Elinor Whidden – Natural Artifice

Elinor Whidden’s body of work entitled “Ford Explorer”, created during 2009, consists of six photographs and two sculptural pieces. Each photograph is a 28 x 42″ chromira print. They are entitled: “Georgian Bay”, “Sunny Lake Ridge”, “Smoke Lake”, “Explorer”, “Granite Saddle”, and “Sunny Lake”. The photographs are of various Canadian lakes and natural parks. All but one of the images (“Granite Saddle”) include a self-portrait of Whidden herself, dressed as a colonial explorer. Each image that Whidden has featured herself in also includes a musket which she is holding in various positions. Four of the images include a tent. The sculptural pieces exhibited in the gallery are the objects within the photographs – the musket and the tent. The musket is titled “Side Mirror Musket”. It is 3.5 feet x 10″ and is made from a side mirror, a car door handle, wood, and steel tubing. The tent is titled “Windshield Wiper Tent”. It is 6 x 4 x 3.5 feet and is made from scavenged windshield wipers, zap straps, and steel screws.

Focusing on the particular piece entitled  “Sunny Lake Ridge”, we can see that Whidden applied the basic elements and principals of art to create an aesthetically pleasing image. These principals are applied on each of the six photographs, but focusing on one particular piece allows us to be more specific. The forms of the body, tent, exploring accessories and musket in “Sunny Lake Ridge” add visual precedence of the foreground over the beautiful landscape of Canadian wilderness in the background. The lines are all organic within the composition. This forces the viewer to direct their attention all over the photograph, including in the direction of the figure’s gaze. The colours in the image are extremely vibrant and saturated. The landscape and figures are bright without the sky being blown out. This creates an exceptional balance between object and nature. This balance establishes a sense of stability in the piece. Proportion is used in this composition to place emphasis on the individual in the foreground. The relationship of the size of the individual verses the size of it’s surroundings gives the viewer a sense of largeness, pride, and tenaciousness.

Emphasis, in this photograph, is placed on the figure in the foreground also because it is the closest object to the viewer. With the emphasis placed on the figure, it directs the viewer’s attention to the musket the figure is holding. The observer is forced to detect that the musket is made from car parts and is therefore non-functional.  This adds a new implication to the seemingly conventional photograph observed at first glance. Harmony and unity is achieved throughout the body of work by utilizing similar elements and principals in each particular piece.

Elinor Whidden’s “Ford Explorer” series documents a fictional journey of a post-apocalyptic explorer traveling throughout Western Canada using only adapted car parts as her survival tools. “Ford Explorer” thematically explores several different contextual concepts. These themes include: the decline of the automotive industry, colonialism and views of the past, the idea of a post-apocalyptic future, Canadian nature and landscape, and finally the subversion of the idea of the male explorer.

Throughout this series, Whidden speaks of the decline of the automotive industry and also it’s current domination over car consumer culture. Instead of running with the automobile industry’s motives to salvage itself, she sabotages their agenda by conceptualizing it’s demise. Whidden does this by inserting herself within a fictitious, post-apocalyptic future using salvaged remains of car parts as survival tools instead of salvaging the industry itself.

“Ford Explorer” also speaks of the idea of colonialism and regretting the past. Whidden mirrors the colonialist practice of recording history in illustrious portraits of explorers, mocking past society’s previous attempts to create exaggerated realism. Colonial exploitation repeatedly used photography to exaggerate the real. “The camera was used as an instrument of symbolic control”1 These satirical portraits question notions of society’s progressions. The inclusion of the side-mirror on the musket allows the figure to see her past and reflect on her sense of history.

The idea of a post-apocalyptic future is displayed in this body of work. In this fictional future constructed by Whidden, nature has regained control after the death of the automotive industry. The figure in the images is exploring its new environment and utilizing items from the past to push forward. Nature’s reclaimed supremacy in this series forces the viewer to reflect on our romanticization of the land and our nostalgic sentimentality for nature. This series “emphasize(s) the disconnections between our representation of nature, our experience of nature, and nature itself.”2

Finally, Elinor Whidden conceptually displays the subversion of the idea of the male explorer within her body of work. At first glance, the figure in the images looks to be male, but upon further inspection, we can see it is female. This could have been done purposely to subvert the idea of masculine dominance over land. This is similar to the work of Claude Cahun who “took pictures of herself in a range of gender-bending stereotypes”3

1.) Wells, Liz. “Photography Within Colonialism,” Photography: A Critical Introduction  1996 Page 81
2.) “Exhibitions  + Festivals,” Canadian Artists Look at the De-Naturing of Nature http://www.akimno.ca/exhibitions/?id=17695
3.) Guerilla Girls. “The Guerilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art,” Claude Cahun: Boy and Girl Together Page 63

Find more of Elinor’s work here

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