Two-headed Arrow/The Tar Sands Project continues at MAM through Aug. 11.
On a recent Saturday morning, about 30 people gathered in a circle in a cozy corner of the Missoula Art Museum, where photographs depicting land devastated by tar sands exploitation hung in contrast to a shelf of swirling lava lamps and bowls of colorful gummy bears. The new installation, Two-headed Arrow/The Tar Sands Project, was created by Montana artist Corwin “Corky” Clairmont, who stood in the center of the circle to address the group. He is soft-spoken but confident, a person who easily earns the attention of a room by way of a few jokes and some heavy-duty storytelling.
“Thank you for coming this morning. It’s like everybody got up like they were going to church and came here,” he said, and chuckled. “I really love the morning, especially the brisk air that gets you charged up and ready for things. It makes it so you can’t help but be thankful for a place, this wonderful, wonderful place. That’s what this exhibit is about: place.”
Clairmont was born on the Flathead Reservation and is an enrolled member of the Salish and Kootenai Tribes. He got his MFA at California State University in Los Angeles and taught at the Otis Art Institute there, where he was influenced by the conceptual artist John Baldessari (who also has an exhibit at MAM). In 1984 Clairmont helped create the fine-arts department at Salish Kootenai College, where he worked as an administrator.
He’s been making art about environmental degradation for more than 50 years, and Two-headed Arrow/The Tar Sands Project is the perfect example of his work: performative mixed-media that is playful and weighty all at once. His work on the project began four years ago, when he saw the megaloads passing through Montana on their way to the tar sands at Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada. He decided to follow their path and take his camera along. The area is home to several indigenous communities that can no longer use the arboreal forests near the tar sands now that they’ve been ripped up.
“I felt some responsibility to try to come up with a commentary on what was going on,” he says. “It took awhile.”
In fact, it took two years, 900 miles and a multitude of gummy bears to create the material for the installation. Clairmont made paper replicas of double-headed arrows — the kind you see when you come to a T in the road — and decorated them with intricate imagery. He used them to make a statement about the nature of choice.
“When you come to a T-intersection you have to stop,” he says. “And then you have to make a decision: Are you going to go right or left? Going through it may be an option, but it’s not a good one,” he says, laughing again. “But you do have to make a decision. I thought that was a good metaphor. We can’t keep going in this direction. We have to choose the other way.”
Clairmont started his journey on MAM’s front steps, where he put down a double-headed arrow and placed the gummy bears on top in a compass-like formation. Every 50 miles from Missoula to Fort McMurray he did the same thing: found a spot where could put a double arrow and place the gummy bears on it, compass-like. He’d take a photo, then rip the double arrow in half, leaving one part at the site and taking the other with him, repeating the process for 18 stops until he reached the tar sands.
At first blush, the gummy bears counter the seriousness of the project, but they serve several purposes. Logistically, they helped Clairmont consistently color-code his compass design. They are also a metaphor for the loss of animal habitat (and bear habitat, specifically) around the tar sands. Finally, they are a reminder, a sort of subliminal message that Clairmont casts out into the world.
“You can purchase the gummy bears anywhere,” Clairmont says. “You see them all the time. The double-headed arrow, too. And so possibly, after you experience this exhibit, every time you see a gummy bear or a double-headed arrow, you might think about the environment.”
When he reached Fort McMurray, Clairmont hopped on a tour bus operated by Suncor (one of the site’s oil-development companies) to get a sense of the tar sands site, with its tailings ponds and sulphur hills. He photographed his arrows and gummy bears along the way. The tour guide, he says, showed excitement when he saw the gummy bears. “Did you know that Suncor makes the lubricant for the gummy bear company so that gummy bears don’t stick together?”
Clairmont hadn’t known it, but it felt just right. “Things work in mysterious ways,” he says. “There was a reason I was using gummy bears, I guess. It added that emphasis.”
In the exhibit, the ripped arrows and gummy bear photos are combined with photographs of the megaloads and the tar sands. Clairmont mounted the images on black plastic, which is oil based, as a subversive way to protest oil companies, including Suncor. And it got him thinking that the black plastic almost looks like a strange iteration of the buffalo hide that Native people often used as a canvas to tell stories through drawings. (“I thought of this plastic as processed dinosaur hides,” Clairmont says.) Standing in the circle at the art museum, he pointed out another image on black plastic, this one of Xs and Os, which he said symbolizes a stand-still game with the oil industry. The Xs also represent devastation and the signatures on broken treaties. But the Os, he said, represent how we think of a circle.
“In terms of life, everything’s connected,” he said, smiling. “And tribal people always focus on that part.”