Emily Vey Duke & Cooper Battersby at The Blue Building, Halifax
By Maeve Hanna
What would your own INFERNAL GROVE look like?
What would your own INFERNAL GROVE smell, sound, or taste like?
What would it feel like?
For Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby, the necessary elements are exuberant and pleasurable to behold, tethered to reality yet unravelling through dreamy visions based in kindness and community solidarity. Entering the duo’s current exhibition, THE INFERNAL GROVE: A Non-Systematic Structural Analysis of Drug-Taking & Addiction at The Blue Building, is to open a gateway of possibilities into restructuring how we understand and respond to the societal and cultural stigmas surrounding drug use, addiction, and recovery. Through lusciously gorgeous visuals, honest and stunning cinematography, and an infinitely revealing narrative, the work considers the world of drugs through the ethics of care.
Woven throughout the titular video are interviews with individuals from across the spectrum of the drug world. One example features audio excerpts from white-rapper-turned-cannabis-entrepreneur Matt Kimber and Black artist Zaire Knight who underscores the glaring systemic racism deeply engrained within the marijuana business, both before and since legalization. Coming from an entirely different position and experience, drag performer Mikiki discusses his positive encounters in the chemesex scene. In one instance, with brutal honesty he tearfully discusses the revolutionary power of queer pleasure: “… seeing people be able to connect to their innate sense of joy as a queer person and say yes to pleasure that they’ve never been able to allow themselves to do before is so beautiful.”
Text and image both play a central role in this work. Along with the interviews, succinct statements punctuate core issues that the mainstream will not acknowledge regarding drug-use and addiction, noting specifically the racism and other oppressive biases imbedded at the core of the system. The phrases float over verdant backdrops portraying the cycle of life, death, and decay. The final statement, while simple, is a necessary and profound assertion:
DRUG PROHIBITION LAWS WERE RACIST BY DESIGN AND ARE RACISM IN ACTION
DRUG PROHIBITION KILLS PEOPLE WHO USE DRUGS
THE INFERNAL GROVE LOVES PEOPLE WHO USE DRUGS
The Fentanyl crisis sweeping the country, largely centred in Vancouver’s downtown east-side, is another topic the work explores. Here interviews with individuals involved in radical harm-reduction discuss the underbelly of the crisis, focusing on the alarming amount of trauma and death with little governmental aid. How many people reading this have been touched by the Fentanyl crisis? How many of us have wept for the dead? The stark contrast between the subject matter and the visuals is at once delightful and baffling. Allowing oneself to fall into the bliss of experiencing beauty, allowing it to dance before the eye, is a central focus for the artists. As our world burns, sinks, melts, and continues to fall to ruin, looking to the beauty around us allows for enchantment, wonder, and respite from the catastrophes of everyday life.
Conceptually strong, the imagery of THE INFERNAL GROVE is lush, exuberant, riotous even, in a way that feels Baudelairian in style. It includes taxidermied animals; birds in flight, eating or sunning themselves; and various animal skulls housing plants that unfurl, grow, fade, and die. The soundscapes are equally rich, featuring a sweeping silence that blooms into symphonies of bird song. The hope, care, and love enfolded in this work is the medicine for those who need it most. The artists’ considered use of time-lapse technology offers a vision of time layered and enmeshed. Snow-covered scenes from Nova Scotia and New Hampshire change in the light of dusk to dawn. These moments in the film are quiet, offering simple joy for the eyes. I found their intricacy fascinating: the way the light filters, sways, and moves, the moon captured as it sweeps through the night sky until the entire scene bleeds into bright blankness. Throughout, the light source shifts, illuminating scenes shot from divergent angles, as flowers take full bloom, little insects crawl around, and snails squiggle across surfaces creating living still lives, even while the world sleeps, while the world is unmoving and silent.
To enter THE INFERNAL GROVE, as someone who has struggled with addiction, who has fallen to their knees at the loss of loved ones to addiction, the exhibition felt like relief, understanding, deep love, and care. I felt held. In this dark time of isolation, of sadness, and incredible loss and death, to experience work that is fearlessly honest and brutally beautiful is more soul nourishing than food itself. I believe more than ever that it is possible to nourish the body and soul on energy stored in the work of artists, for the vitality held there has the potential to nurture the spirit of those who are willing to really look, listen, and be present. In THE INFERNAL GROVE I found a level of rigour that encompasses the community with an incredible level of love. I felt that fold over me and hold me within that care for a while, until I stepped out into the fresh evening air and headed home.
Dedicated to Rex Terpening, son, brother, friend, and all those needlessly lost to Fentanyl and drug overdose.
May you REST IN POWER.
On Friday, November 5, at 5pm ET, The Infernal Grove Study Group will be held online as part of Rendezvous with Madness 2021.
Maeve Hanna is a writer living and working in Nova Scotia.