“This song I will sing, it’s about…this quite number of people who were blown…and they were hunting and the ice had a big crack, then they were blown by the wind way down…They’ve been away from home three years. That long.” This song, sung by a man named Udjualuk in Inuktitut and accompanied by accordion, drifts over a slow 360 degree panorama of an inlet. As the frame approaches a village, a naked spine ascends over the crest of the mountain and announces that we are in Cape Dorset and are waiting for the sun to rise. A series of still shots guide us from the mountain down onto a dirt road, where young men chase after a hat caught in the wind.
This opening sequence of Arvo Leo’s Fish Plane, Heart Clock, is both orienting and disorienting. From the peak of the mountain we experience spatial and temporal vertigo. Though the camera is grounded at a single perspectival point, with no sense of direction our perspective is prismatic and boundless. Where is Cape Dorset? With no sense of longitude or latitude, the current season and time of day is beguiling. What time does the sun rise? With no grasp of Inuktitut, many viewers cannot interpret the song we’ve just been introduced to. How far were the hunters blown? With no measure of a narrative arc, the melody elongates our turning on this peak. How long is this journey?
Soon Arvo takes us into Kinngait, Nunavut (Canada), which was named Cape Dorset by British explorers in 1631. He introduces us to Kinngait Studios (est. 1956), the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative (est. 1959), and the Inuit artist Pudlo Pudlat (1916-1992), whose drawings are the pulse of Fish Plane, Heart Clock. Both the studio and co-operative are initiatives set up by Canada’s Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources to restructure Inuit livelihood and culture in colonial settlements. The studios provide space, instruction and supplies for drawing and printmaking; and the co-operative brokers sales and presentation of artwork in southern Canada and internationally.
Fish Plane, Heart Clock is a homage to Pudlo’s approach to making images, informed by what he saw, heard and encountered since he began producing at the studios in the late 1950s. When Pudlo was a child, he scratched images of things he would see and study, such as a harpoon, into the walls of his igloo. When he learned to hunt as a young person, he did so by observation, rather than instruction, as is Inuit custom. And when his capacity to hunt and self-sustain was taken away by injury and settlement, he took up drawing with pencil on paper. Pudlo developed his artistic practice by observing (with all senses) his tools and materials, to render what he saw and what his memory and imagination evoked.
Likewise, Arvo privileges looking and listening closely–to colour, iconography and composition in Pudlo’s drawings, and to the land, animals, people, architecture and objects he encountered in Cape Dorset over the three months that he lived in the community. The bond that Arvo made with the artwork and the village informs the video’s structure, which is an exquisite corpse of Pudlo’s drawings and paintings, loosely organized by medium, iconography and style and Arvo’s improvisational vignettes.
The time signature in Fish Plane, Heart Clock is elastic. Historical time is folded into cinematic time. A found poster of the modern MC Escher image Ascending and Descending (1960), which portrays men walking in a Sisyphean loop on a set of Penrose stairs, is wafted by the smoke of a burn pile of daily garbage. The sense of enduring time compressed into Escher’s single image parallels Pudlo's drawing A Long Journey (c.1974), which depicts a hunter in multiple stages of an expedition within a static image, creating what is called a continuous narrative. This shift from the real to the represented is experientially disorienting and vertiginous. But for Pudlo, whose pencil replaced his harpoon, the capacity to render ritual and rite in images symbolically was a way for him to continue the hunter’s journey. For whom does this smoke signal?
Fish Plane, Heart Clock is shrouded in concealment, symbolism and inference. Arvo focuses on Pudlo’s drawings and paintings, rather than his prints or early sculptures. His drawings and paintings, which were rarely seen, comprised the private side of his practice, while his prints, which were widely exhibited and purchased, represented the public part of his career. Arvo’s camera rests on the eye sockets of an animal hide. We hear the crackling of the burn pile and recall the enduring hunt. The camera revisits the animal, and later observes a second eyeless being. Sightless but seeing, they still return our gaze. What deeper sense of vision do they possess? In the final scene of the video, this sense is revealed as touch, emerging from the ice that may have swallowed up the drifting hunters.
The frame, as a notation of a limit or boundary, of a view outward or inward, of what is seen or not seen, of an edit, or of duration, is one motif in the video. The page, the window, the camera and the television are determining frames for seeing, as they were for Pudlo. The page on which he drew–directed, supplied and controlled by the co-operative managers; the window through which he looked–from his home, his studio, or an airplane; and the television which introduced life outside Nunavut to the territory and life in Nunavut to the world. In Pudlo’s daughter Kanayuk’s living room, these frames collide and refract. We watch her fishing, mediated by her selfie video, a video taped by her husband, and a video recorded by Arvo. What is obfuscated when the camera is dropped? These transmissions of exterior life into domestic space are splintered by the window frame, which takes us directly to the outside world. A fish-headed man walks across the landscape. What is apprehended past the edge of the frame?
Fish Plane Heart Clock is infused with a sense of inventiveness, playfulness and mysticism. Numerous vignettes are composed and enacted with residents of Cape Dorset, many of which are children and young people. Arvo proceeds as Pudlo did, by capturing moments of humour, irony, absurdity and the mundane. In the co-operative grocery store, the camera is mounted in a shopping cart behind a second shopping cart full of crosses adorned with silk flowers. Latch, the boy who is filming, follows it slowly down the aisle past the Premium Plus crackers, Magic baking powder, Fry’s cocoa, Coffee Mate and Tim Hortons coffee–a contemporary hunting and gathering expedition. He pauses at the checkout counter to watch his brother take a mouthful of powdered candy then directs his cart to the left, showing us his perspective of the co-operative. How much does a loaf of bread cost in Cape Dorset?
Chance, accident and experiment motivated Pudlo’s evolving practice. Over thirty years he made images with numerous mediums including pencil, wax crayon, felt pens, coloured pencils, lithography and acrylic paint, as they were imported to Cape Dorset and introduced to the studios. The way a particular stylo made a line on the paper, or a liquid medium would bleed, propelled new images to emerge. Similarly Arvo maintains a spontaneous, fluid translation of formal and material strategies that respond to conditions of availability, access and encounter.
In particular Arvo is sensitive to colour in the drawings, which express a vivid breadth that does not reflect the natural hues of Nunavut’s landscape. The modernization of Inuit life, introduced new colours, textures, materials and patterns to Pudlo, and expanded his symbolic vocabulary. The camera slowly reveals a fuchsia water bottle, apricot dinner plates and a bottle of tangerine dish soap against a backdrop of citrus melange wallpaper. The skulls of a walrus, polar bear and caribou pop into the tableau then disappear, creating a still life in motion.
Both Arvo’s cinematographic and editorial decisions mimic Pudlo’s process of selection, articulation and repetition to develop a personal iconography, or atlas of symbols. Arvo hones in on two reoccurring motifs that comprise the work’s title FISH PLANE and HEART CLOCK, which express a metamorphoses between tradition and modernism, the natural with technological, and animals and humans. This approach relaxes the demand on the video to present a neutral, accurate, or holistic portrait of Pudlo Pudlat, Kinngait Studios, or the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative. Rather it creates a feedback loop between two artists’ practices. Arvo’s is not a faithful echo, but a responsive one modulated by time, space and perspective, on this longest journey home.