Review: Alexa Solveig Mardon, Migrant Bodies

This artists’ book is the result of Migrant Bodies, a two-year research project created through a partnership between The Dance Centre (Vancouver), Circuit-Est centre chorégraphique (Montreal), Comune di Bassano del Grappa (Italy), The Croatian Institute for Movement and Dance (Croatia), and La Briqueterie – Centre de développement chorégraphique du Val-de-Marne (France). Migrant Bodies aims to use artistic and cultural tools to open up a civil reflection on migration in European and Canadian societies. The artists involved in the project were Cécile Proust (France), Manuel Roque (Québec), Alessandro Sciarroni (Italy), Jasna Vinovrški (Croatia), and Su-Feh Lee (Vancouver). The book itself was written by Alexa Solveig Mardon, a writer and dance artist based in Vancouver, designed by Jordyn Taylor-Robins and Derek Bruce Durand, with photographs by Ginelle Chagnon. You can read more about this project here.

By Ileana Cheladyn

The beauty of the Migrant Bodies publication, written and illustrated by Alexa Mardon, lies in the raw material of facts being skillfully molded, adapted, and polished into an “ongoing encounter” with the reader. As expressed in the introduction, which felt like the third of four beginnings to the book, the Migrant Bodies residencies address a topic of political and social gravity. To this, Mardon respects her own words of “holding a responsibility to… consider the line between speaking to and speaking for” the cultural erasure and forced migrations in British Columbia through generations.

I wish I could speak with more clarity and precision to the exact “topic of immense political weight” that Mardon addresses in her poetry and email correspondences; however, the first page acknowledges the materials having been collected on unceded Coast Salish territory which, to me, speaks volumes on the words Mardon emparts thereafter. While the reality of cultural erasure and the continual experiences of colonial power dynamics are not explicitly outlined, either in the introduction or in the poetry itself, Mardon’s poems jams together natural and earthly beauty with tormented and cacophonous words. Migrant Bodies is full of powerful stanzas depicting life and forceful death, the continuum of truth and lies, and the unstable relationship between comfort and alienation.

Mardon’s juxtapositions aptly parallel the sentiments expressed in the introduction towards British Columbia’s exploitation of its idyllic landscapes as a means to silence its migratory and cultural history. This duality of a beautiful facade with a tumultuous social history echoes Mardon’s words in how the “absent, unseen, unheard, obscured, or forgotten is as powerful and important as with is revealed, insisted upon, or discussed.”

On page 31, an email exchange between Mardon and a fellow participant of the Migrant Bodies residencies, Marie Claire Forté, reads: “… migration is a passage, it has a duration, it is a process and the consequences of it keep unfolding over time.” After reading this, everything preceding it seemed to coalesce in my mind. Mardon’s imagery of foxgloves, dried grass, the noise of breathing, and the experience of performance reminds me that migrations are not merely birds flying south but they are also a body in movement through a city, the flux of emotions, a transfer, an evolution and devolution. Migrations can be the path from seen to unseen.

Apart from the visually striking minimalist aesthetic of the entire book – a crisp white cover with thin black lettering followed by a pleasant ratio of white space surrounding each text – Mardon blacks-out phrases, words and fragments of each completed poem to allow for a new experience of the poems. The black boxes on the white pages simultaneously show an alternate reading within a new meaning while recognizing a sense of confidentiality that crude official documents emit with blacked out names, dates, places, and insidious designs. While some poems are more effectively blacked out than others, the concealment, silencing, and erasing of portions of the poems is effective in pointing the finger back at us, the readers and street-walkers, that we choose to remain blind to generations of cultural erasure.

I wandered in Mardon’s arrhythmic poems being pulled back to a here and now I recognized with the concrete email correspondences. They gave vibrant context in which this book, and the Migrant Bodies residencies, were formed and practiced: through questions and dissent. The emails served as signifiers to the signs the poems were giving, and for that I am thankful.

Bookending the poems, illustrations, and emails, a series of twenty-three questions bound this book into a timeless place that allows me to continually question the varying scopes of hegemonic powers I exist in. As I feel I fall short in filling the gap between colonial dynamics, dispossession, and any future depictions of our past, Mardon’s poetry identifies that gap and proves that the unheard can manifest in the heard.

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Images courtesy of Brynn McNab