Iconic work of art in Saanich remembered fondly

Iconic work of art in Saanich remembered fondly

‘The Document’ (John Orser)

For those who lived in Greater Victoria between 2006 and 2013, you might remember a work of art created by a local artist which became colloquially known as “Mattress Henge.”

The real name of this larger than life piece was The Document, and it was built on the land which then belonged to the artist himself, John Orser. 

Orser lived in Greater Victoria for over 30 years and  began working on The Document because he was surveying his land along West Saanich Road. 

During this process, he discovered ancient remnants of the ancestral stewards of the land in question, the W̱SÁNEĆ Peoples.

“It started with a survey of the land,” Orser told Victoria Buzz.

“I excavated the site and rehabilitated the land, and of course, it had some old structures down there and we found some old things from the 19th century, some culturally modified trees.”

Orser has dedicated much of his life to art, but also to Buddhist teachings through his many years working in Cambodia at the Angkor Wat site. 

The Document was constructed out of upcycled mattresses and mattress coverings with stakes holding them up. Then the newfound structure received three separate paint jobs with non-specific artwork that was meant to leave the meaning and origins of the piece up to the eye of the beholder. 

‘The Document’ in 2007 (John Orser)

From there, performance artists were allowed by Orser to interpret it as they wished and perform within the enclosed structure.

All of this, and what the piece became, is inspired by the mandala, says Orser. 

“It was really about how things disappear so quickly in culture,” he said. 

Document really came about because everybody has a bed, everybody dreams and the mandala is a meditation.”

“It was rooted in the Buddhist teachings and in social justice,” he continued. 

This, Orser says, is similar to how the remnants of this rich culture which once flourished on the Saanich Peninsula have been left behind, similar to how Angkor Wat was left behind by a Peoples whose livelihoods were stripped from them. 

He described the mandala as something temporary. Like the design being drawn in the sand on a beach, a mandala is something that is meant to only exist in its intended state for a short time before it is altered to the point of non-recognition by a rising tide. 

According to Orser, people from all over the world came to see The Document and many—over 700—even left notes for him as to how they interpreted his piece. 

“It was like an emotional rorschach for people,” Orser said. “They saw in the artwork what they wanted to see and that was great, that was the point of it.”

Following 2009, it was slowly and intentionally dismantled and repurposed by Orser along with some other local artists to show the lifecycle of the piece was fluid and that its impermanence was the whole point of the massive work of art. 

The Document became new works of art called, Fragments and another Orser dubbed Elements.

In addition to these, there were accompanying pieces made called The Door, The Grove and Silhouettes.

‘Skins at the Grove’ (John Orser)

“In the end, in 2013, we were using the mist screens, which was high pressure water vapour, monitors and mylar substrate that had some line drawings on it and we were projecting imagery onto it,” Orser explained regarding how the piece was reimagined over time. 

Recently, people have been talking about The Document on Victoria’s dedicated Subreddit in which people claimed their theories on the piece—some even claimed it was sold to “a rich guy,” but Orser says that is not the case at all and never was. 

As of now, Orser calls Calgary, Alberta home, but he hopes to come back to the island soon to check in on where The Document once stood and see how time has impacted his iconic piece of art.

He says the last time he was in Saanich in 2015, there were still remnants of his work on the grounds he used to live on. 

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