A Discussion with Viviane Brodeur: The Dichotomy of Nostalgia and Change

Written by Marie-Ève Pepin, Edited by Zaynab Mortada

Through a plethora of mediums, contemporary artist Viviane Brodeur (known as Vii) seeks to explore the dichotomy of nostalgia and change. As we delve into our conversation, she shares with me a passage from a study that has shaped the trajectory of her art, leading to the creation of her self-titled most influential piece to date: Saveur Saint-Laurent (2021). 

“Researchers from McGill University and the Quebec government have discovered that  microplastics (in the form of polyethylene microbeads with a diameter of less than 2 mm) are lying everywhere on the bed of the St. Lawrence River. This is the first time that such  pollutants have been recorded in freshwater sediments.”

Passionate about climate justice, the artist discusses how she stumbled upon this study in  her own personal research. Dating back to 2014, the study exposes the alarming presence of microplastics in the St. Lawrence River. We’ve known about the presence of pollutants in the  world’s oceans for a time now, yet the contamination of freshwater sources like lakes and rivers by these micro forms of plastics was only recently discovered. The high percentage of contamination in the water samples of the St. Lawrence River brings the issue closer to home for Vii.  

Born and raised on the outskirts of the Montreal Island, Viviane Brodeur grew up with the St. Lawrence River, as it flows from the Southwest to the Northeast, mirroring her own journey through the art world. Following these currents, Vii flowed like water from the South Shore up to  the island of Montreal to pursue a higher education in visual arts. It is through her scholarly journey  that she first stumbled upon the muse for Saveur Saint-Laurent. The exposure to the city and its highly engaged scene when it comes to environmental, social, and political issues was fundamental to her development as an artist. In fact, as we exchange, Vii recounts her experience at UQAM where she had the chance of taking a class focused on the effects of climate change through the medium of sculpture. Thus, from the premise of this class and her own passion for climate justice Saveur Saint-Laurent is born: a foundational piece to her career. 

The installation Saveur Saint-Laurent (2022) is composed of five different glass  platters and bowls on which a clear gelatinous pudding is served. The transparent nature of both  the dishes and the Jell-O as well as the reflective surface of the silverware are emphasised by the  white background of the painted wall and the draped table on which they sit. The sense of pureness emanating from  the installation contrasts sharply with the yellowish, cloudy, and muddy sample of the St. Lawrence River used to make the gelatine. Above the table, on the left, the artist presents a white shelf on which two commercial boxes of Jell-O rest. As they observe the installation, the viewers can read  “st-laurent nature” inscribed on the front of the teal-blue box as well as a handwritten list of the ingredients on its sides. At the top of this list, one can read the presence of microplastics in the ingredients as well as other substances contaminating the Saint-Lawrence River. The choice of Jell-O as a material and a central subject for Saveur Saint-Laurent, speaks to an  overarching theme in Viviane Brodeur’s artworks. In fact, Vii aims at emphasizing  contemporary issues through nostalgia and memory. The Jell-O, a staple in the artist’s household, is reminiscent of the innocence of childhood with its ludic shape and texture. Despite its playful nature, there is a sense of heaviness when one faces the piece. The nostalgic emotions associated with Jell-O are in opposition to the dreadful reality of the situation. When the viewers acknowledge the contamination of our most precious resource in Vii’s piece, intimate life feels violated.  This interest in the dichotomy of public and private life is found throughout Vii’s work. The relationship between the  communal and the intimate is brought to light in this specific piece as the harms done to the environment manifest themselves in our private homes exemplified with the Jell-O.  

Vii, Saveur St-Laurent, 2022, installation; Jell-O made with a sample of the St. Lawrence River, plates, bowl, glass cake stands and silverware on a table, printed boxes on a shelf with a price tag, variable dimensions.

As we talk about meanings and choices of mediums in Saveur Saint-Laurent, Vii insists on her wish to let her artworks speak for themselves. Despite accompanying some of her pieces with textual evidence, the artist reflects on her desire to create visually narrative art works. Letting viewers carve out personal interpretations from their experience with the work, the private, and the nostalgic is a significant aspect for the artist’s process as she explores new forms of  mediums and subjects. She points to works like s y m b i o s e (2022-), a visual photographic journey that documents the transformation of a life-like skeleton left to decompose in nature, to highlight the narrative aspect she wishes to share through her art. As we talk, she tells me that she’s exploring interactive forms of presentations and recently started to dive into performance and relational arts. Vii emphasizes how she doesn’t limit herself to a single medium to reflect her message but instead uses a plethora of techniques and styles. 

Vii, ma maison de poupée, 2021, self-publication, 10" x 8" x 1".

In our discussion, we focus primarily on Saveur Saint-Laurent since the artist attributes a special place in her art for it. Moreover, she explains how the importance attributed to this project is linked to its exhibition in a more professional gallery. In fact, this installation was presented in  2022, two years after the initial creation of this project, at the gallery Fais-Moi L’art in the context of the exhibition Parcomètres VI. This student-organised exhibition grew in parallel to Paramètres —a highly competitive exhibition for students in the visual arts department of the Université du Québec à Montréal. The limited numbers of students whose works  are chosen by the jury of teachers at the University speak to the competitive nature of the field.  Thus, the Parcomètres projects were created in response to this lack of exposure opportunities for  emerging artists like Viviane Brodeur. Emphasizing the importance for emerging artists to showcase their work, Vii speaks fondly of her experience with Parcomètres VI and the following positive feedback received from peers. She shares in our conversation how she can’t help but notice the ever-present imposter syndrome experienced by newer artists making their entrance in the contemporary scene.  As I ask her about what it meant to be an artist in her twenties in Montreal, she opens up about the pressure of gaining recognition that she and her peers face in the field. Vii specifies that to shift the current competitive narrative in the art scene, collaboration between artists themselves and the public is needed. In fact, it’s this very desire for community and collaboration that will follow her in her career as she aspires to merge therapy and art.

Works Cited 
RA Castañeda, S. Avlijas, MA Simard, A. Ricciardi. 2014. Microplastic pollution in St. Lawrence River sediments . Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences  ,www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/abs/10.1139/cjfas-2014-0281
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