By Yasmine Shemesh
VANCOUVER – Monique Motut-Firth wants to inspire you to think. To slow down and look a little bit closer. In Consumed, the current exhibition from the Vancouver-based artist, Motut-Firth takes images that she has cut from a wide variety of print sources and rebuilds them into intricate structures. But let’s get one thing straight — these are not collages.
“I don’t collage,” Motut-Firth states firmly. “I make scrap systems.”
The scrap systems re-interpret images into functioning systems that follow aesthetic rules of line and colour. As a child, Motut-Firth grew up spending time in her grandfather’s woodshop and her father’s mechanic shop. These, then, are her machines. “They don’t really work,” she smiles. “They kind of work, but they work in my imagination.”
Motut-Firth began experimenting with cutting up images in 2012, after she inherited her late grandmother’s collection of Canadian catalogues — 60 years’ worth of them. Her grandmother, who was of Russian Doukhobor heritage, would study these catalogues to learn what it meant to be Canadian. “It made me so interested in how we look at images and how they inform us and how they’re everywhere and they’re piling up,” recalls Motut-Firth.
“[It’s] what you bring to the image. It’s the image-maker and the image-reader. And the image-reader is different; they bring what they know to the picture. And there’s different kinds of pictures. There’s photographs and there’s diagrams and illustrations…some of them mix those up together. Each one is a language that’s trying to sell us something or describe something to us or give us instructions, but it’s some kind of representation of something in the world.”
The scrap systems’ form comes together as Motut-Firth assembles them. She frequently finds familial patterns — certain links that things have that they speak to — across works from different times and disciplines. “I find going through this material that certain things were more in vogue,” she says. “Smoking and guns, hunting and fishing were much more in vogue about 50 years ago than they are now. Although, I’m seeing a rise in more military imagery from Popular Science lately.” The beauty industry also often uses machine imagery to show how hard their products work. “That’s always fascinating to me,” Motut-Firth adds, “because it’s a language that we learn how to read almost unconsciously.”
Of course, in that way, media and advertising are machines as well, and the scrap systems are meant to comment on that, too. In being re-interpreted, the cut-out images stand on their own outside of their originally projected context and contribute to a larger narrative that Motut-Firth is contemplating. “What is society and what are the bigger systems at play? Governmental systems and media systems? And so, all of that is in the work in this sort of way that they’re barely struggling to keep together.”
“Many Multi-motion Electronic Items Probably Safe Unless Downwind” — the scrap system Motut-Firth worked on for her master’s thesis at Emily Carr — is a towering, wobbly whirlwind of colour. From afar, it’s bright and animated. Upon closer inspection, there’s much more beneath the cheerful tones. There are illustrations from manuals, science books, and comic books. A fish is curled around a hammer. Pink and red flowers sprout from a housing structure. A diagram of how far away one needs to be to protect themselves from being burnt by a radioactive blast, from a 1940s magazine. A man in front of a bull’s-eye, clutching a gun. Each contributes and informs the idea that the whole structure could collapse as everything is whirling around it or through it. It’s both powerful and fragile — much like the many systems, like media, that we, as humans, engage with.
We’re in a visual culture now, Motut-Firth says, not an oral or a literary one, and in an age so saturated with images, it is increasingly important to be mindful of the things we’re constantly taking in. “It used to be that people would go to a church to see a new painting because that was the only new image in the town,” she says. “Can you imagine living in a world where that was the only place you saw an image?”
“But it’s exhausting to be active about seeing everything because there’s just so [much]. If you went to one place to see one picture together and you could all talk about it, then there’d be a lot more discussion. But now, we just swipe through Pinterest and Instagram and Facebook. All those systems work with sharing images, as well…I think we’re very passive. We’re greedy maybe, too. We want even more.”
What can we do to be more conscious? “I think we just need to look harder and ask ourselves if we agree with that imagery or not,” Motut-Firth says. “We just can’t be so passive. So, slow it down, think about why it is you like it or don’t like it, and just try and think of the messages you’re being sent. But then, I don’t know when you have time to do that, either.
“But that’s kind of what I spend my life doing.”
Consumed runs at gallery1515 until May 14.gallery1515, Monique Motut-Firth