The truth about luxury

By Christine Clark, June 2011

Marlene Jess’ maps and performance pieces draw attention to the natural, under-appreciated luxury of our lives.

Marlene Jess makes art that is about luxury; not the kind of luxury that involves vast garden estates, fast cars, and endless purchasing power, but a kind of relative luxury; something as simple as fresh, drinkable water gushing from the faucet each time a hand turns the tap.

What we now know as Ecological Art has been evolving as a genre since the early ’60s, when artists like Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson began using the Earth as the medium. Although their work was exciting and new, and tended to revolve around concepts related to decay and reclamation, the message was essentially in keeping with traditional values, with the dominion of humans over the Earth largely accepted. 

When Smithson built Spiral Jetty in 1970, he employed dump trucks and bulldozers to move approximately 6000 tons of rock and soil out into the Great Salt Lake of Utah. Michael Heizer, too, was a bulldozer man, cutting huge chunks of earth, 50 feet deep, from the Nevada desert, to create a monumental work he called Double Negative.

Since then artistic approaches to the Earth, and to life on Earth, have changed. Over the ensuing years, certain artists have taken on a creative/scientific role in identifying environmental problems and developing and sometimes implementing solutions to those problems. One might look to Helen Mayer Harrison and her husband Newton Harrison, whose 2007-2009 work, Greenhouse Britain, considered the ways in which people can successfully respond to climate change. 

Here in Victoria, we have Marlene Jess, an artist and a poet, whose contemporary performance-based art practice is intended to draw attention to the natural and, oftentimes under-appreciated luxury of our lives here in Canada—especially on the West Coast. She explains that her work is meant “to create social change [and] to create an awareness of things happening.” Her approach to ecological issues differs from earlier generations in that instead of disturbing the Earth or pinpointing problems, she focuses on the existent bounty already within our grasp. 

On June 10, during the Off the Grid Art Crawl, and in conjunction with Open Space, Jess will be presenting a performance at the water fountain in Centennial Square. She calls this performance H2OMG, techno-speak for Water! Oh My God!, a title appropriated (and subverted) from the advertising campaign of one of several companies currently selling us about $60 billion-worth of water every year—water, which Jess points out, comes from afar, is packaged in polythylene terephthalate (i.e. plastic bottles) and is officially stamped with slick, hard-to-resist brand-name labels. 

During H2OMG, Jess will be collecting, labelling and “selling” water from the public drinking fountain (described on the City of Victoria website as inspired by a First Nations ladle, but which also resembles farm equipment, a trough perhaps). 

The idea of selling the water is primarily symbolic, meant to generate public discourse about the realities of public and private water supplies. The water will be served to the interested and the thirsty in recycled glass bottles that Jess has been collecting and disinfecting for the last several months, and on each bottle will be a specifically designed label, created by Jess. She sums up this description by remarking that, “basically I’m marketing public water.”

She presented this project first during a group show in Portland, Oregon last year, and she says, “it was really successful. Some people fought with me because they didn’t think the water system was at risk. They thought I was attacking private industry, but [really] I was promoting a public service.” As she pointed out at her Mother’s Day lecture “Water and Bread” at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, our very own tap water is some of the best in the world, and is tested far more rigourously than private, for-profit bottled waters.

The water project is expansive and will eventually, during the course of the summer, take place at six different fountains around the City. As an artist whose work is performance-based and therefore momentary, Marlene uses cartography to document her actions and her thoughts. She says it helps “to physically be able to see what is happening” both for herself and for her audience. She is currently creating a map showing both the locations of the fountains and her activities in relation to the fountains. This will be on display during the month of June at Open Space. 

In her ascetic studio, Jess, who completed an undergraduate degree in Health and Social Sciences at Brock University and more recently earned a Diploma of Fine Arts at Vancouver Island School of Art, reveals a series of her hand-drawn maps. These are narratives of her life and her observations. The largest work-in-progress charts the many car-related businesses in Greater Victoria. Already it is quite dense and it illustrates the double-edged sword of our “convenience culture, car culture, individuals-who-need-things-fast [culture],” as she describes it. There are sacrifices required: concrete instead of greenery; speed instead of exercise and interaction. 

The little drawings are somewhat crude, naïve and charming, but beneath that is a stubborn quality, and an intensity of purpose. Marlene Jess has a message and it has to do with the truth about luxury.

H2OMG takes place June 10 from 6 pm at Centennial Square. See

Christine Clark is an artist and writer currently involved with various activities at Xchanges Gallery,