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Cabin Fever at the VAG

“Cabin Fever”
Vancouver Art Gallery Exhibit
June 9th to September 20th, 2018
More Info / Buy Tickets

What is it about ‘the cabin’ that is so quintessentially Canadian? We all have at least one warm cabin memory featuring family or friends. I stayed in a cabin with my Dad once. He taught me how to whittle and I managed to shave a few pieces of plastic from my Game Boy before he took his knife back.

Perhaps it’s the diminishing of quiet spaces and a yearning to re-wild the heart and soul that continues to draw us back into these forest and mountain structures. It’s why listicle sites flourish on clickbait like “10 Cabin Retreats Outside [Insert Major City Here] You Have To Visit.” We’ve created these noisy metropolises to occupy, and so the cabin becomes a symbol for solitude. This is nothing new. In 1854, Henry David Thoreau detailed his famous two-year stay in a cabin and living off the land in Walden; or, Life in the Woods, which is still widely read today, in increasingly relevant context,

For more insight into this phenomenon, I accepted an invite to check out Cabin Fever, the latest Vancouver Art Gallery exhibit with a lot to say about cabins, including  their evolution as design icon, and culture influence on our collective minds.

Cabin in Bracebridge, ON, 2016 Photo: Sam Barkwell


First off, I enjoy the Vancouver Art Gallery immensely. If I’m ever meeting a friend downtown, I ask them to meet me at the VAG café. It’s seldom crowded, has good coffee and you won’t look out of place with a book. Cabin-esque in its own right. I read William Gibson’s Spook Country here, and was delighted to discover he was describing this very plateau overlooking Robson Square.

Today you can have your own piece of solitude mass-produced and assembled with an Allen key.

Once inside the Cabin Fever exhibit, the first piece of art you encounter is a twelve foot-tall white cabin with a matching white fireplace inside of it. The whole construct looks as though it came straight out of an Ikea catalog, and perhaps this is the first point the curator is trying to make — today you can have your own piece of solitude mass-produced and assembled with an Allen key. It’s still early in my tour though, and I decide I might already be looking too much into it. Everyone else on the tour has kept walking.

Next up, an entire wall of diorama cabins expressing the evolution of cabins, from early days of colonization to modern concepts with architectural flare. The nearest wall compliments the dioramas by showcasing the tools that were available during the corresponding time periods. It gave a good understanding of the hardships and perseverance of the people who wielded them.

Douglas Cabin, Chewelah, WA (measured drawing), 1936 (detail)
Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division


Further along we encounter a skeletal model of Scott & Scott Architect’s Whistler Cabin on display. I remember when this cabin was originally built in 2016. Thanks in part to the release of Matt D’Avella’s hugely popular documentary, Minimalism was in full-swing on the internet and everyone was raving about Scott and Scott’s design.

As we continue through the exhibit, gazing upon one cabin after another, an intrusive thought clouds my mind: Can I touch these? This is a media event after all, and I’ve been invited here. Surely the rules for the general public don’t apply to me. I’m halfway through my journalism degree and finally, this must be one of those perks of being a journalist that I’ve heard so much about. I extend a hand forward.

“Do not touch.” The voice behind me comes from a stout man in a black dress shirt, staring me down through his glasses that do nothing to conceal the concern on his face.

I do not touch.

We continue to work our way through the tour as one unit. These are smart people with smart things to say, and I’m still trying to…. We come to a large structure that reminds me of a hexagon and I’m told this is a “microhouse” designed by Ken Isaacs. They say it could comfortably fit a small family, but my mind wanders to the logistics of installation. A man beside me also furrows his brow as he studies. I can tell he sees much more than I do here. He removes a hand from his pocket.

He touches.

It’s not a gentle touch, not like the one I’d been planning back there. His palm makes a distinctive smack on the side of the wooden microhouse. What would Ken Isaacs think! He puts his hand back into his pocket and the conversation in our group resumes ahead, so I pace off to join them.


Scott & Scott Architects, Whistler Cabin, Whistler, BC, 2016
Courtesy of Scott & Scott Architects


We come to a new room where wooden planks adorn the walls. Clothing and accessories are carefully folded and positioned on them. I watched a friend do this once for an Instagram post. It took him over an hour and we missed our movie. I notice text on the wall: “Aesthetics of Ruggedness.” This is a wall of #CabinPorn featuring imagery and items from brands like Herschel, LL Bean, Roots that have been cashing in on our love of the iconic. There’s a really tantalizing Pendleton shirt on display that almost makes me break the no touching rule.


Rudolph Schindler
Bennati Cabin, Lake Arrowhead, CA (floorplan), 1934–37
R.M. Schindler Papers, Architecture and Design Collection, Art, Design & Architecture Museum, UC Santa Barbara, CA

I’m admiring a Popular Mechanics from 1955 when the curators end the tour and invite our questions. I don’t have much to ask them. There are people with backgrounds in art and art criticism who want to discuss themes of isolation, of wilderness as narrative antagonist. I thank the curators for their time, and wander back through the exhibit to capture photos for social media.

Cabin Fever runs from June 9th to September 30th. You can get your tickets here. Tuesdays at the Vancouver Art Gallery are by donation. For those that have cabin fever fever, the Vancouver Art Gallery Offsite’s current exhibit features a Japanese Paper Log HouseArc’Terxy, who supported the Opening Weekend, will also have their Hut Magic VR installed in the lobby on certain weekends.