An Artist for Animals in Peril

Safety Gear for Small Animals
Respirator, 10 x 11 x 6 cm, 1994/1999

a conversation with Bill Burns
by Renay Egami

A children’s choir whose repertoire consists of the sounds of dogs, boats and airplanes, Italian mineral water for the Masked Puddle Frog, and a prosthetics program for animals with missing body parts: these are some of the ways in which artist Bill Burns considers the tensions between nature and culture. For the past twenty years, Burns has produced conceptually and socially engaged work that reminds us of what’s at stake both globally and closer to home.

Now based in Toronto, Burns was born in Regina, Saskatchewan and received his Master’s Degree in Fine Arts from Goldsmiths’ College at the University of London. Within the expanded field of art, design, and critical writing, Burns’ work has been widely exhibited and published nationally and internationally.

His artists’ editions are included in numerous collections, including the Tate Britain and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Recent projects include a solo exhibition, The Flora and Fauna Information Service at the Institute
of Contemporary Arts in London (2008)and a group show, Safe: Design Takes on Risk, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (2006). Burns has taught at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver and is Visiting
Artist at Krabbesholm Højskole of Art, Architecture and Design in Skive, Denmark. He spoke to me from his Jorge Pardo-designed cottage overlooking a fjord in northern Denmark.

Renay Egami: Your multi-disciplinary art practice has been devoted to representations of and engagement with the natural world, and more specifically, about the safety of animals in peril. Could you begin by giving some background to your research in this area?

Bill Burns: When I was studying in London in the late eighties, I got homesick. I’d been in London for several years and had not been to the countryside, and I went with my friends to the Virginia Water near Windsor Castle. It’s a man-made lake that was built by the Royals in the 1700s. I had heard that it was designed by Capability Brown, the great 18th century landscape architect. As it turned out it wasn’t, but it had many of his licks. In any case, I got about half way around the lake and I fainted. The air, the trees, the forest were too good for me. I couldn’t take it. It was about that time I started making work that reminded me of home. I made a series of crude paper models and pictures using the canoe paddle as a motif. I made a model of a forest that was defoliated save for a stand of trees in the middle and a stadium in the shape of a canoe paddle. My thinking, at the time, was influenced by political theorists such as Thomas Hobbes who observed that rights akin to property grew out of the care and nurturing of land and animals. Anyhow, I was thinking a lot about property relations, surplus value, and reading about the Enclosures. All this got me thinking about the wilds of Canada. I wasn’t really that familiar with the forest but I had done some hiking, enough to have seen some totally destroyed and defoliated landscape in BC. And then I would hear deliberate distortions and mistruths from government and industry about this clear breach of stewardship that Hobbes had proposed as civil life.

Then I watched the slow-motion collapse of the fishery in Newfoundland. It seemed to me that all you really needed to do was read the papers to figure out that an extermination was on the way. So, then I was back in Canada, and I started to integrate this stewardship, the needs of animals, into my work.

Lake publishes fiction, poetry, critical essays, interviews, reviews and visual arts related to the environment.
The magazine is issued twice a year.

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