Questions about the Place, Nova Scotia 1998

medium: 100 azo dye (cibachrome) colour photographic prints, each 11 x 14 inches (28 x 36 cm)
installed dimensions: 7 feet 4 inches high (from floor to top of frames) x 26 feet 3 inches wide (224 cm high x 8 m wide).
collection: Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen’s University, Kingston

In the spring of 1998, I was teaching in Halifax for a couple of months and as I walked to work I became aware of a certain public sign that occurred at a few spots along my route—a sign that had the potential to sum up my curiosity and my genuine uncertainty about the physical world. Most public signs are emphatic, but this one is a question mark. I went around Nova Scotia then, in search of these signs, and I photographed dozens of question marks in front of ordinary, everyday landscapes, both urban and rural—places that contain hidden histories and invisible stories.

The sign's intended purpose is to direct people to tourist information centres. But under what circumstances, I wonder, is the land traversed? A lot of people are on the move in the late twentieth century, on trips either chosen or forced. Tourism counts for just one form of human movement in an intersecting mix of experience that includes—this is just a partial list—immigration, pilgrimage, exploration, refuge-seeking, labour, trading, humanitarian aid, business, family visiting, missionary work, study, military action, and exile. Human displacement has been going on since our beginnings, giving rise to the landscape's increasingly complex history as a place of both dwelling and transience.

To my thinking, these signs can be seen as rhetorical pointers because the tourism industry is concerned with style rather than meaning; it is rhetorical in its use of language to persuade and influence; rhetorical in its pretense to significance and in its exaggeration, which assumes a singular and homogeneous vision of a place. What could be a better symbol, I thought, to actually resist tourism's selective process of containment—a process in which only one part or aspect of a place comes to epitomize the whole—than this ambiguous question mark?

I photograph landscapes, yet I am very suspicious of landscape photographs—I wonder what assumptions or conclusions we are led to by the look of places. What meanings are not visible? As a central interpretive device of our culture and our history, photography has the power to form the images and ideas we have of places. But in every view of field and mountain, forest and sea, city and dwelling, the scene hints at something it cannot reveal. This is challenging territory that I have worked my way into—almost, you could say, an inversion of my purposes—for I always wanted to be an artist because I was so taken by what things look like.

In my work I try to raise questions: How can a photograph of a landscape deliver our multiple histories and experiences there? What is and what has been the meaning of this place? Who has been here? What happened here? What kinds of land disputes have gone on? Where have boundaries been drawn and why? What will become of this place? What will happen here? What, in fact and in spirit, is going on here now? There could be an infinite number of questions about a place, questions about things that are invisible and therefore they cannot be photographed. And for that reason I consciously submit to doubt and, playing off against what I can see, try to evoke what is absent and unseen.

Marlene Creates, 1998

A publication that includes this work is available:
Marlene Creates: Signs of Our Time