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A Glimpse of Arctic Life Superimposed onto Toronto's Urban Environment

Feb 16, 2022
by IAQ

Maureen Gruben is a versatile installation, performance and textile artist from Tuktuyaaqtuuq (Tuktoyaktuk), Inuvialuit Settlement Region, NT. Her work is known for deconstructing and recomposing diverse elements, often utilizing fur, hides, skins and manufactured materials, creating connections between land, people and communities. Presented along The Bentway Skate Trail in Toronto, ON, Moving with joy (2022) is a new exhibition that opened on December 22, 2021, and runs until February 21, 2022. Extending from her 2019 project, Moving with joy across the ice while my face turns brown from the sun, this iteration displays seven large-scale sculptural sleds and is layered with intimate video and photographic images of life in the Arctic. Here, Maureen Gruben talks with the IAQ about her new exhibition.

Inuit Art Quarterly: Can you tell us about the inspiration behind your new exhibition Moving with joy?

Maureen Gruben: Moving with joy is an extension of Moving with joy across the ice while my face turns brown from the sun (2019), where I displayed 14 sleds out on the ice on the Arctic Ocean. The sleds were borrowed from different families in this community but out on the ice they didn't really represent family any more, it was more about community. In every northern community, sleds have been part of our lives for generations, so I wanted to bring that to downtown Toronto. 

IAQ:  The site of this exhibition is such a different landscape than that of the Arctic. How did the architecture of The Bentway’s Skate Trail influence the exhibit and its curation? 

MG: The space lent itself well to this project. We couldn't hang anything from the highway, so it had to be on the ground or the columns. I pitched the idea of having the sleds upright, like they were on the ice, but with the Arctic environment superimposed on top. That way, they could have more presence and verticality. It took a couple of months before the project was realized, and this was my first time working with a group of fabricators and a virtual team. It was a great experience and it made me want to do more public art. 

Maureen Gruben Moving with joy (2022) Courtesy The Bentway Photo Shane Parent © THE ARTIST
IAQ: The various sizes and colours of the sleds are lovely. Can you tell us a bit more about the process of creation?

MG: I examined many different sleds from the community and then gave the virtual team very specific dimensions and drew them out. At the beginning, I designed seven different tips but because of budget constraints they all had to be the same. It would have been nice to have different curves and lines at the front of each sled, but I was able to play with colour. I was really happy about that because it's such a gray space, so I wanted to bring a lot of rich colours into the piece as well. 

IAQ: The video montage and photography add another intimate element to the installation. Is there anything in particular you’re hoping viewers take away from the images?

MG: Not really. You have to allow people to take away what they want. The images and video present a glimpse of the Arctic in the Toronto environment, for people that may have never seen any part of the Arctic.

IAQ: It’s really interesting and eye-catching to see the sleds amid other forms of movement, such as people on skates and cars above. Is movement a significant theme in this installation or in your work generally?

MG: It's fun to see that there's people skating by and there's movement. I wouldn't say movement is part of my work in general, but with Moving with joy, it's all about movement. That’s a big part of the piece. I think sleds work in a similar way to highways. Once the sleds are down and being pulled, whether it's with dogs or skidoos, they're traveling across land and ice, like we move on highways. But with sleds, we don’t have to build any highways or roadways, so it’s a gentle way of traveling over the land.

Maureen Gruben Moving with joy (2022) Courtesy The Bentway Photo Shane Parent © THE ARTIST

IAQ: It’s really moving how the idea of joy and scenes of Arctic life come through and interrupt the urban environment. Can you talk about the role of joy in healing?

MG: Anytime you're out on the land it brings you peace and joy and creates a sense of connection. Especially in the springtime after a long, cold winter. It's an awakening. Getting out on the land in the warm, sunny weather and starting to move, you become excited about going fishing and hunting for geese. And when you're out travelling on the land, everybody seems to be so happy. Last spring, when we were coming back from our camp, we saw a husband and wife who were just going to their camp. He was on the skidoo and she was on the sled, and she had an expression of absolute joy on her face. She was waving and smiling and happy. That’s what camping is all about, you meet people at fishing holes, and visit and everybody is in a good mood. It's such a great time for everyone, sheer joy.

IAQ: Do you have any plans to create other versions or extensions of this project?

MG: It would be great to do permanent public artwork. I would like to do one with the sleds. For me, they're works of art in themselves. I think I'm ready for that, after working with such an amazing group. It's not so scary anymore.

IAQ: Is there anything else you’re working on right now that’s new and exciting?

MG: I have another public art piece at The Bentway Studio called Annivik (2022). It displays very large photographic prints of our landfill, with our ancestors’ stories superimposed onto the pictures. It was an interesting project for me because it involved reading stories, collected from the late 1800s to early 1900s, taking bits of their stories and working them into poetry. The images and the poetry create interesting juxtapositions. Just these little bits of stories say so much, in relation to the almost shameful way of our contemporary world today and how wasteful we are. The two exhibits are separate but connected, like all of my work. 

This interview was conducted by IAQ Assistant Editor Nadine Ryan. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Maureen Gruben Moving with joy (2022) Courtesy The Bentway Photo Shane Parent © THE ARTIST

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