A conversation with artist, Guylaine Nadeau about her latest creation –
A Wheatgrass Winter Walk
On a snowy Wednesday morning, February 9, 2005, at approximately 10:30 a.m., Guylaine went for a leisurely stroll in downtown Montreal. She looked like everyone else on Ste-Catherine Street that day with one striking exception: she was holding and balancing a rather large, live, green wheatgrass tray on her head.
A few days later, on a gorgeous sunny Saturday, I met Guylaine at the Mont St- Hilaire trailhead, near her residence. An avid fan of Guylaine’s work, I have followed her evolution as an artist since 1996. I have not missed a single exhibition or event where she was a participant and I love her philosophy. Knowing that her usual media are acrylic, collage and papier-mâché I was curious to learn how she would integrate her environmental concerns with a performance in the middle of a large city. I was not disappointed.
Hi Guylaine! Thank you for inviting me to see your performance in Montreal. It was literally a breath of fresh air! Last year I had the privilege to learn about the research process and careful preparation for your unusual “Mémoires du Nord.” So, I already know that every part of your work is cautiously chosen after hours of reflection and meditation and you leave little to chance. Was it the same process with your Wheatgrass Winter Walk?
Oh yes, because I really can’t do otherwise. Sometimes I wish I could just “wing it,” but that is not me. In fact, I enjoy the reflection, questioning and preparation at least as much as the end product.
In regard to your latest performance, I am obviously curious as to how you made the decision to wear the wheatgrass tray on your head. Wouldn’t it be considered somewhat demeaning for a Western woman to wear anything other than a hat on her head?
Ha ha ha!…(laughter)… Well maybe it was a hat! But seriously, yes, I’m aware of that interpretation, but if you let yourself be bothered by other people’s prejudices you end up paralyzed in your own expression. Instead of talking about why not, let me talk about why. You see, the prevailing societal vision of nature is very offensive to me. The Judeo-Christian biblical idea that the Earth belongs to humans and that we must dominate and exploit the Earth has brought us to the verge of an ecological catastrophe – in fact we are already experiencing one. We hear about it every day: global warming, threatened biodiversity, loss of green spaces such as tropical rain forests, etc. By wearing the grass on top of my head, I wanted to elevate Nature, to put it above us – the human animals – and express a reverence and respect for the matrix of all life. The simple truth is that we absolutely need Nature to survive, while Nature doesn’t necessarily need us. We are here as guests – her guests. When we allow this perspective to permeate our minds and spirits, our relationship with Nature is transformed. That’s what I was trying to illustrate.
Hmmm…you are quite a dreamer. I like that your work is always deeply rooted in ecological philosophy. Why did you dress in your usual clothes? Why not dress in all green, for example?
My assignment was to “infiltrate the ordinary.” For that purpose it was important to look like one of the pack, with the one exception. I remember seeing, many years ago, a cartoon from Gary Larson’s “The Far Side” in which a pack of lemmings was running toward a precipice that fell into the ocean. They all looked alike except one had a life ring around its waist. That is me with my wheatgrass tray! Because I am dressed as I always am people see me as ordinary, as one of “them.” So, they have a tendency to interact more freely with me. They talk, smile, make faces, etc.
I had a woman telling me, with a splendid smile, that it reminded her of how much she loves gardening and that she should start her seedlings right away. I am sure that she had a marvelous day at work thinking about her garden. Being dressed in all green or in any other special way would have accomplished something entirely different. It would have separated me from them. I would have been seen as a comedian or a clown or an activist – someone with an agenda, rather than a simple citizen taking a walk with a strange green tray on her head. As a matter of fact a few weeks ago I walked around the same area with one of my puppet heads (Le Prince cent rires) and everyone avoided looking at me. They actively ignored me.
Why did you choose wheatgrass? Why not flowers or anything else natural?
I wanted to use something that I had grown myself from seeds. From a practical point of view it allowed me to plan ahead and make sure that my grass would be just right on the date I’d chosen. It is a 12 day process so it was easy to calculate. On a symbolic level, I used organically grown wheat seeds planted in organic soil mixed with rock dust powder. That is part of showing my respect and love for the Earth. I wanted my performance to be congruent with my values at every level.
Also, in some small personal way, this is how I participate in actualizing the Kyoto protocol. I see it as an invitation – or imperative – to be proactive instead of reactive. In this sense I carry my own little oxygen factory instead of wearing a protective mask. The other important aspect in choosing wheatgrass is its nutritional value. Did you know that many experts consider wheatgrass to be the most nutrient rich food on the planet? Without exploiting the land, the wheatgrass tray has provided me with generous amounts of vitamins, amino acids and minerals as well as precious phytonutrients. When I returned to my home that afternoon, I carefully cut the grass to the root level and made a delicious juice from it. I then added the leftover soil and organic matters to my compost pile. It will be recycled into my garden vegetables during the summer, completing a life cycle. By growing some of my own food, I show a sense of cooperative responsibility for being on this beautiful planet as a guest of Mother Nature. Contrast that with the usual process in North America, where food travels an astounding average of 2,000 kilometers before reaching our plate. Reducing petroleum combustion by growing our food locally is also part of the solution.
Thank you, Guylaine, that is all the time we have for today. I do know that aside from being an artist you have training in science as well. I remember listening to your talk in Oregon about the ecology of Upper Klamath Lake and was quite impressed with the scope of your vision. Next time, I would like to hear more about your environmental views and why you choose to devote yourself to the world of Art rather than Science. But maybe there is not such a big difference after all.