The horse is still — a massive dark shape, lying lifeless — surrounded by hanging ropes and pulleys. There are people milling about, unsure if they should heave on those lines. Unsure if they can hoist that limp, 700-pound beast. Then someone grabs a rope and tugs, throwing their weight behind it, until a haunch shudders. Others start gripping ropes until all 10 lines are taut. Without speaking they pull hard, some sliding across the shiny floor from the weight and tension of it all. The head rises first, like it’s just waking, then the haunches. The legs scramble, and it’s up: This colossal animal is suspended, as if breathing, in the middle of the Yukon Arts Centre Gallery.
“I wanted to think about how we can do things collectively that we can’t individually,” says sculptor and media artist Veronica Verkley, who created the interactive sculpture, titled Suspended Animation. “Especially right now, we need to support each other and hold each other up.” Woven from scavenged bits of rubber, wire and plastic, the horse’s subtle shifting movements are animated with the help of gallery attendees. “I want people to connect emotionally to the horse,” says Verkley, whose work often uses animal figures for structure and metaphor. “But at some point, you can’t keep holding it,” she says. “And [it’s also about] what it feels like when you have to let it go, the emotion of that.”
Verkley is one of six finalists — chosen from 107 applicants — for the inaugural Yukon Prize exhibit this fall, in Whitehorse. The newly minted prize, which offers the winning artist $20,000, was the dream of philanthropic art lovers Julie Jai and David Trick, who’ve split their time between Yukon and Toronto for decades. “There are so many talented artists in the Yukon, and yet so few art lovers think to come here,” says Jai. “We want to make Yukon artists as well-known as they deserve to be and increase connections between the Yukon and the larger art world.”
The Yukon has a vibrant, thriving arts scene with one of the highest concentrations of visual artists in the country. Visitors and locals alike enjoy its boutique galleries and rich summer festivals, including the internationally recognized Adaka Cultural Festival, which showcases the territory’s strong Indigenous arts community. In the tiny village of Carcross, tucked at the base of Montana Mountain, the Carcross/Tagish First Nation’s carving program bustles in The Shed all summer, while those who appreciate public art as the mercury dips to minus 40 can attend Dawson City’s winter (s)hiver arts festival, which showcases works on the frozen Yukon River.
Inspired by vast swaths of untouched wilderness, alpine landscapes, clear turquoise rivers and an abundance of caribou, grizzlies and moose, many Yukon artists are also encouraged by the Yukon government’s public arts support — over $4 million annually. This is divvied up in a myriad of funding programs, including opportunities for Yukon artists to tour nationally and internationally.
Despite this support, many Yukon artists still struggle to make ends meet, says Kaska artist Joseph Tisiga, whose work — including plaster cigarette butts shaped into scathing poems written on Astroturf — hangs across the gallery from Verkley’s horse. “Nunavut gets a lot of attention with its Inuit co-ops, but the Yukon and Northwest Territories are at the end of the road and don’t get as much traction.”
Like some successful Yukon artists, Tisiga, who won the Sobey award last year, moved away. “The majority of opportunity is down south,” he says. “It’s an unfortunate reality that so many artists have to leave their rural communities to advance themselves. So I appreciate the Yukon Prize trying to amplify what is going on in the Yukon.” Hanging off the wall and stretching onto the floor of the gallery, a rough piece of old wall tent canvas serves as the backdrop for Tisiga’s multicoloured labyrinth, titled Dream Catcher. “I chose this piece because there is a biographical component to it,” he says. “There is a history with mazes, of meditation and catharsis. The labyrinth represents my grieving this past year — the uncertainty of relocating from the Yukon, the complexity of the pandemic, and life in a new city.”
Several of the Yukon prize finalists don’t live in the territory, though Krystle Silverfox is hoping to move here — if she can find affordable housing. “The arts community in Yukon is so strong,” she says. The Selkirk First Nation artist grew up in Vancouver’s notorious downtown eastside and didn’t plan on becoming an artist at all. It wasn’t until partway through her theory-heavy studies at UBC, when she got sick of hearing about “Indigenous issues from this really distanced perspective” that art seemed like a good way to share her lived-experience.
Hanging off the wall and onto the floor, echoing Tisiga’s canvas in the next room, threads from Silverfox’s unraveling Hudson Bay blanket lie tangled among scattered pennies. This piece, All That Glitters is Not Gold…, which focuses on traditional textile art and the fraught relationship between First Nations and mining companies, was first shown in the picture window of a Vancouver downtown eastside gallery. Another of Silverfox’s pieces, a massive photo of broken threads of beads scattered across a blurred image of the downtown eastside, is on display in the Yukon and at a Vancouver SkyTrain station. “I want my work to be accessible,” says Silverfox, who uses her own identity as a starting point. “Galleries are not always a welcoming space. I like doing stuff that is very public.”
Tlingit and Scandinavian artist Ken Anderson is also wary of galleries. “Often works are up on plinths or the wall,” says the Yukon-based carver. “Everything is so proper and you’re not supposed to touch it.” Whirring around one corner of the Yukon Prize show, contained by invisible lasers, a robot vacuum carries a carved birch ceremonial bowl full of glass seed beads. It’s part of Anderson’s piece, What we had what we have what we take what we are given where we are where we are going who we were who we are who we will be what we have lost and what we have found thanks no thanks; gunalthcheesh da ki en caw. High above, an intricately carved birch and abalone killer whale mask watches the hijinks. The Yukon Prize was an invitation to do something outside what’s acceptable for commercial galleries, says Anderson. “It was also great to have curators from outside the territory look at all the work.”
A three-member jury made up of Ryan Doherty, chief curator of Contemporary Calgary, independent curator Candice Hopkins, and Gaetane Verna, director of the Power Plant in Toronto, judged the Yukon Prize, travelling north in November for the gala award ceremony. The jury ultimately awarded the inaugural prize to Joseph Tisiga, announced on November 20, 2021.
All of the pieces chosen for this show are diverse and unanticipated. In one room, Dawson City artist Amy Ball’s weighty white tile bench looks like it belongs in an old-school aquatic centre. Some missing tiles at the back reveal nonperishable food items inside, including Spam and canned tomatoes, a nod to growing societal fears of a dystopian future and perhaps the pandemic. Sitting on the bench, viewers can watch two Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighters silently spar in Ball’s video installation, To Kill A Chicken.
Four of the six finalists are First Nation. “For me to be recognized as a finalist for the Yukon Prize, it almost feels like people are not only recognizing me as an artist, but they’re recognizing Northern Tutchone art as being important,” says Silverfox. On dress frames near Silverfox’s work sit Sho Sho “Belelige” Esquiro’s haute couture jackets. One titled Day of the Dead features its namesake designer motif on a Pendleton blanket, while the arms and bodice sport recycled prayer scarves, cowhide, moose hair, sealskin and beadwork. The Smithsonian recently hoped to acquire one of Esquiro’s pieces on the condition she take the fur off. The Kaska Dena, Cree and Scottish artist turned it down. “I like to tackle some of the issues that we, as Indigenous people, face,” says Esquiro. “I don’t feel like I’m an activist, but I don’t have a problem with people saying that at all. I feel there are so many important people that are on the frontlines and I feel like I’m doing my part where I am.”
The artists selected for the Yukon Prize are connected to the region, but not tied to it, says Verkley. “Many of the issues and concepts addressed are global, and resonate because they are universal.” The Yukon Prize will hopefully make more people embrace art, adds Tisiga. “Not just for decor, but also more exploratory and concept-based work.”
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