The caribou is what catches the eye. It’s made of scraps of old wood, glued together in a piecemeal fashion so that you can look through the gaps into the animal’s core. If you look closely, you can see toy blocks glued in among the pieces of wood, as if this were some sort of oversized, distorted plaything.
But it’s the light that makes this figure so striking. The neck, arched up and back in agony, supports a globe of flickering light where the head should be. It’s a soft, yellow, eerie light that seems in danger of flaming out at any moment. But it doesn’t. It wavers on, illuminating the caribou pelt hanging from the wall nearby.
This is the centrepiece of Michel Gignac’s new exhibit at Arts Underground. Entitled Bells and Airplanes, the installation explores Gignac’s own experience as an outfitting guide in the Peel River watershed. It’s a stark, visceral meditation built by a young man still coming to terms with his own thoughts about trophy hunting.
The caribou, with its childlike construction and tortured pose, seems to mirror Gignac’s own journey. He came to the Yukon in 2013, after a plan to spend the summer tree-planting fell through and a friend got him a job with an outfitter. He’d just graduated from the Alberta College of Art and Design, and he jumped at the chance.
“I guess it was for adventure more than anything else, and to be out in the middle of nowhere,” he explained. “I was kind of lost, just looking for inspiration and to get out.”
He had next to no experience hunting or travelling by horseback, so he spent the first month helping to build a cabin out in the bush. Gradually, he learned how to work as a guide.
But outfitting was not simply the pure wilderness experience he’d been looking for. The industry is driven by tourists willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to take home trophy-sized moose antlers or sheep horns. Gignac had trouble with that. He didn’t understand the desire to kill for pride alone.
“The outfitters are responsible for the meat, but the hunters have no care for it,” he said. “So the change of that dynamic when you’re going hunting with someone that has no interest in the meat is kind of shocking.”
He said he tried to ask the hunters, sometimes, why they couldn’t hunt with a camera instead, why they couldn’t press a shutter instead of pulling a trigger.
“They would think about it for a second, and they’d be like, ‘No, I couldn’t do it with a camera.’ And then not really know why.”
That sense of ego-driven excess pervades Gignac’s installation. A pile of skulls and antlers sits in one corner, seemingly tossed there carelessly (“You know, ‘I’ve killed so much that now I’m not even proud of this,’” he explained). Bits of bloody flesh still stick to the bones. The floor is strewn with wood chips and bullet casings.
But this is not simply a condemnation of the trophy hunt. There’s beauty here, too, in small things. In a notebook lying open on a desk that reveals some of Gignac’s sketches from his time as a guide – a horse’s head, the cabin he helped to build. And deep in the caribou’s belly, where if you look closely enough, there’s a sign of life.
Beyond that, the installation is meant to give people a sense of what it’s like to be out there in the wilderness. Its title, Bells and Airplanes, refers to the two sounds that are most integral to a guide’s survival. Both sounds can be heard, now and then, playing in the background.
Bells tell the guides where their horses are, and assure them that their mode of transportation is nearby – or taking off at two in the morning, Gignac explained. And airplanes, he said, are kind of like God. They’re the connection to the outside world, bringing in food and supplies. And last year, it was an airplane that rescued him after he fell off a horse and broke one of his ribs.
Despite the injuries and the uncertainty, Gignac said he’s glad he worked as a guide. “I don’t regret it at all. I loved working with the horses. I loved being out there. You feel like you’re the first person in the world that has seen this landscape. Because you can ride for days and you won’t see anyone, ever.”
This exhibit, while dark and harsh and difficult, is driven by questions, not anger.
“I don’t think every hunter is malicious or has evil intent or anything,” Gignac said. “To be honest, I don’t understand it, and that’s why I’m doing it.
“Because I don’t understand. I just… I don’t understand.”
Gignac maintains that he’s not completely opposed to the trophy hunt, particularly if the hunters are interested in more than just the trophies. But asked if he would guide again, he had his answer ready.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “Probably not. Most likely not. No.
“I don’t need to. It was enough for me. It was an adventure. I’d love to be out there again on horseback, and doing some kind of guiding, but I don’t have to kill anything. And I don’t want to.”
Bells and Airplanes is on display at Arts Underground, at 15-305 Main Street, until Oct. 31.
Contact Maura Forrest at