UWAG brings Valley of the Deer to campus

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The University of Waterloo Art Gallery (UWAG) is now showing their second exhibition of the season: Jillian McDonald&rsquo;s <em>Valley of the Deer</em>.&nbsp;</p>

Deviating from UWAG’s typical format, the solo show occupies both rooms of the gallery space. The result is a large-scale work that towers over viewers and fully immerses them in McDonald’s surreal landscapes. 

Valley of the Deer is a multi-channel video projected on three massive screens within the gallery space, accompanied by a haunting soundscape and large wall drawings. Made during an artist’s residency in Glenfiddich, Scotland, the video follows an assortment of characters wearing animal masks, drawn together as they close in on a deer woman.

“Since about 2009, I’ve been making works where I’d go to some kind of beautiful landscape through the avenue of an artist’s residency.… I work with people who are from the area who aren’t necessarily actors to create the performances in the video. They usually are some kind of horror/legend/mythological characters that are based on folklore from that specific place, or based on mythologies from horror films that we all know, like vampires and zombies, or masked figures,” said McDonald. 

Featuring more than 50 landscapes, Valley of the Deer showcases Scotland’s raw natural beauty, infusing it with an eerie quality as predator and prey characters move throughout. 

One of the most striking aspects of McDonald’s installation is its ability to evoke the distinct sensation of being watched. 

“Before [horror] I was doing work that had to do with celebrity culture and fans … which transitioned into horror — which is kind of a strange transition — except the fan/celebrity work stemmed from me not being able to comprehend how someone could really fall in love with a movie star and have those longings for someone they could never be with,” said McDonald. 

“The same thing happened with horror — I couldn’t previously imagine how someone could get thrilled by being scared, but I’ve actually kind of fallen into that too, and I’m excited by horror in a way that I wasn’t before.”

McDonald’s research methodology, tied closely to her artistic practice, is not unlike method acting. 

“I started writing this thesis on discovering what it is about horror that’s interesting to people, what is compelling about horror, and in the process I started making that work…. I eventually lost interest in the question and just became interested in the fascinating threads that run through horror and mythology and how they connect, like our primal fears, which is what myths are based on, and our curiosities about the world in various cultures.”

Valley of the Deer is based heavily on Scottish folklore and myths, such as a frog character seen washing blood out of the deer woman’s dress as an omen. These mythologies are updated with McDonald’s horror sensibilities; characters jerk and twist in unnatural ways, hidden among trees, and the film’s chronology is ambiguous. Aside from the film’s climax, it’s difficult to discern when the film begins and ends as it loops infinitely. 

“They’re all wearing animal masks so they’re meant to be kind of hybrid animal/humans, and having the kind of animistic spirit. It’s really about the natural world and its laws,” said McDonald. 

The large-scale wall drawings, done in a cartoonish style, add to the storybook quality of the overall installation.

“The drawings on the wall of the gallery are based on paper drawings that I’ve made. In the past I’ve kind of catalogued various horror films, like zombie films, and slasher films; I’ve made catalogues of all the dead … so when I made Valley of the Deer I made a scroll drawing of all the characters…. It’s a bit of a tribute to them. In a way, I take them to this place that’s far away from home. Most of the people in the film have never left Scotland, or never been outside their villages. It’s kind of like transporting them here,” explained McDonald.

McDonald has also included a digital aspect in previous installations of Valley of the Deer:

“I also did an augmented reality piece where I added elements of the film into an augmented reality app so you can discover them in the landscapes, like the Santa Barbara Hills or the streets of Quebec City and Brooklyn.”

McDonald intends to continue her explorations of landscape and its narrative significance.  

“I’m really interested in landscape, and how it reads as a major element in the story. Not thinking about it as a place to set film, but thinking of it as the essential part of the film. So that’s why I’m thinking of taking the characters out and just making it be the landscape, the composition of the landscape…. I’m interested in traditions of Western painting and photography, but also in other interpretations and relationships between humans and landscape.”

Valley of the Deer is on at UWAG inside East Campus Hall until December 19.