Ruth Beer, "Oil Topography," 2014
Ruth Beer, "Oil Topography," 2014, Jacquard-woven tapestry, copper electrical magnetic wire and polyester, 82” x 120”
Ruth Beer’s exhibition of sculpture, video and woven structures includes an abstract wall hanging that suggests the swirls and eddies of an aerial weather map, its dominant blues evoking thoughts of the sky, or perhaps some far-flung archipelago. But once you read the title – Oil Topography – the work’s sheen takes on an eerie undercurrent. It’s based, says Beer, on a digital image of an oil spill. Not a major disaster, like the 2010 Gulf of Mexico catastrophe, but a small, humble slick that would never make the news. And the work, she notes, is more a poetic nudge – hey, let’s think about this – than an activist’s protest.
Art’s material qualities interest Beer, as well as its modes of production. In this piece, three panels were woven from thread and copper wire on a Jacquard loom, a machine that dates back to the Industrial Revolution. Like many artists working in academia, Beer, a longtime professor at Emily Carr University in Vancouver, is also deeply embedded in research, which often means exploring a social or political topic by talking to those affected and documenting some aspect of the issue via photographs and video before developing a body of intellectually dense art. Some find such work distancing, but it can also stir up complex emotions.
“Copper is beautiful,” says Beer. “It’s shiny and warm and very seductive. And so is oil. When you look at an oil spill it’s got all those beautiful colours. I really like that contradiction of seductive and toxic. Copper pollutes rivers, the mining of it creates serious pollution problems, but it’s also very beautiful and we need it for all our communication devices and for electricity.
“And also oil. It’s awful because it’s dirty and black and we can hardly even understand what it looks like. We put it in our cars but it’s hard to know its materiality. But we love it too and need it.”
Beer’s previous work includes a project that considered the demise of the fish cannery in Steveston, a small oceanfront community south of Vancouver since remade as a tourist attraction and absorbed into suburban Richmond. Stories of changing communities, like the brave new world of resource extraction, are fertile ground for creativity and critique.