July 16th, 2024

Artist goes to bat for bats in SAAG exhibition


By Theodora MacLeod - Lethbridge Herald Local Journalism Initiative Reporter on October 14, 2023.

Herald photo by Theodora MacLeod Gabi Dao sits with part of a colony of marionette bats made from old clothes and clay. Dao's exhibition 'What Breaks on the Horizon?' opens tonight at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery.

Bats get a bad rap and Vancouver born artist Gabi Dao has had about enough of the slander.

Many will remember the rumours from the early days of COVID-19 when word on the street was that the virus was transmitted to humans via bat after a video of a Chinese vlogger eating bat soup went viral (no pun intended). The myth was busted, and the coinciding video was proven to be from 2016.

It was then, though, that Dao decided to start going to bat for bats. The results of which are now on display at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery.

“I became really fixated on the idea that this creature has been, for so long, understood as deviant, as devilish, as viral, as vampiric, and in reality, they’re just mammals like us,” they explain. This curiosity and fixation led Dao to working with scientists who study bats – sometimes known as chiropterologists – and learning that not only has the association with the underworld harmed the social reputation of the mysterious animal, but in turn caused gaps in research and knowledge surrounding bats.

During their time with the scientists, Dao learned about the valuable role bats play in the ecosystem, how they eat insects which helps support agriculture. Most of all, they learned that bats save the economy billions of dollars. And all of a sudden, saving the bats started to hit the mainstream consciousness.

“Because they serve a capitalist economy, suddenly there’s this interest in protecting them.”

For Dao, this is not unlike human relationships with each other, how citizenship and refugee status is often linked to economic productivity. How protection and safety are linked with positive economic impact.

The exhibit, which premieres at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery today and runs until the new year, aims to challenge how bats are viewed. Using old clothes and clay, Dao has constructed a colony of adorable, brightly coloured marionette bats, which they say draws attention to the question of why people fear the things they do.

Sourcing the clothes from Dao’s own collection and those of loved ones, many of the fabric pieces have personal memories or sentimentality for the artist, something they say adds to the theme of connection and community that appears in the short film which features the marionettes and will play to accompany them while they are displayed in the gallery.

The film, titled ‘Lucifer Falls from Heaven at Dawn,’ was shot in Crowsnest Pass during Dao’s time in residency at the Gushul Studio in Blairmore.

“I call this film an eco-horror film,” they say. The story follows on of the marionettes who is knocked from the sky by a wind turbine and struggles to find connection in the world. It aims to provide commentary on the impact of industrial development and the displacement it causes.

Doa says the backbone of the work is the tension between the motives behind protection and saviourism. It questions the determining factors in the worthiness of what and who is protected and how much that is influenced by mainstream and capitalist ideals.

Featuring local scenery, fashionable bats, and big questions, ‘What breaks on the horizon?’ is a criticism of modernity that can only be understood through experiencing.

The gallery is hosting a reception tonight 7-9 p.m. to also open exhibits ‘In honoured dust’ by Megan Feniak and ‘Teach Me a Song’ by Elisa Harkins, along with new Shop at SAAG feature artist Indig Busy-ness.

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