On West Georgia, there are a couple of ghosts that have taken physical form. They’re in the shape of two stumps that recall the industrial logging that once took place throughout Vancouver.


They’re about two metres from each other in the sunken area at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Offsite. The stump on the right is a little living ecosystem with moss, dirt, and plants growing around its base seemingly lifted out of the earth by a giant scoop. The other one has been stripped clean to expose the roots and looks much more stark and lifeless than its partner.

The two stumps in Marina Roy’s Your Kingdom to Command are sitting in a shallow pool of water between the sidewalk and the public art site’s two walls that meet at a right angle. A spout of water that arcs from the living stump to the dead one adds a playful element. The water from the arc drips into the pool and ripples the water which reflects the triangular forms and creatures on the mural on the walls behind.

Looking south, the stumps are framed by a triangle of black bitumen. Another, smaller bitumen triangle is on the western wall. The bitumen is a hydrocarbon similar to the main ingredient in the pavement on the street in front of the work as well as the source of the fuel for the vehicles heading along West Georgia.

It’s unusual to see something so connected to one of B.C.’s extractive industries used as a material to make art. It made me think of the two stumps in Emily Carr’s Above the Gravel Pit. The dominant element in that painting are the vibrating bands of blue sky and white clouds above the stumps left over after the forest has been logged. Above the Gravel Pit is hopeful in the way it depicts nature’s strength and resilience compared to industry’s destruction of the forest.

The depiction of nature is much different in Roy’s work. The triangular shapes of the bitumen physically dominate the stumps in front of it. Next to the bitumen are murals covered with numerous painted creatures such as bacteria and fungi and insects and starfish painted in shades of red, rust and brown. Green and blue as colours that symbolize growth and change are missing from Roy’s work where nature is represented in a much more precarious position.

Compressed and transformed during hundreds of millions of years, the creatures are the kinds of organic materials that create the hydrocarbons that fuel contemporary life. The creatures are arranged in layers like sedimentary material. Text beside each one names each creatures and describes the materials Roy used to make them. I found most of the didactic information impossible to read because it’s located too high on the mural or on the far side of the pool away from the sidewalk.

In the top right just above the sidewalk is the only mythical creature in the mural: the ouroboros. In the 19th century, a German chemist said he saw an image of the snake or serpent eating its tail in a dream. He used the ring shape as a visual analogue for the structure of benzene which became a key element in the development of the petrochemical industry.

Roy created the work knowing people would be seeing it in an urban environment dominated by cars and corporate office towers. I found the work’s impact to be even greater because of its location across from the Trump Tower and all that it represents about climate change denial, continued use of fossil fuels and turbo capitalism.

Roy sees the bitumen pyramid behind the stumps as a “black pyramid of capital which sucks up all resources.

“Tar and asphalt and bitumen are made up of millions of years of dead flora and fauna,” Roy said in an interview on site.

“The mural could be seen as the ghosts of them floating above or sinking back into it based on extinction rates.”

Green is absent from the mural for a reason.

“I didn’t want there to be this sense of growth — it’s more of a lingering death,” she said.

“I wanted them to be ghost like or blob like.”

The work’s title Your Kingdom to Command sounds Biblical but isn’t. Roy said when she was trying to come up with a title, she was listening to The Kinks. One song called Shangri-La had the phrase “This is your Kingdom to command.” As a title, she liked its sense of irony about the assumption that nature as a kingdom that can be commanded by humans. Plus, it was from a song whose title is the same as the Shangri-La Hotel where the work would be situated. It also builds on wordplay started by Ken Lum with his work from shangri-la to shangri-la which was shown at Offsite in 2010.

Roy said as a youngster, she grew up in a part of Coquitlam where nearby stumps were a playground. She and her friends spent hours climbing over massive, craggy and castle-like leftovers from logging. The stumps recall her childlike wonder at creating a world — a kingdom — in the remains of industrial culture.

Roy said the environmental situation facing the world in part motivated her to make Your Kingdom to Command. But she also wonders at the effectiveness of public art in confronting the daunting challenge of global warming. At times, she feels a sense of hopelessness knowing how much she is entrenched in a system she can’t escape or fundamentally change.

“I hope it makes people think about what is going on in the world,” Roy said.

“I think we’re at a crossroads. It feels pretty urgent right now.”


The Working Forest