BETA VULAGRIS: The Sugar Beet Projects

February – May 2018

A collaboration with Kelty Miyoshi McKinnon 

BETA VULAGRIS: The Sugar Beet Projects explores the relationship between the seemingly innocuous material of sugar and Japanese Canadian history in Western Canada (specifically, British Columbia and Alberta). Within the sugar beet, contrasts emerge between the expression of sugar’s purity, genericity, and neutrality and its history and conditions of labour.

During the Second World War, the labour shortage, lack of secure cargo shipping and need to supply troops overseas with sugar resulted in the BC Securities Commission Council organizing “the Sugar Beet Projects”. As part of their internment, Japanese Canadian families were allowed to remain together only if they agreed to move to the Prairies or Ontario to work the sugar beet fields. The forced labour of Japanese Canadians supplied support for 65% of Alberta’s sugar beet acreage during the war.

In combination with the displacement of Japanese Canadian families to internment camps, approximately 20,880 Japanese were uprooted, 13,309 of whom were Canadian citizens by birth. The majority of older Japanese nationals had already lived in Canada for 25-40 years. Within the blink of an eye, entire communities disappeared overnight, leaving fractured and disoriented neighbourhoods behind.

sugar beet

For BETA VULAGRIS: The Sugar Beet Projects, the Nikkei National Museum’s gallery will be transformed into a Japanese dry garden, punctuated by large sculptural ‘boulders’ made of molten, burnt, and sculpted sugar.  A wooden boardwalk will traverse overtop of this landscape conflating the “hills of Mission” to the flat, striated furrows of the sugarbeet fields in southern Alberta.

Fleeting video imagery will be projected onto the sugared surfaces –the residue of heavy labour, sweat, dirt, repetitive topping and the intense subterfuge action used to distill impurities from the sugar molecule. Woven into the development of this project is a personal, but common Japanese Canadian narrative, of displacement, disenfranchisement, and disorientation. A contemporary interpretive koto soundscape will be overlayed into this space by Keri McTighe.