Dust Counters and Gas Collectors

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Written by Aidan Tomlinson

Nicole Liao is a Toronto based artist with a background in Print Media and  Architecture. A large part of her work is made up of representations attempting to map, record and break down real world phenomena; using formal repetition, juxtaposition and overlay, she is interested in the rift between our attempts at understanding the continuing unknown nature of things. Most recently, her show at the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture in Dawson City Yukon explored footage of the Northern Lights and artificially induced Aurora Borealis resulting from high altitude nuclear bomb tests.

Dust Counters and Gas Collectors, Liao’s entry to The Cabinet Project, tells the story of when the unseen goes ignored. For centuries workers toiled away in mines and factories and other close quarter occupations without the knowledge of how harmful the air they were breathing in was. The dust counters and gas collectors on display are tools meant to measure the unseeable and the installation as a whole attempts to shed light on the plight of the common worker who perished on our way to a post industrial society.

The titular instruments are displayed in a warmly lit rustic cabinet but one would be remiss to say that they are the sole focus of the piece. These mechanical canaries share the spotlight with the pernicious particulates they are tasked with detecting and the maladies that occur when they fail or are disregarded. Striking swaths of sand and raw cotton occupy opposite corners of the cabinet in their solid state, tangible representations of the invisible danger to the industrial worker. Etchings of common workplace actions on the left of the cabinet are mirrored on the right by the diseases they cause, the euphemistic nature of which (e.g. popcorn lung) obscures what must have been an awful outlook. At the bottom of said list, the portrait of a goldmine owner, bars and all, gleams through in black and white. “I love juxtaposition,” says Liao.

But while Dust Counters and Gas Collectors may read as an epitaph to the old-timey worker, Liao thinks it is more relevant now than ever: “The sad irony is that the same safety lessons learned decades ago in the West are currently being ignored in developing countries,” Liao continues, “a material used to make fake silk in China and Japan called viscose rayon is wreaking havoc on workers lungs and minds.” Like many times before in human history we have the opportunity to heed our own warning and be our own canary in the coal mine, we must only choose to hear our own call.

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