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Philip Cheung: Arctic Front

Philip Cheung, Arctic Front
Philip Cheung, “Deactivated DEW Line Site (1), King William Island,” 2017


Toronto, ON, January 7, 2019Circuit Gallery is pleased to present Arctic Front, a solo exhibition of new photographic work by Philip Cheung.

In 2016 Cheung was selected for the Canadian Forces Artist Program to continue his work about military cultures and environments. Arctic Front is the first chapter in a long-term project examining Canada’s various post-Afghanistan military foci and engagements—the new and future front lines of operations. Here he turns his lens North, to observe the Canadian Rangers, a part-time military unit comprised mostly of Indigenous volunteers. Cheung writes:

The Rangers have been a visible military presence in remote northern communities for over 65 years and they continue to serve as the military’s ‘eyes, ears and voice’ of the North. As the Canadian military refines its ability to operate in the region, the Rangers will continue to play an essential role in asserting Canada’s sovereignty over its Arctic land and sea.

The Arctic has always figured prominently in Canada’s national imagination and in its claims to sovereignty, but with shifting global environmental, social, economic, and political pressures, the Arctic has also become a potential military front-line, as vulnerable as it is valuable. As Cheung explains:

Canada’s Arctic is its last frontier. The Far North makes up more than 40 percent of its landmass, but contains less than 1 percent of Canada’s population. Rising sea and air temperatures due to climate change are contributing to sea-ice loss, which has opened up international interest in control over new ‘ice-free’ shipping routes in the Northwest Passage, as well as access to the significant natural resources such as oil, gas and precious metals found there.

In addition to these environmental and international concerns, the Arctic is also an important front with regard to the relationships between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people in Canada. As Sara Matthews rightly notes in “Watching the Watchers,” her essay that accompanies the exhibition:

[As] part of the sovereign colonial project in the country we now know as Canada […] the Arctic has a complicated history made from the unsettled relations between newcomers and Indigenous peoples who live and work in relationship to the land.

With over 10 years of experience in the Canadian Armed Forces prior to working as a photographer in some of the world’s most conflicted regions (Iraq, Afghanistan, the West Bank, and Northern Africa), Cheung has an informed perspective on military issues and culture that distinguishes his work from conventional media narratives and reporting. As Matthews notes:

Utilizing a medium format digital camera and tripod, his photographic process is slowed-down and mirrors the attitude of watchfulness with which his subjects are tasked. Encouraging the viewer to likewise adopt this stance of vigilant interest, each photograph offers an enigma that hints towards a greater whole.

The photographs in Arctic Front are subtle, indirect portraits of the dissonant tensions in the North between military and civilian (both settler and Indigenous) interests, resources, and labour and subsequently a contemplation of the human capacity for adaptation, survival, and endurance.

Philip Cheung: Arctic Front runs January 10 through February 2 at Circuit Gallery @ Prefix ICA, with an opening reception on Friday, January 11, from 6-9 p.m.. The Artist will be in attendance.

Philip Cheung is a Canadian artist, based in Los Angeles and Toronto, with a significant background and experience in various forms of photography. In recent years, he has decidedly moved towards a contemporary practice focused on research and exploration of issues of citizenship, capital, labour and industrialization through a layered approach of natural and urban landscapes and portraiture. His projects include Desert Dreams, A Winter in Kandahar, The Thing about Remembering, The Edge, and Arctic Front.

His work has been exhibited in galleries, museums and festivals across North America and Europe, including The National Portrait Gallery (London, UK), the Lumix Festival (Hanover, DE) and the Flash Forward Festival (Toronto, CA).

Cheung was named one of PDN’s 30 New and Emerging Photographers to Watch and has been awarded research and production grants by the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council and Toronto Arts Council. In 2018 he was shortlisted for the Aperture Portfolio Prize. In 2016 he was selected for the Canadian Forces Artist Program (CFAP) by the Directorate History and Heritage to continue a series that examines military culture in Canada’s post-Afghanistan military. Cheung has also been recognized by the Magenta Foundation, Communication Arts, Photo District News and American Photo. His work is held in the collection of Akkasah, Center for Photography at NYU Abu Dhabi, and has appeared in features and reviews in The British Journal of Photography, Canadian Art, The Walrus, Harper’s, The Washington Post, and TIME among others.

Artist Page: Philip Cheung

Sara Matthews is Associate Professor in the Department of Global Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her research and teaching are interdisciplinary and consider the dynamics of war, violence and social change. Working primarily in the field of research-creation, her projects explore the relations between visual culture, nation building, colonialism and martial politics. In addition to her academic-based work, Sara curates aesthetic projects that archive visual encounters with legacies of war and social trauma. Her critical art writing has appeared in PUBLIC, FUSE Magazine and in exhibition essays for the Robert Langen Gallery, Circuit Gallery, the Ottawa Art Gallery, the Doris McCarthy Gallery and as a blog for Gallery TPW.

Philip Cheung

Arctic Front

January 10 – February 2, 2019
Circuit Gallery @ Prefix ICA
401 Richmond Street West, Suite 124
Toronto, ON, M6R 2G5
[ Google Map ]

Opening Reception: Friday, January 11, 6-9 p.m.
Gallery Hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 12:00 – 5:00 p.m.

Philip Cheung, Arctic Front
Philip Cheung, “Canadian Armed Forces C-17 Transport Aircraft, Rankin Inlet,” 2017
Philip Cheung, Arctic Front
Philip Cheung, “Arctic Response Company Learn Traditional Skills, Rankin Inlet,” 2017
Philip Cheung, Arctic Front
Philip Cheung, “Water Break, Simpson Strait,” 2017

Visit Circuit Gallery for more information and to see more images:

Circuit Gallery specializes in contemporary photography. Established in 2008 by Susana Reisman and Claire Sykes, the Toronto based commercial gallery represents both emerging and established Canadian and international artists.


Phone: 647-477-2487


Sara Matthews essay on Philip Cheung

Exhibition essay

Watching the Watchers

by Sara Matthews

Searching the Canadian Forces website, one learns that the motto of the 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol group is Vigilans – meaning “The Watchers”1. The more direct translation from the original Latin is “watchful”. It may seem a small point, but this subtle shift from the noun to the adjectival form of the word captures something pivotal to Philip Cheung’s approach with Arctic Front—rather than represent a person, a place or thing, he instead labors with description, visually chronicling the attributes and subtle dimensions of thing-ness and place-ness, and so inviting the viewer to do the same.

Arctic Front, Cheung relates, is the first chapter in a long-form documentary project that seeks the frontlines of Canadian Forces operations. In military parlance, the front is the location of tactical contact or contestation between opposing forces. It is where the logistics of martial politics are engaged and encompasses everything from the personnel and specialized equipment to the unique operations and capital economies necessary to the sovereign project of nation-building. Most civilians are somewhat familiar with Canada’s frontline role in Afghanistan from 2002–2014, where Cheung, as an embedded photographer, made several bodies of work2. But where is the front after Afghanistan? For Cheung, this is a pressing question. The Canadian Forces currently contributes to military operations in the Ukraine, Iraq, Syria and the Caribbean, as well as the Arctic3. Starting with the latter came naturally to the artist since he trained there as a young soldier and because, he tells me, the Arctic tundra and the deserts of Afghanistan hold a similar visual quality. He’s also interested to map how these landscapes are altered by the spatial scale of labor—for instance, the ways in which economic and military logistics make an imprint on social and physical terrain.

In the Arctic territory matters and indeed is a question of the material. Sea ice is melting, there is speculation about the partial opening of the Northwest Passage4, and national disputes over fisheries and the delineation of the continental shelf (and access to fossil fuel reserves) are escalating. These worries are an extension of the sovereign colonial project in the country we now know as Canada, in which the Arctic has a complicated history made from the unsettled relations between newcomers and Indigenous peoples who live and work in relationship to the land. Even the juridical frameworks for determining territorial boundaries—does “land” include sea ice, for instance?—are changing as rapidly as the climate5. Resource extraction, claims for territory and rights of passage, environmental conservation, tourism, scientific exploration as well as the manufacture of the North as somehow essentially “Canadian”, make up these settler relations which litter the landscape with the physical ghosts of their infrastructures.

This is the context in which the Canadian Rangers do their work. Originally formed as Reserve corps in British Columbia during the latter part of the Second World War, their nation-wide expansion during the Cold War coincided with a broadened security strategy in the North6. A volunteer branch within the Canadian Forces, the Rangers role includes bolstering national security, stewarding sovereignty and nation-building in Arctic regions. Ranger patrols, which draw recruits from local Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities across the North and are distinguished by their regulation red sweatshirts and ballcaps, conduct surveillance exercises, act as local guides and first responders, as well as train southern military units in the arts of wilderness survival7. But what are the contemporary political conditions that require such an attitude of northern watchfulness?

The Canadian government’s understanding of sovereignty is drawn from the Westphalian tradition which ties national security to the maintenance of the territorial status of the nation-state8. But this Western model is not the only one. Mary Simon, past president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, suggests that “a twenty-first-century model for Arctic sovereignty must move beyond the outdated model of infrastructure and military bases by including Inuit as partners in defining new goals for sovereignty that include ensuring that new investments are linked to improving the well-being of Inuit”9.

This view of human and environmental security as opposed to national security is reflected in the Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Sovereignty in the Arctic, which emphasizes sustainable development and the right to self-determination on matters related to health, food security, territories, languages and cultures10. As Simon insists, until “Inuit are treated as all other Canadians are… with the same standard of education, health care, and infrastructure that is the foundation of healthy communities across Canada”, then claims to sovereignty in the Arctic are moot.

With his visual project Arctic Front, Cheung does not shy away from these complicated conversations but neither does he attempt a simple answer. Utilizing a medium format digital camera and tripod, his photographic process is slowed-down and mirrors the attitude of watchfulness with which his subjects are tasked. Encouraging the viewer to likewise adopt this stance of vigilant interest, each photograph offers an enigma that hints towards a greater whole. For instance, Cheung’s study of the metal remainders of deactivated DEW line sites on King William Island (Deactivated DEW Line Site #1 and #2, King William Island; Ration Cans, Deactivated DEW Line Site), reveals the skeletal architecture of the infrastructures of sovereignty and their indelible haunting of the fragile Arctic landscape. This close attention to military logistics—as can be seen in Canadian Armed Forces C-17 Transport Aircraft, Rankin Inlet—divulges its textures but stops short of concluding the narrative. A counterpoint image (Taloyoak, Nunavut) installed at the opposite end of the gallery broadens the perspective to the communities in which the Rangers live and patrol, bridging the gap between southern military transports and their northern destinations. Other works continue this contrapuntal movement, splitting open the dualities between civilian and military spheres of life. Rae Strait, in which the distinction between sea and air is punctured by the recognizable red clothing worn by two Rangers piloting a watercraft, brings together the questions that Cheung’s project suggests: how does one learn to be watchful of the relationships that contribute to one’s sense of security and place?

In her account of learning to see images of suffering, visual theorist Ariella Azoulay articulates the difference between looking and watching11:

Photography is more than what is printed on photographic paper. The photograph bears the seal of the photographic event, and reconstructing this event requires more than just identifying what is shown in the photograph. One needs to stop looking at the photograph and instead start watching it.

Watching, a verb typically used to describe time-based rather than still phenomena, suggests an unstable movement at play in which the subject of the gaze destabilizes any singular instance of what can be known. Given that photographic technologies are so heavily embedded in histories of militarization and surveillance, this attitude of watching moves against the camera’s desire to fix. The type of watching that the Rangers engage is tied to nation-building, but it is also about learning to see relationships that a fixed glance cannot grasp—between water and air and land and place. Cheung’s orientation to this provocation is to take the slow road, to let the story emerge, and to assert the difference between watching as a practice of sovereign power and that of ethical witnessing.

5. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
6. For more information on the history of the Rangers see P. Whitney Lackenbauer (2013). “If it Ain’t Broke Don’t Break It: Expanding and Enhancing the Canadian Rangers”, Working Papers on Arctic Security No. 6, Munk School of Global Affairs, P. Whitney Lackenbauer (2013), The Canadian Rangers: A Living History. Vancouver: UBC Press.
7. For more on the Canadian Rangers see Watchers of the North. CBC/APTN.
8. Canada’s Northern Strategy: Our North, Our Heritage, Our Future. Published under the authority of the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians, Ottawa, 2009.
9. Mary Simon (2009). Inuit and the Canadian Arctic: Sovereignty Begins at Home. Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d’études canadiennes, 43(2):250-260.
11, Ariella Azoulay (2008). The Civil Contract of Photography. Brooklyn: Zone Books.

Sara Matthews, December 2018
©Sara Matthews. All Rights Reserved.


Sara Matthews is Associate Professor in the Department of Global Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her research and teaching are interdisciplinary and consider the dynamics of war, violence and social change. Working primarily in the field of research-creation, her projects explore the relations between visual culture, nation building, colonialism and martial politics. In addition to her academic-based work, Sara curates aesthetic projects that archive visual encounters with legacies of war and social trauma. Her critical art writing has appeared in PUBLIC, FUSE Magazine and in exhibition essays for the Robert Langen Gallery, Circuit Gallery, the Ottawa Art Gallery, the Doris McCarthy Gallery and as a blog for Gallery TPW.

Website: Website:


Sara Matthews essay

Catalogue essay

You Can’t Talk about the War without Talking about the Weather

by Sara Matthews

…the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried 1

Until I read Tim O’Brien’s fictional account of the violences, reveries, regrets and memories of a company of American soldiers in Vietnam, I did not understand what it meant to tell a story about war. And yet what I read and re-read between those pages was not, in fact, a story about war but about the impossibility of telling a story about war even as the story presses up to be told. Stories, he suggests, console us from the fractures of memory. Against the fallibilities of being human, stories somehow persist. It might seem a strange departure to begin an essay about visual imagery with ruminations on imaginative literature, but the narrative force of the photographic work that we encounter in Embedded makes this an easy parallel.

With their respective projects, War Sand and Inshallah, Donald Weber and Dima Gavrysh carried with them their cameras and their visions and their lingering childhood insistences to two very different geographic locations – the beaches of Normandy and the plateaus of south western Afghanistan – both places deeply embedded in stories of war. While there can never be one true story of their experiences there, Weber and Gavrysh weave the sensory together with the mythic to provide a series of visual narratives that narrow the distance between the space of the gallery and the geography of war. Their photographs do not document but instead reflect on the imaginative possibilities of knowing by offering a series of visual hints: the way that light throws itself against the clouds along a rainy shore (Omaha Beach, Sector Charlie. October 4, 2013, 6:38pm. 17°C, 88% RELH, Wind, WSW, 8 Knots, VIS: poor, Thunderstorm) or the abstract contours of glass spidered by impact (Clark). Within each quiet visual moment lies a memory or perhaps a prediction about the ferocity of life and death in war that is gestured to again in the careful titling of the work. The strong aesthetic urge of the images along with the narrative suggestion of the text takes the viewer from emotion to thought and back again. “What stories can do”, writes O’Brien, “is make things present” (172). They do this by rendering the feeling of an imaginative scene. What the photographs in Embedded do is to bring this dreaming to life, not as a literal representation, but rather as a way to make present one’s own story of what war is, or might be, or might never have been.

Curator Claire Sykes selection of the title Embedded as an elemental aspect of each artist’s work is an apt point of departure for exploring this narrative impulse. A common association with the term might be the practice of matching journalists to military units for the purposes of armed conflict reporting. It was under these kinds of conditions that Dima Gavrysh was able to capture his striking images in Afghanistan. But there are other interpretations of the word that bring us to a closer understanding of what is at stake in crafting a visual relation to war. How does one come to notice, for instance, one’s deeply embedded ways of thinking about or seeing war? Can the activity of public looking help exceed these habitual frames? Furthermore, what gets left out of or lingers just beyond the frame, not only in terms of the photographic frame but also the frames of memory, experience and power within which it becomes possible to see or to not see? Weber and Gavrysh come at these questions from different vantage points with regard to their images as well as the methods they chose to produce them. Indeed, the practice of what is broadly labeled “documentary photography” is itself embedded within particular art historical and media discourses that encompass everything from the photographer’s aesthetic training to the ways in which images are taken up, circulated and discussed.

As a move against these pressures, or perhaps to find movement within them, Weber and Gavrysh adapted imaging technologies – Gavrysh’s use of a cell phone camera and Weber’s turn to microscopic photography – that stirred new connections within their imaginative worlds. In my conversations with the artists I was interested to learn how these process-based explorations lent an intuitive turn to their work, which then brought about new insights and modes of narrative encounter. The ensuing images eavesdrop on those interior conversations, inviting the viewer to think and to see alongside them. With War Sand and Inshallah, we encounter elements that, on the surface of things, we might not have seen before. In Weber’s Juno Beach, Sample #073 (Shrapnel Fragment), Sector Nan Green, for instance, we see the fantastical contours and vibrant hues of shrapnel transformed by the tumble of silica and seawater, embedded on a sandy shore. In Gavrysh’s David, the prone posture of a sleeping soldier discloses a dream-world vulnerability, a suggestive counterpoint to the mythic narrative of the soldier’s impenetrability.

Another of Gavrysh’s images, Concussion Dust, embeds the viewer in the action of a scene that would be ordinary only to those on the hot edge of combat: one can almost feel and taste the dirt and grit in one’s eyes and mouth, a palpable sensation that brings embodiment and emotion to the piece. And yet the grainy, black and white, square-trimmed photograph is the opposite of journalistic realism. Along these same lines, one of the companion pieces to Inshallah, entitled Salerno (not mounted in this show), exemplifies the artist’s use of metaphor to express the elemental, methodical and unrelenting aspects of conflict. Taken while Gavrysh was stationed at Forward Operating Base Salerno in Afghanistan, the five-minute video captures the steady splatter of rain against a concrete blast wall built to protect soldiers from enemy fire. In contrast to the permanent scars left by shrapnel, water droplets glance against the porous cement surface only to vaporize. When installed in a darkened gallery setting, the projection collapses the viewer’s perception of time and space, a fitting trope to describe the dynamics of trauma that characterize the many decades of conflict in this region.

By posing questions about how war and conflict can be visually represented, the artworks in War Sand and in Inshallah turn the viewer back upon their own archive of deeply embedded experience to inquire how one’s internal conflicts shape what becomes possible to see. Just as memories are an aspect of unconscious life, so too are one’s ways of knowing oneself in relation to one’s social and political worlds. The stories that we craft in order to apprehend such worlds carry the traces of childhood imprints, fantasies and wishes. “Stories”, writes O’Brien, “are for joining the past to the future” (172). As such, stories must reach towards a future that is impossibly unknown even as their telling may be all we have to go on, especially in the face of social devastation, loss and suffering. The urge to narrate a present that connects to the past, then, is part of a strategy of how we come to understand ourselves as fully human, even as war threatens that sense of humanity.

In the course of our conversations regarding their respective work, Weber and Gavrysh each shared accounts in which they called upon childhood motifs to make sense of their current projects. Speaking with Gavrysh via Skype to Kiev, the city in which he grew up, Gavrysh talks about his childhood fascination with the military, shaped in part by stories he had heard from family friends who, in the context of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, had been drafted for combat. Gavrysh describes the impulse behind Inshallah, a project that explores his intimate connection to both the Soviet and the American wars in Afghanistan, as drawing “on my childhood fantasies that romanticize the military and intertwine with my past and present personal conflicts”. Similarly, in my exchange with Weber, I discover that one of the inspirations for War Sand was a recollection of a story he had encountered twenty or thirty years earlier. The story involves British commandos – frogmen – in the Second World War whose task was to swim out the beaches of Normandy and retrieve soil samples for testing in support of the Allied invasion (see historical image). Fast forward to the present where Weber does his own sampling of the sand, returning the products of his photographic explorations to the viewer who then adds another layer to the narrative. “This”, he tells me, “is what happens with history. Things build upon it and our perspective changes”.

One last story: this one is called, “You Can’t Talk About the War Without Talking about the Weather”. It’s not my story but rather one that I heard from Weber, who recounts to me this amazing connection between the weather and the D-Day landing. It almost didn’t happen, he relates, as it was all very dependent on tides and weather. If the tides or weather weren’t right they would not be able to go, as was the case for the originally planned date of the invasion, which then of course had to be changed in favour of the date we all know about – June 6, 1944. And that is history. But still the perspective changes, as he shows us with Sword Beach, Sector Queen. May 17, 2013, 6:16pm. 10°C, 87% RELH, Wind, NE, 8 Knots. VIS: Fair, Overcast Clouds, Rain. These beaches, once the sites of death and mayhem but also the promise of hope from peril, are now the sites of summer homes and windsurfing, as well as our efforts to remember. “A true war story”, writes O’Brien,

…is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude, whatsoever. There is no virtue … and in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow.1

1. Tim O’Brien. 1990. The Things They Carried. Boston, New York: Mariner Books.

Sara Matthews, April 2014
©Sara Matthews. All Rights Reserved.


Sara Matthews is Assistant Professor of Culture and Conflict in the Department of Global Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her interdisciplinary work brings aesthetic and cultural theory to the study of violence and the dynamics of social conflict. Her current research considers how contemporary Canadian War Artists are responding to Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. In addition to her academic work, Sara curates aesthetic projects that archive visual encounters with legacies of war and social trauma. Her critical writing has appeared in articles for PUBLIC, FUSE Magazine, as a blog for Gallery TPW R&D, and in exhibition essays for the Art Gallery of Bishops University and YYZ.