Louis Robert, from agriculture to art

Louis Robert, from agriculture to art
L’affaire Louis Robert, 2020. Wood, natural dyes, ink. Dimensions 205 cm x 133.5 cm x 23 cm. Installation view, Grantham Foundation for the Arts and the Environment, Saint-Edmond-de-Grantham, Quebec. (Photo : Courtesy www.ibghylemmens.com)

By Nick Fonda

Local Journalism Initiative

There aren’t many agronomists who have a piece of artwork that carries their name, but Louis Robert is one.

“I was flabbergasted when my son told me that there was an exhibit at the Musée de la civilization in Quebec City and it included an artwork that was entitled L’affaire Louis Robert,” says the semi-retired agronomist.  “The artists had previously invited me to see the sculpture.  I couldn’t believe where it was being exhibited.”

The artwork consists of 128 pieces of wood of varied lengths.  Half of the pieces are painted in a range of colours and half of the pieces are in natural wood of different hues.  The blocks of wood are arranged in pairs with each pair consisting of a painted block and an unpainted block.  The 64 pairs are arranged on three levels and are framed by a sturdy wooden structure.   All the pairs are of uneven length.  Sometimes the painted block is a little longer; sometimes it’s shorter.  In all cases the difference in length is only very slight.

At first glance, the sculpture is enigmatic, mysterious, and unfathomable.  If art is supposed to make you stop and reflect, then what is a viewer supposed to make of this?

The key to the artwork is its title, L’affaire Louis Robert.  It is the experience he had that gives context to all those random sticks of wood and turns them into artwork.

They offer a visual depiction of a scientific study on the productivity of 64 commercial corn fields consisting of sections planted with seeds treated with neonicotinoids and adjacent sections planted with untreated seeds.  The painted sticks represent the crop harvested from the treated seeds while the blocks in natural wood represent the control crop, from untreated seeds.  The lengths of the blocks of wood corresponded to the crop yield in kilogram per hectare.

What is immediately obvious is that while the sticks vary in length, they are paired up in such a way that the sticks that make up a pair are of almost equal length.

What the sculpture is showing is that sometimes the pesticide increased the crop yield, and sometimes it didn’t.  The difference in yield from treated versus untreaded seeds was, in scientific parlance, statistically negligible.  A farmer might opt to use the pesticide on his fields but it might, or might not, help him get a marginally bigger crop.

The viewer of the artwork should also know that neonicotinoids, the chemicals used as pesticides, have a deadly effect on insects, birds, and other living organisms.

Louis Robert knew, by the time he was in Cegep, that biology was the field he wanted to work in.  He began his university studies at Laval, but the following year changed course and enrolled at MacDonald College.

“I wasn’t sure what career to follow,” Louis says, “but as I looked around, biology seemed to have limited options.  I envisaged agronomy as a form of applied biology.  I saw the soil as the key to sustainable agriculture.”

After earning a Master’s degree from McGill University, he was hired, in 1989, as an agronomist by the Ministère de l’agriculture, des pêcheries, et de l’alimentation du Québec (MAPAQ).   He was based in St-Hyacinthe and worked primarily with large-acreage crops such as corn, soy, and wheat.

Subscribe to read the full story

Share this article