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An Urban Installation by Roadsworth & B. Armstrong
Bubble wrapped salmon made from shoe boxes leap up plastic waterfalls that cascade down the side of escalators. A plastic pond fills up a rectangular well where schools of plastic fish hover beneath the surface. Card board trees spring up along columns and an elevator shaft, their paper folder leaves splayed out against walls and railings. The Montreal Eaton Center has been transformed into an ecosystem using various by-products of its day to day operations, culled from the shopping center's recycling bins. Plastic water bottles, cardboard boxes, coat hangers and paper cups are some of the building blocks that make up this installation which attempts to re-integrate these items into some kind of original, pre-manufactured condition. But cardboard, rendered from trees and subject to the various industrial processes that are required to make it, has been forever altered from its sylvan origins. Same for the plastic water bottles which, emptied of the water extracted from rivers and springs, are nothing but hollow receptacles devoid of their life sustaining fluid.
This installation therefore is not a re-creation of nature but a facsimile thereof. A stage set ecosystem whose beauty lies not in how successfully it portrays the natural world but the degree to which the attempt to do so falls short. Like a shattered teacup that's been glued back together, the elements that make up this installation are reassembled into a clumsy semblance of their original forms, a poignant reminder of both the fragility and irrevocable loss of a natural and original state.
There is also something comforting in this artificiality despite the loss that it represents. It confirms for us a suspicion that humans are somehow separate from nature and satisfies a desire to insulate ourselves from our environment, an evolutionary response perhaps to the threats that have always existed there. The orderly arrangement of bottles that make up the waterfalls and pond and the regular placement of trees along architectural lines satisfy a longing for order and the illusion that we are somehow above the messiness and chaos of the natural world, an artificial representation of nature preferable perhaps to the reality of it.
As we rebel against nature however, we simultaneously express a longing for it and find inspiration there. Evidence of this can be seen in the structures that surround us and the natural principles manifested in its architecture. The installation begins to make this connection explicit and glancing above the columns at the Eaton Center it is easy to imagine the atrium's arching glass and steel forming into a canopy of trees. Or to imagine a moon or sun in place of the large round window at the north end of the atrium while the whirring movement of escalators mimic the relentless flow of water down a river or stream. Other analogies spring to mind as we witness the hustle and bustle of shoppers and commuters who, like salmon swimming upstream, seem driven by some evolutionary urge or imperative as they move along the various pathways of the shopping center . Similarly, the elevator which brings people from floor to floor mimics the circulatory system of a tree as it pumps water and nutrients up from its roots while the underground food court functions much like the ground beneath the forest floor where metabolic processes, vital to the health of the ecosystem, take place.
This installation does not merely transform the Eaton Center but also reveals it for what it already is: a community of merchants, shoppers, commuters, janitors, security guards and more, who interact with each other and their physical environment in what can best be described as an ecosystem. How much do human activities whether economic, social or otherwise, really differ from those that exist in nature? How separate are we in fact from the natural systems that surround us and where does that line of separation occur? In a world where a single paper mill dedicates thousands of acres of forest to the production of cardboard, where a continental sized garbage patch continues to accumulate in the Pacific Ocean and where rivers are polluted with plastic and other by-products of human activity that line seems as blurred as ever. Given these realities, the sight of a row of cardboard trees or a plastic pond no longer seems artificial or otherworldly. And the feeling that we are separate, no longer seems to comfort.