Fiona Annis: Knowledge is Futile

To speak of knowledge is futile. All is experiment and adventure. We are forever mixing ourselves in unknown quantities.

-Virginia Woolf, The Waves, 1931.

The artist, Fiona Annis, often works closely with text and sources from literature ranging from science fiction to philosophy. With curator Vicky Chainey Gagnon, she has selected five quotes to be interspersed with her images in the exhibition space. Our hope is that these quotes can function like the discovery of an intriguing document buried deep in an archive. As you ponder these ideas, you will be bringing the images into a complex dialogue that embraces the unknown.

Exhibition view.

As Woolf explains, it is easy to get lost in the chaos of an endless and ever-changing expanse of information. Does gaining more knowledge simply complicate our view of the world? It often seems that the more we look at art, the more we gather endless amounts of data, a clear pattern never forms, always adding new exceptions to the rule. This skepticism and poetic sensibility underpins much of Annis’s work.

Science is also rooted in this deep fascination with the unknown. Though we often think of science as classifying, discovering, measuring, pushing the limits of observation requires curiosity and imagination. We cannot see the chemical reactions of photographic development on the molecular level, nor can we see the gravitational forces at work in our solar system, yet we wonder at the tangible results and seek to understand them. There is still so much we don’t know, as we continue to explore the human brain, the depths of the ocean, and the furthest reaches of the universe. We can expand our understanding of knowledge beyond empirical data to include inherited knowledge and creative expression.

Science and art both continually grapple with new ways to capture, explain, or represent. Fiona’s work questions whether this is a futile endeavour, providing rich territory for contemplation in this exhibit. Even though she is engaged with the process of learning, her art does not provide easy answers. It calls us to search for meaning in a multitude of places and accept that knowledge is not the ultimate goal, but rather to revel in the wonder and mystery of the unknown.

Fiona Annis, Désastre (finding North). Archival inkjet print from silver gelatin negative, 2018.

This stunning print is part of a series exploring the creative possibilities of the mythological conception of chaos. Annis’s interest in astronomy and alchemy informed this study of the transformation of matter. Annis subjected light-sensitive silver gelatin paper to crushing and other manual manipulation in the darkroom, resulting in these textural abstract forms.

Fiona Annis: a portion of that which was once everything is on at the CRAG now until September 4, 2019.

Time and Space: Fiona Annis

Fiona Annis, In the elsewhere of the event (cold river). Silver gelatin print, 5″ x 4″, 2018.

Many of the works in this exhibition were completed in advance of Annis’s Naples residency, underscoring the importance of experimentation in the creative and scientific process. Think of how the many variations of photographic technique came to be developed. These discoveries required much study, experimentation and imagination.

Silver gelatin printing refers to the material that is printed upon, usually paper, that is manufactured with layers of light-sensitive material. This printing method was developed in the late 19th century so the printing material could be used years after it was made, rather than the wet-plates which had to be used right away. The effect is typically a monochrome black and white image. 

Three women and a man working in a photography darkroom, Washington, 1911. University of Washington Special Collections, Industries and Occupations Photographs Collection, accession no. 546.

The paper is coated with several layers to maintain the stability of the image. The base layer, the baryta, is opaque white gelatin and barium sulfate which provides a smooth base. The middle layer is the gelatin binder that holds the silver grains (silver bromide and silver chloride) that form the image, topped by a protective layer of hardened gelatin. 

During exposure, light causes a chemical reaction, reducing the silver halides to silver metal. The areas where more light is let through the negative or the area around the object if contact printing, become the shadows or darker areas of the print. This latent invisible image is made visible by the chemical development. After a stop bath, the fixer (sodium thiosulfate) binds with the unexposed silver halide which can then be washed away by water, leaving the silver particles behind forming the image.

As we dig deeper into the intersections of photography and astronomy, we can complexify and question the hierarchical conception of progress and the future. By diversifying the techniques in her artistic practice, Annis brings forth the value of knowledge from the past and in turn creates new knowledge, or even something altogether unknowable. Thus, time can be fluid and subjective, not just linear.

Photography can make visual the way that we experience time – the past is experienced in the present and the present is preserved for the future. When we think about a photograph, we think of a singular moment, a tiny fraction of a second, frozen in time. Often, historical photographic processes required exposures (the time it takes for the light to form the image) that lasted several minutes. Even the light from the sun takes eight minutes to reach our eyes. This time is collapsed, lost to us.

We hope that you can experience this shift in perception when you see these works in person. Please join us this Thursday, July 11th, from 7 to 9 pm for our opening reception. The artist will be in attendance to introduce her works.

Fiona Annis: a portion of that which once was everything


Fiona Annis, Da Corpo a Spirito. 3 cyanotype photograms, 2017.

This triptych is deceivingly simple- three shapes floating in blue squares. What are these mysterious forms? Underwater creatures, meteorites, dust specks? Could they be “portion(s) of that which once was everything,” chance pieces broken off of a whole? The exhibition title, a portion of that which was once everything, was chosen to move beyond binary thinking, and evoke the notion that at the heart of things we are simply (and extraordinarily) complexified star dust.

The recognizable blue pigment that dominates these photographic prints is produced by the 19th-century cyanotype technique. The famous and perhaps the first female photographer Anna Atkins published the first book illustrated with photographic images with her cyanotypes of biology specimens in 1843. 

These images are actually photograms, made without a camera. By applying objects directly to coated paper, the light directly creates a silhouette. A photosensitive solution of ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide is applied to a surface, usually paper. The chemical reactions results in the insoluble Prussian Blue dye. Exposures can take 10 to 20 minutes. The remaining undeveloped yellow iron solution is then rinsed away, letting the blue dye darken as it dries.

Anna Atkins, “Dictyota dichotoma, in the young state; and in fruit,” Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. Cyanotype photogram, 1843. New York Public Library,

What does an image of something we can see and hold satisfy for us? A record like a photograph can preserve and replicate an ephemeral object. However, the record is limited in what qualities of the object it can record. Paradoxically, a photogram (made without a camera) is less mediated than a typical photograph (where the camera stands between the photographer or viewer and the subject), but the object is more obscured, only revealing its outline without depth or colour. Going even further, can the document reveal in this process of transference something that the object’s physical presence does not?

Big questions like these loom in Annis’s work. What underpins the drive to explain our existence? Think back to the title of the triptych, meaning “from body to spirit” in Italian. Just as a photograph distills an object’s physical qualities (the “body”) to intangible knowledge (the “spirit”) through the process of semiotics, so too can astronomy’s depth of knowledge about our universe inform spirituality and philosophy.

Historically, astronomical discoveries have been linked to debates such as Galileo’s conflict with the Catholic church. Take, for example, the magnificent achievement of the recent photo of a black hole. These advancements are continually changing our perspective on the universe and our collective imagination, not unlike art. As we look outwards to the sky and beyond, we must also look inward at ourselves – where is our place in the world?

Join us Saturday, July 13th from 2 to 3:30 pm in the main gallery for a one-on-one dialogue between artist Fiona Annis and Tony Puerzer from the Nanaimo Astronomy Society to explore these rich themes further. Cost is a $5 donation to the CRAG.

Upcoming Exhibit: Fiona Annis

Phōtós – graphê

drawing with light”

We are looking forward to hosting Montreal-based artist Fiona Annis to the CRAG this summer in a thought-provoking solo show of her recent photographic work. This exhibition, Fiona Annis: a portion of that which once was everything, will run from July 11 to September 4. 

Annis recently completed a residency at the Museum of Astronomical Instruments in Naples, Italy where she explored the celestial themes of light and time and their relevance to photography. She combines and manipulates historical photographic techniques to create compelling images that challenge our conceptions of abstract art and photography. Her images are purposefully mysterious – we hope to provoke your curiosity to explore the unknown through this exhibit.

Double Moon Crossing, 2016, C-print enlargement of wet plate collodion, 30 x 30 in.

This image’s stark contrast of light and dark is thematic of Annis’ work. The central circles are clearly referenced by the title, prompting us to imagine planets and stars traversing the night sky in the abstract shapes, much like how we search for meaning in constellations. A closer look reveals various anomalies from the printing process. These peculiar forms in many of her works are actually a record of movements and light in the darkroom during the exposure process rather than an image of a physical object, bringing the unseen temporal aspect of photography to the fore as the subject.

Compare Annis’s work with a photograph of a lunar eclipse.

This image was produced using the wet-plate collodion process which was invented in the 1850s. It produces a clear, reusable negative on inexpensive glass. The hand-processed plates use silver nitrate, requiring Annis to rely on 19th-century recipes to mix the chemicals. The entire process from the few-seconds-long exposure to the image development in the darkroom must be completed in under 15 minutes. The chemicals are sensitive to blue UV light, making the images show up darkened in areas where warm colours would be and without differentiation between blue and whites.

Charles Bayliss and Bernard Holtermann, Lavender Bay, Sydney Harbour, 1875, collodion glass negative. State Library of New South Wales.

A “c-print” refers to a colour printing technique known as chromogenic printing, developed in the early 20th century. Three separate layers of gelatin with light-sensitive silver halide emulsion are first exposed. Colour developer and dye coupler are then added which oxidizes on the exposed silver to form the dye. A different dye (yellow, magenta, and cyan) is produced on each layer, resulting in a full-colour image.

Arts and sciences are often considered to be polar opposites, but there remains an inherent curiosity that drives creative expression and the quest for knowledge. This crossover is also evidenced by the material history of photography, namely the development of astronomical instruments such as telescopic lenses which were used in early cameras. Both astronomy and photography are still striving to expand the human capability for seeing and understanding. Annis’s work reveals just that. 

By using historical techniques, Annis can evoke a sense of mystery and wonder. However, photography was used to scientifically record from the beginning, not just as a creative medium. There were even debates as to whether photography could be considered an art, as it simply “replicated” reality without an artist’s hand. We now know that a photograph doesn’t fully capture reality as we experience it. By examining the process of photography and our historical relationship with it, Annis calls to attention how we so easily take our perception of reality for granted. 

Annis is interested in exploring and capturing what lies beyond the visible and observable.  Photography can make visible what isn’t to the naked eye through advancements in technology, just as art has the same capacity to express emotion and imagination.

View finder (the room of time), Museum of Astronomical Instruments (Naples, Italy), 2019, C-print, 10 x 8 in.

We invite you to attend the opening reception on Thursday, July 11 from 7 to 9 pm.

We will also be hosting an artist’s talk and guided tour with Fiona Annis and local astronomer Tony Puerzer from the Nanaimo Astronomy Society on Saturday July 13th from 2 to 3 pm in the main gallery. This event will open the interdisciplinary dialogue between the art and science communities and explore the complex meanings behind Annis’s images.

Food for Thought: Events at the CRAG This Week

The CRAG invites you to join us for two more events centred around our current exhibit Behind the Lines: Contemporary Syrian Art.

We greatly appreciate all of the thoughtful conversations about the art in Behind the Lines that have been going on in the gallery so far. A whole new set of nearly 50 artworks will be debuted at our second opening reception this Thursday, June 13th, from 5 to 7 pm.

All of the works are full of emotion and many reference heavy subject matter. We hope that by generating conversation around the artworks and the personal stories of the artists, we can find hope and strength in our community and remind ourselves that we are not alone in the world.

There are lots of ways for you to get involved with these moving artworks and the Syrian people and culture. This coming Saturday from 1 to 3 pm, the CRAG is hosting an afternoon of Syrian food and music in Spirit Square. The event is free and open to the public, and there is sure to be something for everyone.

We wholeheartedly believe in the power of art to communicate visually, but our thoughts and feelings can be translated through words as well. Stepping out of your comfort zone to learn even a little of someone’s language goes a long way towards understanding someone whose life looks very different from yours.

We invite you to participate in activities that use language as a tool to forge connections. Our Super Saturday activity this month is learning how to write your name in Arabic. All ages can join in! Sarmad will be helping us to explore the beauty of this ancient language.

You can put your Arabic to good use by signing your name on a letter to one of the artists in Behind the Lines. They would love to hear how their work has touched someone like you across the world. We will take care of sending the letters – all you have to do is write. Who knows, you might just make a new friend! That is, after all, how this exhibit came to be. Paul and Humam, the two curators of Behind the Lines, were brave enough to reach out online without ever having met in person in order to create this powerful show.

Once you work up an appetite, the BaBa Gannouj food truck will be parked in the square, serving authentic Syrian and Lebanese cuisine including delicious donair, shawarma, falafel, kebabs and much more.

Fouad Nassar, co-owner of the popular restaurant and food truck with his wife Merell, will be sharing his musical talents on the accordion with us. He will be joined by other local Syrian families who will be performing a traditional dance. We are so lucky to be able to celebrate the diversity in Campbell River- a sign of a healthy and growing community.

Not only are food and gathering to eat great ways to bridge cultural divides, but food can also be a powerful symbol of community in art. For example, Omran Younis uses the imagery of watermelons in his paintings. These would have been a ubiquitous sight in the lively city marketplace, which unfortunately became a site of tragedy when they were targeted by car bombs. His compositions are disjointed and violent, but the bright pink of the watermelon reminds us that Syria’s rich culture and history will persist despite the tragedy of the civil war.

Syria Through a Different Lens: A Night of Syrian Film

The Campbell River Art Gallery will be hosting a film screening on June 5th at the Timberline Theatre from 7 to 9 pm. We have hand-selected three films about Syria of various lengths which each contribute a unique perspective on modern life in Syria. They go hand in hand with the challenging works in Behind the Lines: Contemporary Syrian Art, currently on display in our main gallery.

All three films offer a snapshot of daily life in war-torn Syria. Each infused with the Inspiring bravery required to share stories in a place where opportunities for artistic expression are severely limited. These films as well as the artworks in Behind the Lines are a testament to the enduring strength of the human spirit.

We hope that this event builds community here in Campbell River, much like the communities that the films highlight and the international collaborative efforts required to make Behind the Lines possible. By fostering discussion around these powerful films, we can create empathy and support for the global plight of refugees and immigrants right here at home.

As a contemporary art gallery, we strive to acknowledge a variety of art forms, including film. Beyond the aesthetic possibilities of cinematography, we believe in the political function of art to tell stories that aren’t being listened to otherwise. The medium of film is perfectly poised to accomplish this, due the accessibility of today’s technology. An aspiring filmmaker doesn’t need much equipment other than a cellphone to record and share their vision across the world. We are proud to uplift the voices of contemporary filmmakers, working tirelessly in Syria and beyond to make conditions there known, by sharing these screenings with you.

Mohammad Zaza, The Photographer, 2016.

To give you a sneak peek at the films, below are brief summaries of each. Click through to read more about them.

The first short film is Love During the Siege. This film and Tatlit were produced by Bidayyat, a Syrian company that supports documentaries and experimental films as well as training programs for documentary filmmakers. “Love” chronicles a family living in southern Damascus, personalizing the staggering statistics of the devastation of the civil war.

The feature-length documentary, I Am the Revolution, is a portrait of three powerful women across the Middle East in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. They are educators, freedom fighters, politicians, and most importantly, leaders. The film’s director is Italian journalist Benedetta Argentieri, who has worked extensively covering conflict in the Middle East.

Tatlit is a short piece which chronicles the goings-on in the urban centre. The scenes are set to a soundtrack with a heavy beat, emphasizing the persistent rhythm of everyday life even in times of hardship.

Tickets for the film night are $7 plus service fees, available through Eventbrite. Popcorn and refreshments will be available for purchase at the event.

We also welcome you to join us on June 13th from 5 to 7 pm for the second opening of Behind the Lines. We have many more new works for you to appreciate and contemplate with your newly deepened appreciation of Syrian culture.

Come see us in Spirit Square the following Saturday, June 15th, from 1 to 3 pm for an afternoon of Syrian food and music. Kids can learn to write their names in Arabic at our monthly Super Saturday event. There will also be guided tours of the second showing with our Curator of Contemporary Art in the main gallery. We hope to see you there!

Celebrating Syrian Art & Music

When we think of Syria’s devastating civil war halfway across the world, many of us in Canada are familiar with a barrage of heart-breaking images of bombed-out buildings and refugees on boats, constantly available in the news. So, how do we truly connect with those affected by war?

The ability of music and art to transcend nationality and personalize is demonstrated by the exhibit Behind the Lines: Contemporary Syrian Art in our main gallery. A diverse range of painting, sculpture, and photography explore the horrors of the civil war. Simultaneously, Mohammad Zaza’s mesmerizing and other-worldly, hand-drawn animated videos, and accompanying instrumental music, float across the gallery. This provokes complex emotions and energies amongst the message against war. Visual and musical representation of the personal experience of war is perhaps able to tell us more about Syria and its people than any news story full of facts and figures.

Being able to create and exhibit art is a risk for many artists in Syria who have been forced to flee to Europe and North America. Only six of the twenty artists that are featured in Behind the Lines are still living in Syria. We are lucky enough to have the Orontes Guitar Quartet in Canada for one year through an Artist Protection Fund fellowship as visiting artists at the University of Victoria, now on their Canadian tour. Their resilience and talent is nothing short of inspiring.

Photo courtesy of Orontes Guitar Quartet.

The Orontes Guitar Quartet will be at the Tidemark Theatre in downtown Campbell River, just across the street from the gallery, on Tuesday night in conjunction with the Campbell River Art Gallery’s presentation of the exhibit Behind the Lines: Contemporary Syrian Art curated by Paul Crawford of the Penticton Art Gallery. Paul will be giving a talk in the main gallery at 5pm before the concert. He will share his experience of creating the exhibit with Humam Alsalim from the Cyrrus Gallery in Damascus in 2016.

These events are not only an opportunity to enrich Campbell River’s understanding of the abundance and diversity of Syrian art and culture, but they are also a fundraiser for the Immigrant Welcome Centre of North Vancouver Island. $5 from each ticket goes to supporting programs for newcomers to Canada. Our community will be enriched by experiencing Syrian art and music, while also giving back and creating a lasting and local impact in our globalized world. International collaboration and connection can benefit all of us, which is exactly what will be celebrated Tuesday night.

Photo courtesy of Orontes Guitar Quartet.

We look forward to welcoming Paul and the Quartet on Tuesday and hearing their incredible performance. Don’t miss out – tickets are available online. Admission for Paul’s talk is $5 at the CRAG. Check out more upcoming events in June featuring Syrian film and food on the CRAG facebook page.

Check back every week for a blog post on what’s current and exciting at the CRAG this summer.

Putting the “International” back in International Museum Day

International Museum Day, this year falling on May 18th, brought into focus for me the importance of making connections between museums across the world. Sure, we could all celebrate in our own museums close to home, but what about moving beyond that? Museums, galleries and other cultural institutions are an excellent resource for getting in touch with your own community as well as encounter the wider world.

Exhibition view.

The Campbell River Art Gallery debuted the exhibit Behind the Lines: Contemporary Syrian Art on May 9th, making it truly an international museum. The show has travelled across Canada since 2016, broadening its reach even further. The Museum at Campbell River is also highlighting a month-long artist exchange with Indonesian artist Ipong Purnama Sidhi, currently happening on Quadra Island.

Visitors are encouraged to write letters directly to the artists.

The work that Humam Alsalim at the Cyrrus Gallery has done in concert with Paul Crawford and the Penticton Art Gallery to amplify the voices of the 20 featured Syrian artists speaks to the critical role that museums play as an intermediary for artists and art lovers, cultures and continents. This kind of international collaboration can be impactful on a micro or macro scale. Getting to know the artists, even in a small way such as sending a letter halfway across the world (there are pencils and paper waiting for you in our main gallery!) makes a museum more than just a place to exhibit art – a space for people to enjoy art and connect with it, not just a place to display it.

This exhibit is certainly a feat to celebrate. We hope that you visit and celebrate museums with us all year round. What museums have you visited internationally? Which ones are at the top of your list to visit next?