severn Cullis-Suzuki
  • Orca: A Whale Called Killer, by Erich Hoyt

I would also like to add my list of actions we can take collectively for the Southern Residents. This list has grown out of my four years of research and engagement in this project, and is a constant work-in-progress.

Ways we can save the Southern Resident Killer Whales:

• Set aside a dedicated and priority quota for Orca food in the annual sustainable catch number for Chinook salmon.
• Stop the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
• Stop the Roberts Bank port expansion.
• End open net fish farms.
• Breach the lower 4 Snake River dams in Washington State.
• Support Indigenous land movements everywheres.
• Remove obstructions to salmon passage throughout the Fraser valley.
• Rehabilitate streams throughout the Salish sea and the Fraser watershed, end clearcutting watersheds and mountainsides.
• End over fishing of salmon, make more conservative estimates for allowable catch.
• Silence vessel traffic in the Salish sea.
• More marine protected areas.
• Preserve the Fraser River estuary marsh against rising sea levels by gradually raising the living dikes and eliminating sea walls.
• Wastewater treatment in all municipalities attached to the Salish sea.
• Moratorium on the herring sack roe fishery.
• Remember they are our neighbours and keep them in your heart.

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