These Fragile Topographies:
Exploring artist Maureen Gruben’s communion with ideas of home, nature and belonging. This work was written with the generous knowledge and time of Maureen and Kyra Kordoski.
The landscapes surrounding the hamlet of Tuktoyaktok, N.W.T., are fierce and beautiful. This is where artist Maureen Gruben grew up, and where she returned three years ago, after living in Victoria, B.C. Gruben’s works are centred around ideas of home, even when away. To her, home is her Inuvialuit community, fondly referred to as Tuk.
Gruben’s work reflects a tenderness, inherent in the relationship between herself and the land. Reciprocity is integral to her practice, and her work extends beyond an activist ethos to demonstrate that caring for the land is more than environmentalism: it is an everyday practice.
Through her work, her audiences come to understand the fragility of the land, and the ecosystems that depend on it for survival.
Aidainnaqduanni (“we are finally home”), 2020
Both a memorial and a homecoming, three deteriorated polar bear rugs travelled from the Museum of Anthropology (UBC) back out onto the ice in Tuktoyaktuk. With gifted and salvaged materials from abandoned oil company buildings, the three polar bears were returned to the ice in October 2020. During the full moon, the water rose over the ice and froze in layers, frost blooming like flowers on the fur. Art writer, assistant and longtime collaborator Kyra Kordoski travelled with Gruben to take photographs under a blanket of stars with the northern lights dancing, then back again when the sun rose.
Stitching My Landscape, 2017
Deeply tied to home and family, the red cloth is stitched across an expanse of ocean surrounding Ibyuq Pingo, part of the Pingo Canadian National Landmark southwest of Tuktoyaktuk. The cloth stretches between and connects holes in the ice used for fishing, stitching the land. This mark-making draws from Gruben’s memories of being on the land with her family. Accompanying this piece is a soundscape that features Gruben’s late father Eddie Gruben’s chisel chipping the ice, its rhythm resounding like a heartbeat over the land.
Before launching into the making of a piece, Gruben sits with the materials to work out what will emerge. Gathering and laying out the polar bear fur, Gruben’s piece grew beyond her initial expectations to convey an important message of care for the land. Gruben sees herself as a conduit — the message comes from the polar bear, the materials guiding the final piece into a gift that needs to be shared.
Waiting for Shaman, 2017
Gruben views the gathering of her materials as gifts from the land. After gathering polar bear bones on the beach, the bones are first arranged in a circle, then set in resin. For Gruben, the process of gathering raw materials engages the landscape, even as the bubbles in the resin recall the bubbles in the ice from her childhood.
Gruben’s memories of her mother are of a seamstress that could make anything, from airplane covers to wedding dresses. Gruben taught herself to work with whale gut, a traditional material that is now rarely used to make garments. This beautiful, strong and translucent material in Consumed brings discordant things together to make a comment on the consumption of objects and how light can dissolve barriers between ourselves and those everyday objects.
Moving with joy across the ice while my face turns brown from the sun, 2019
Spring is a time of joy, when the ice begins to melt and the geese and waterfowl return. Measuring time across the changing ice, the melt adds precarity as it transforms into water. Mud sleds are used for short- and long-haul trips, and the ones in this piece were loaned to Gruben by her community. The mending and the materials show these sleds have their lives as useful and beloved objects of everyday life.
Big Hello, 2021
Suspended cell phone cases paired and overlaid with salvaged beadwork, bring attention to the collision of different technologies. The effects of satellite navigation on the slow and careful process of beading draw attention to the shifting landscape of home. “Big Hello” was installed at a pop-up gallery on Imaryuk (Husky Lakes), inside a canvas tent.
69 25 43.0 N 132 15 49.4 W, 2017
Summer on the tundra is short but vibrant. Fur from white rabbits, blue foxes and polar bears are mounted on a wooden board using copper to recreate the cotton grass that sweeps over the tundra in summer. Rising as a collective upwards, almost swaying in an invisible breeze, the repurposed materials also speak to the extractive consumption of the land in juxtaposition to their innocuous appearance. Here, Gruben delicately holds together the tensions between memory and possibility.
We all have to go someday. Do the best you can. Love one another, 2019
Love — a powerful force — is displayed in each stitch as Gruben stitches her father’s angiogram onto a tanned hide, the smoky smell of traditionally tanned hide evoking memories. Echoing the pathways that entwine caribou migrations and pathways to her father’s life on the land, the map of his heart echoes the landscape he so loved. As light passes through the hide and is projected on the wall behind, it produces an ephemeral connection to the physical object, an echo of the passage of time and our connection to one another.