Photo by Dennis Ha
Read or listen through Contemporary Art Gallery's Timelines
Mesomonuments, or Little Offerings
I first encountered Jesse Gray’s bronze casted sculptures at a workshop she led at the Nanaimo Art Gallery. She passed the works, each smaller than the palm of my hand, to visitors and explained that they are replicas of plastic debris she collected from beaches in Snuneymuxw, Snaw’naw’as and Stz’uminus territories on Vancouver Island. I held gold-coloured versions of coffee splash guards, bottle caps, children’s toys, and more while listening to Gray describe her fabrication process. I learned that lost wax casting lifts even the finest details from the original plastic items and deposits them back into molten bronze. The bronze objects mimic the shape, texture and size of the original plastics, but with a new weight and lustre that calls into question our distinctions between precious and disposable materials. Central to this work is a deep concern for the environmental degradation caused by plastics, with Gray calling the material a “monument to our era.”
In 2020, these works came together in Mesomonuments, a solo exhibition at Artspeak curated by Bopha Chhay. Featuring over 900 small-scale bronze sculptures, the exhibition included two new series: Mesomonuments: Ex-situ and Mesomonuments: Scrap Figures After Elza Mayhew. Visitors were invited by gallery staff to select and take home pieces from the former—to disperse them via bags, pockets and from hand to hand. In earlier iterations of this project, Gray circulated the bronze sculptures by returning them to the shores where she found the plastics, inviting fellow beachcombers to find and collect them. Thus she invited a range of people (both known and unknown to her, close and far) into the delightful experience of meeting familiar items in a new way. One such finding by Gray was the intimacy of seeing human teeth marks on plastic objects she found on the beach, such as pen caps, perhaps imprints from a stranger’s unconscious habits.
Gray’s sculptures make me wonder about the transformation plastics undergo while travelling across expanses of ocean—about the loss to their surfaces as they are smoothed by wind, salt and waves. I wonder too about the knowledges humans lose when we make these journeys, and how regaining them can be an act of care, both for oneself and one’s community. I belong to the Japanese Canadian diaspora, and with family living across the Pacific Ocean in Osaka prefecture, I am perpetually learning how closeness can span great distances. My grandmother teaches me, inviting me to absorb traditions practiced by our ancestors. At mealtimes, she offers bowls of rice to our ancestors, eating only after she has fed others. She tells me this rice reconnects us with loved ones who have passed (some of whom we’ve never met, whom we might easily forget to remember), and allows us to thank them for their roles in our lives. Witnessing my grandmother’s offerings, I have come to understand these acts as her bringing nearer the traces of distant family so that we might extend care to them.
While my grandmother teaches me about closeness with ancestors, the works in Mesomonuments teach me about an unsettling yet intimate closeness with plastics. Abrasions reproduced in bronze, like those resulting from chewing a pen cap or jostling against stony beaches, offer a haptic connection with faraway people and ecosystems. These marks show how objects carry their histories long after we discard them and, in the cases of plastic and bronze, for much longer than a human lifespan. A shimmering body of work, Mesomonuments invites us to see traces of ourselves embedded in refuse and debris.
1. Jesse Gray in conversation with Ariana Kalliga, Space52, 2021.