Linda Duvall and 42 guests pit themselves against the prairie

Art | by Gregory Beatty

Linda Duvall: The Disappearing Hole
Paved Arts + New Media
May 5–June 17

If you had to spend six hours in a two-metre deep hole in a patch of unbroken prairie, what would you do?

That’s the premise behind Linda Duvall’s durational performance The Disappearing Hole, which opens at PAVED Arts + New Media on May 5.

During the exhibition’s six-week run, Duvall will be in the hole from noon to 6 p.m. She’ll be joined each day by an “artist-in-residence” — 42 in total. The hole is about 60 km south of Saskatoon, but there will be a live video feed at PAVED for people to watch.

To find out more, I spoke with Duvall by phone.

You originally excavated the hole for a photography project in 2012. What was going to be the focus there?

The starting point was being interested in plant root systems. I was doing the University of Saskatchewan’s master gardening program. There was a man in the 1930s who developed a system for binding the roots of invasive plants. He was trying to grow wheat. But he framed all these roots, and they were stunningly beautiful.

I decided I would do that too. I found an old rose bush and got in a backhoe and dug around it. It’s native prairie, so there’s the thickness of sod and roots dangling down. Once I did that, though, I realized it was the hole that really mattered to me.

I spent a lot of time in the hole, and a whole sequence of events started happening such as holes appearing in the sides from gophers and swallows. So I put in a camera, and saw that larger animals such as deer, coyotes, skunks and foxes were also coming in. At first it sort of bothered me. I found the space so special, and it was like it was being invaded. Then it was like, “No, I need to come to terms with this.”

Eventually, I realized I didn’t want to just take photographs. I needed to be in the hole. Then all these people started to say, “Oh, can we visit you? I have something I want to read, or whatever.” I realized then that that was a way for me to see the hole in another way.

How did you recruit people?

I decided to advertise it as a somewhat tongue-in-cheek residency. We had a jury of Felicia Gay from Wanuskewin, Monique Blom who is a performance artist, and David Lariviere from PAVED.

We were just awed by the proposals, the different ways that people had of thinking about the hole. We are on Treaty Six land, so some people are looking at it from that perspective. Some are looking at it as native prairie and what the plants are, while for others it’s about the soil. But it’s really about them responding to this situation, and this environment.

There are people coming from all over, too. Europe, the U.S., and from across Canada, Halifax to Vancouver. They’re flying in to do this, which I think is amazing. I had no idea so many people felt the same way about having time in a space like that.

Could you describe what some of the people are planning to do?

Helen Pridmore [who teaches in the University of Regina Media, Art and Performance department] is doing something related to John Cage where she’ll collect items in the hole, like sticks, and toss them to do a composition.

In her proposal, Kylie Fineday, who is in Lethbridge now but is from Sweetgrass First Nation, wrote about how her grandmother and two sisters used to go out to a sacred site for a few days in the summer. They would remain silent during the day just to take in the sounds of nature and be a part of it rather than disputing it. She said she’d like the opportunity to connect with nature by spending six hours in the hole in silence.

Saskatoon photographer Frances Robson’s time in the hole will be a remembrance of her father when he lived in a hole in the ground near Ministikwan Lake in northwest Saskatchewan for several years in the late 1940s and early ’50s. So there’s that layer with the actual history of Saskatchewan, where people did live in holes. And she wants to experience what her father would’ve experienced.

Megan Morman is in Alberta now, but she used to live in Saskatoon. During her time in the hole, she’s going to read out loud from Marian Engel’s novel Bear to me and the audience at PAVED.

The premise of this is that I’m an active participant. It’s not like one person doing their own performance. And I’m sure, for me, every day will be a surprise.

The time-frame of the exhibition means you could get a real mix of weather.

I think the weather will be an amazing factor. The hole itself is one section from the South Saskatchewan River, but it’s on a hill. So you can actually see the weather come in. We’ll both be the recipient of the weather, and be witness to it.

Holes have all sorts of practical and symbolic associations related to funeral rites, mining, construction, agriculture, even archaeology, where you can dig back in time.

The land is zoned non-arable, as it has a lot of sand from when the glaciers went through, so it’s never been tilled. That’s what I find very moving. When you’re in there, you’re really aware of this duration of time. I think it will be an important experience for all of us. Whatever happens, it’s that act of being in the space. It’s like a blank canvas, but a canvas of earth and roots. ❧