On the occasion of Canada’s 150th anniversary, the Art Museum presents an exhibition that challenges basic assumptions about Canada’s relationship to nature. Richly narrated through archival and documentary materials as well as artists’ photographic works, the exhibition provides a case study of the contrast between romantic ideas of nature and the real consequences of human exploitation of the environment. It’s All Happening So Fast explores changing ideas of nature and environmental risk as human influence on the planet continues to grow. Composed of seven major chapters, the story follows several modern projects that have transformed Canadian land, water, and air over the past half century. They include, among others: the St. Lawrence Seaway; the DEW Line and the militarization and industrialization of Canada’s northern territory; the James Bay hydroelectric project; the NRX reactor in Chalk River, Ontario; hydraulic fracking in Alberta; nickel smelting in Sudbury; industrial fishing on the Atlantic coast; and clear-cutting of forests. This portrait of modern Canada contains stories of environmental disaster, activism, and government regulation; each reveals the anxieties, risks, and conflicts associated with modern ideas of progress.

In an age of unprecedented human impact on the environment, certain countries stand out for their privileged positions and the complexity of their relationships with the land. In contrast to myths of pristine wilderness, fertile agricultural land, and unlimited wealth of natural resources, the exhibition traces the ravages of industrial transformations of the landscape and the effects of historical and economic priorities of resource extraction. The stories of Canada closely follow the discovery and appropriation of vast and varied resources as well as changing ideas of the relationship between people and their surroundings. Today, Canada’s environmental record is among the poorest when compared to other wealthy nations, suggesting ambivalence and actions of competing interests, most often exposed through moments of disorder and disregard for the unexpected consequences of managing the country’s once seemingly endless bounty.

The Canadian environment can be read as a sprawl of human activity, the traces of which appear even in the most remote areas—those traditionally considered “pristine.” The proximity and perceived abundance of natural resources has meant that Canadian approaches to forestry, fishing, energy production, mining, infrastructure development, and urban growth have been both carelessly optimistic and deliberately destructive. Yet Canada has also led the world in banning dangerous chemicals, replanting forests and reclaiming industrial dumps, writing treaties to protect ecological systems across borders, and is beginning to respect agreements with Indigenous peoples who have historically held very different relationships to the environment. It’s All Happening So Fast tells the complicated story of how people conceive, describe, and act on cultural conceptions of nature.

The exhibition features historical photographs of idyllic landscapes by William Notman and Alexander Henderson, as well as northern landscapes by Richard Harrington and Robert Frank, 1960s industrial activity by George Hunter, and sites of nuclear production by Sam Tata. Contemporary photographs by Donovan Wylie and Margo Pfeiff illustrate active radar stations in Labrador and Nunavut, while those of Blake Fitzpatrick and Robert Del Tredici document areas of nuclear contamination and production. Robert Burley focuses on the Great Lakes, Lorraine Gilbert on logging operations, Ian Wallace on the 1993 Clayoquot protests, and Etta Gerdes on Cornelia Hahn Oberlander’s landscape design in Yellowknife. Also included are such projects as a 1981 solar house by Pierlucio Pellissier and Giovanni De Paoli, the PEI Ark built for the New Alchemy Institute in 1976, proposals by Ralph Erskine and Van Ginkel Associates for settlements in northern Canada, designs by OMA and Bruce Mau Design for Downsview Park in Toronto, variations on normative practices of camping by Lateral Office, Peter von Tiesenhausen’s Lifeline Fence, and Robert Smithson’s Glue Pour.

The exhibition features material from the CCA archives, as well as from several museums and public collections, including the Art Gallery of Ontario, ArkDes Swedish Architecture and Design Centre, the Vancouver Art Gallery, McCord Museum, Canadian Museum of History, Archives of Ontario, City of Vancouver Archives, Library and Archives Canada, the University of Arizona, Waterloo University, York University, and McGill University.

Organized by the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal, with support from Ministère de la Culture et des Communications du Québec, Canada Council for the Arts, Conseil des arts de Montréal, J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, Letko, Brosseau & Associates, Outbox Technology

Co-presented with the Art Museum at the University of Toronto, with support from John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design