Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Wednesday, May 01, 2013
What do you see when you look out at the world? Is it primarily material or is it concept? An underlying organization of ordered elements, or a whirling chaotic randomness? However we see our world, it is very much through the acquisition and use of language, especially speech, that we individually make our peace with it.
Even though speech seems to be deeply, consciously organized and controlled it also contains the unconscious, the spontaneous and the unpredictable. One of the mysteries of speech is that we can begin a sentence expressing a thought without being able to find within ourselves evidence of having worked out in advance how that sentence will end. Yet to have begun, to have been able to correctly place one word after the next to build a coherent thought, we must have done precisely that. When pointed out, it seems such a small, obvious observation, and yet it's completely astounding. I was first brought to these thoughts by Meyer Schapiro in his essay "Abstract Art" of 1957, and I am brought to them again by the recent sculpture of Richard Clements.
Highly organized, conceptually and formally, Clements's work demands language, but is also deeply engaged with mystery and arcane knowledge, even magic. The problem with language in regards to art, is that because I can call things by words like "sculpture," "formal," "minimal," etc., I can be lazy and don't have to do the work of seeing and experiencing it. With the work in "Day Treadeth on Night," that would be a pity because I'd only be seeing language, and be cleaving the magic from the object and its material. It would be like being given every sentence with its end already attached and without the possibility for the kind of mystery that Shapiro points to. Animated by those same qualities of speech (the unconscious, the spontaneous and the unpredictable) that surpass language, Clements's work wants to reanimate us who have become dull to experience. It is an appeal to see not just with our eyes, but with our bodies; to reconnect with the material world and really have a look, and feel what's going on. Language is important, but not more so than material; things like the hard shine of copper, the roughness of sand cast aluminum, and the soft slumpiness of string.
An exemplar of Clements's amalgam of language and feeling, and a keystone to one understanding of the exhibition as a meditation on the way the mind inscribes itself on the material of the world, are the two brick-like, DAY TREADS ON NIGHT (After Gill), in clay, and cast plaster. Imprinted with a contemporized version of the titular "Day Treadeth on Night," they can be read as the mind stamped on the body, or concept imposed on material. They look like Carl Andres after Lawerence Weiner has gotten his hands on them, but their form and text are an inverted variation of the carved stone Night Treadeth on Day by the English sculptor, printmaker, author, and typeface designer Eric Gill (1882-1940). Gill had in turn borrowed the text from a poem by the English poet William Morris. For the profoundly disturbed psyche of Gill (who practiced a form of ascetic Catholicism in between bouts of incest, adultery and bestiality), night, with all the intimations that darkness possesses, may indeed have treadeth on day. Clements sees things the other way; not only in the inversion of the text, but in its sentiment and its method of production.
Whereas Gill's "brick" is carved stone and unique, Clements's are clay and cast plaster, and infinitely reproducible. In terms of sculptural material and process, they are separated by materiality vs immateriality; the latter pale ghosts of the former. Clements recognizes their disparity in his method of acquiring and reproducing their common font:
I took Gill's exact fonts and made a computer document of them. His fonts which were once very material in essence, are now immaterial. I got the text laser cut out of Plexiglas, made a wooden brick, placed the text on the brick, took a vacuum mold of it, made a plaster positive, made a negative cast of that, then used it as a mold.
Clements's description of the complex process he followed to achieve something that Gill did so directly is honest, but still contains a deception; which is that for all its procedural roundaboutness, there is more that connects Clements and Gill in their processes and the work that results, than divides them. Leaving aside subject matter, for Gill's "direct carving" one could substitute Clements's "direct fabrication." Both sculptors make work that is elemental: spare, direct, and unadorned; that concerns itself with process and the way material is handled, but doesn't make them subjects. And like the Christianity that Gill practiced (albeit disastrously) as a worshipper and in his work (more successfully) there is in Clements's work a latent Christianity.
In The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, Gian Lorenzo Bernini created the meeting of body and spirit in a baroque tableau of marble and gilt bronze. Teresa lies in the foreground, the marks of her ecstasy inscribed on her body; eyes closed, lips parted, her figure dematerialized in a cloud of drapery. An angel stands above her holding the arrow that has repeatedly pierced her body and caused her transformation. Behind them hard shafts of sculpted sunlight stream down from above. We stand in front, as witnesses to her transverberation as a reward for the strength of her faith and the quality of her spirit; and to the mystery of her passion.
There is an interesting association with Franz Kafka's short story In The Penal Colony. Here the needles of a vengeful secularized and mechanized angel, called "the apparatus," are used to write whatever commandment has been disobeyed upon the bodies of the prisoners. At the story's end, however, the explorer, the soldier and the condemned man stand as witnesses to the suicide of the officer on "the apparatus," and any reward for the faith that the officer showed in "the apparatus," or its promise of redemption, never comes.
I know that part of Clements's inspiration for gutter/trough was the aisle running between the pews, and the light filling St. Paul's Cathedral in London. But even before I knew, I was thinking of his work's relation to Christianity and Teresa. gutter/trough reminds me of that "light" behind Teresa and so many other saints; like a trough of hard light brought down and made manifest, like the spirit being made manifest in the flesh. This may seem a stretch, but there is something in Clements's work that warrants it, and that bears explanation.
The Kabbalah of Rabbi Isaac Luria contains the particularly evocative story of the Breaking of the Vessels. According to Luria, ten vessels, meant to contain the emanation of God's light, were unable to do so and six were shattered. As their pieces fell through the void, they trapped within themselves sparks of the divine light which became shrouded in layers of darkness. These "husks,"or "complexes" as they're called, compose the world in which we live. Our task, and opportunity, is to extract the sparks from their husks and thereby redeem the world. The thought is beautiful and poetic. The quality that relates Clements's work is the way it so readily offers itself up to projection. In this way it's a redemption. It can happen very quickly while looking at it; you're already not in this world, you're beyond it. You're seeing all the other art, and all the other things it reminds you of. Like seeing all the vessels already restored and full of light.
gutter/trough is a "U" shaped length of copper, a section of round pipe that Clements cut in half by hand. The elements of directness, engagement, and craftsmanship are important. Open on one end and capped on the other, the capped end is lifted up off the floor on two mahogany wedges. In terms of transporting a flow it gives the sense of being unidirectional, of having a beginning and an end. Or at least it makes me want to believe it has a beginning. It makes me aware of how I've been conditioned to read subtle cues to natural forces like gravity and the flow of liquid, but also to read the form in terms of its resemblance to its prosaic relatives with a use.
In his short essay about an abstract painting by Richard Diebenkorn, John Updike says:
Turning the pages of a book or magazine, we expect meaning; but in an actual environment, a museum or an opulent home, we settle for thereness. Abstraction removes painting from the secondary realm of imitation and enrolls it in the primary order of mute objects.
If you invert St. Paul's vaulted Nave with its gilt detailing, it's possible to imagine it as a copper trough. Bernini gives us predominantly meaning, Clements opts for abstraction and gives us a vision of thereness. Beyond Clements's gutter lies another gutter full of light.
Untitled (The Olympics) is obviously not a representation of the Olympic symbol, even if that's where our thinking is pushed. There are three circles not five, and the rings are not shown flat. The games are brought to mind (the circle is doing something of a little gymnastics routine, showing itself in three positions to its fullest effect; and the games are more of a three ring circus than athletic competition), but so are the Chinese Linking Rings. The magic of the Chinese Rings is the mystery of how they fit together and come apart. (Untitled) The Olympics reveals there is no magic by revealing its construction. We can see the legs that hold the rings aloft and the seams where the steel is cut and joined. What Clements is really giving are the three most obvious ways to show a circle: flat, upright, and receding at forty-five degrees. If careful we can imaginatively reconstruct the experience of how the rings are made. What we cannot experience, though our minds tell us otherwise, is that perfect geometric figure called a circle. In Sartre, Iris Murdoch says:
The circle does not exist; but neither does what is named by 'black' or 'table' or 'cold.' The relation of these words to their context of application is shifting and arbitrary. What does exist is brute and nameless, it escapes from the scheme of relations in which we imagine it to be rigidly enclosed, it escapes from language and science, it is more than and other than our description of it.
This is the claim throughout "Day Treadeth On Night," that there is what is elemental in the world, and there is what our minds inscribe upon it. Clements feels the same about death as he does about circles, but goes one step further. Death is something we believe we see (like a magic trick, or a circle), but it's not truly an experience because we never have it. We can be brought right to very edge of experiencing them, but always fall short. And because we can't experience them, they don't exist.
The Judge is a cryptic work that focuses on the direct transference of experience into a language, and is as close to a literal amalgam of reading the marks inscribed on a body (in this case the body of the earth), language, and mystery as Clements presents. The title is related to geomancy, or "earth divination," an arcane method of obtaining information and inquiring about the future. The method that Clements draws from is based on the interpretation of groupings of marks drawn randomly on the ground. Arranged into a chart of sixteen figures, the Judge, the final figure, generally represents the answer to whatever has been asked.
Displayed on the wall like two pages of an open book, The Judge is made of two tablets covered in a language of symbols (comparable to Tarot or the I Ching) unknown except to initiates. On their surfaces are a series of raised, diamond shaped spots. The surface from which they protrude is covered with rows of diagonal lines, like rays of raking light or sunshine, and bring back to mind the light of The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, and the slant of gutter/trough. But the shape of the spots and the diagonal lines are not decisions by Clements, but the results of their fabrication; The Judge being first cut in plastic on a CNC machine and then sand cast in aluminum.
The tablet on the left reproduces the patterns of single and paired spots that represent fourteen of the sixteen geomantic figures. It's absurd to say that geomancy's binary code of ones and twos anticipated our own system of zeros and ones used by computers, but from its figures the future was foretold and information gleaned by the translation of digital language to analog experience.
On the right, Clements has mimicked the geomantic table on the left with one of his own design made up of corresponding sets of twos and threes. The two sides mirror one another so that if the tablets were folded together, for every single spot on the left there is a corresponding pair on the right, and for every left side pair, a right side triad.
In both cases Clements has aestheticized the table and its fancies of prognostication, removing it from the realm of language and the cerebral, and returning it to visceral experience. This is made clear by his decision to omit the two figures from the geomantic table that he considers less visually interesting, a row of single spots, and a row of pairs. He does so because his interest in geomancy is as a language used as a tool to bring order to experience, and what that language looks like, rather than the specifics of how to use it. Geomancy may be nonsense, but is it any more so than the systems we write on top of the world? Do we have any more surety that ours are right?
So many of our daily activities are composed of simple gestures that when noticed are those of making art or can be of making art. Untitled (spinning beads) is a photograph of Clements spinning a string of beads, which aren't discernible at all. The beads, which only read as lines, draw a picture of an amorphous ovoid through which we see the ovoid of Clements's face and head. Close to identical in shape, the registration of the ovoids is slightly off. The shape made by the beads is also the shape of Brancusi's polished ovoid heads in marble and bronze. What this creates is an overlay of ways of understanding ovoids: a reference, over a concept, over an experience. In a paraphrase of Camille Paglia, every time we describe an experience, we are fingering our worry beads like a rosary, saying a prayer that the world as we see it is really there.
Untitled (cut leek) is made of a simple sculptural gesture, a cut. One half of the leek is then rotated 180 degrees and the two pieces put back together to create an angle; the whole thing laid over a short, brass heptahedron that reinforces the angle. A leek is an interesting object all by itself: in its transition in color from white (a color that has sculptural associations with marble and plaster, including their memorializing function of death) to green (which is vegetative and life); and in its transition from a circle to a flat, fan shape. With the appearance of the head of the leek being "thrown back" over the peak of the brass, it's possible to make the connection with Alberto Giacometti's Woman with Her Throat Cut (a singular sculptural example of the subject), and from there to The Ecstasy of St. Teresa insofar as both have been described for their combination of eroticism and pain.
Two circles of string, one long and under tension, one short and at rest. Untitled (horseshoe) is as simple and direct as a demonstration. But the long circle isn't really a circle, it's been stretched and held wall to wall in the shape of a rectangle, like the beginning of the string game Cat's Cradle before the string is looped onto the middle fingers to create the cradle. Draped over the top length of string, the small circle slumps there at the mercy of gravity, its lower section resting on the string below so that it flattens out, and runs parallel with it.
Given the repetitive theme of language and writing, the rectilinear string could be a reference to the area extending across a newspaper, or to the lines of a child's primer that guide their writing. The string at its center could be an image of some kind. It looks like a fanciful animal with ears (I think of Jonathan Borofsky's self-portrait with big ear drawings) or a bull, less so the folded circle that it is. Maybe its a humorous take on an attempted "O" that got outside the lines and couldn't support itself. It also looks like a horseshoe.
Often hung over a doorway, the symbolism of a horseshoe is as a charm, an attempt to control the vagaries of fortune. Presented open side up, it is a vessel, so that good luck is captured and held for those within; open side down, luck spills out blessing those that pass beneath it.
Untitled (horseshoe) is a vessel, a portable horseshoe and lintel assemblable anywhere. In the iconography of "Day Treadeth on Night," it is also a sagging "O" of Untitled (The Olympics), a linear section of gutter/trough, or a string of beads at rest. More broadly, it's the one pliable material in the show, the one on which ideas are most easily imposed. It gives a simple demonstration that beneath the many ways we may organize the world, there is an unchanging material on which our ideas work.
When I began thinking of Day Treadeth on Night, I was confronted with two mysteries: there was no evidence within myself that I could find of where I would end up; and as a whole, the work posed a very constant frustrating of my desire to organize it into a narrative. Yet at an end I am, having finally stamped myself onto Clements's material through perception and language. Perception, that wall that separates humans from everything outside of us, is the primary example of our minds inscribing themselves on the elemental materiality of the world. It is built up of individual bricks like Night Treadeth on Day, and Day Treads on Night (After Gill). Onto this wall are inscribed our individual concepts of organization, utility and understanding, like graffiti, each of us with our personalized tag. Through language we make known to ourselves what we perceive.
Friday, February 01, 2013
Rather choose rough work than smooth work, so only that the practical purpose be answered, and never imagine there is reason to be proud of anything that may be accomplished by patience and sand-paper.
John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, II, 1853.
Sonny Assu is a member of the We Wai Kai Nation, part of the Kwakwaka'wakw peoples of Northeastern Vancouver Island. It seems vaguely improper to begin an essay about art with a declaration about the artist's ethnicity, but in Assu's case it seems especially appropriate. Not only has he made his identity, and Aboriginal history in Canada, the focus of his entire body of work, but as Assu will tell you himself, his work would not be the same if made by anyone other than an Aboriginal artist; even if it were identical in every other sense. The emphasis that Assu puts on this blood relationship between the maker and the made is particularly resonant in the eighteen "masks" that constitute the heart of Longing because it is specifically through Assu's identity as Aboriginal that the "masks" gain added poignancy and a crisp irony. More than one hundred years after artists like Vlamink, Picasso, Matisse, and Braque found the formal inspiration to move Western art forwards by looking "back" at the Aboriginal arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas including Canada, Assu performs a reversal of early Twentieth century art history by looking at Western art to modernize Aboriginal aesthetic traditions of the Northwest Coast, and wrestle back their control in the context of contemporary art. He has done so using an object that is an icon of Aboriginal culture, and that marks the entrance of that culture into the consciousness of Western art.
As Assu's "masks" stare outwards from their pedestals, they enable us to look back through them, and through preceding movements in art, to the moment of contact and then co-option of Aboriginal formal values into Western art history. One of the most famous examples of this moment are the faces of the prostitutes in Picasso's 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Less well known, but showing much greater sculptural treatment and greater resemblance to Assu's "masks," is the face of Picasso's 1908 Dryad. As the lessons of Aboriginal cultural objects (most commonly masks and sculpture) were subsumed by successive movements of Western art, recognizable reference to the original objects became obscured and eventually invisible. Assu's "masks" bring the primacy of this stimulant to Modern art back to the fore.
The "masks" also bring to mind the period immediately before Aboriginal cultural objects became part of Western art history, to the time when they belonged to the history of expedition and colonialism and were seen by their collectors as ethnographic objects and displayed in ethnographic museums like the Trocadero in Paris where Picasso and other artists made their discoveries. To emphasize that the objects on display in Longing are indeed masks and are meant to be understood in relationship to traditional Aboriginal ones and to the way they've historically been displayed, Assu has mounted his on brass armatures that are identical in style and technique to those used by Vancouver's Museum of Anthropology. In fact, Assu hired one of the MOA's former armature technicians to do the work.
The off-cuts of raw cedar that Assu turned into the "masks" were collected at Quinsam, part of the reserve lands of the We Wai Kai Nation. They had been left as piles of debris from the production of luxury log homes by a now defunct company that had leased property there. Assu's M.O. isn't usually the type where an image or an object is simply recognized in the world as ready to show, so even though Assu already saw masks when he found them, he initially considered altering their rough-sawn forms to make them look more traditionally Kwakwaka'wakw. Considering pieces like his copper 1884-1951 and his collections of handmade and hand-painted drums, a considerable amount of labor usually accompanies whatever he makes. His idea was to either add other materials like copper, cedar bark and color; or to sand them down to remove the distinctive marks of the chain saw. He resisted that impulse for four years as he daily looked at them stacked in his crowded Vancouver studio. It took him that long to recognize that the "masks" were already finished when he found them. In this case, patience paid off, whereas sand-paper would have been a mistake.
In form, the "masks" are truncated wedges; concave in back, their flat frontal plane reads as forehead, bridge of the nose, and chin. Central growth rings and knots read as eyes. For those that have them, shakes and checks are mouths. Like faces smoothed and distorted by a stocking, they share a generalized form, but are individual enough to imagine them as having distinct personalities or as specific characters from Aboriginal mythology.
In the West Vancouver Museum installation they have been arranged to create an imaginary narrative. Entering the museum, one stands between opposing groups of "Anglos" and "Warriors," like the Sharks and Jets of West Side Story. Though they are grouped into what looks like a shared experience, each member faces in a different direction giving the impression that (like Rodin's Burgers of Calais) each is undergoing an individual drama. On a wall above them, a single large "Spirit" hangs, while in a back room three "Bureaucrats" huddle together.
Because of the history of the West Vancouver Museum, there is a poetic symmetry between the building and Assu's work inside. It's the kind of coincidence that makes for such conceptual harmony that the term "site-specific" is inadequate. The building and the "masks" are both made from what are essentially the waste products of utilitarian purpose turned to an aesthetic end. Before the wedges of cedar were collected by Assu, they were nothing more than byproducts from the production of log homes. The old Gertrude Lawson House, which the museum occupies, was built in 1940 from stones originally used as ship's ballast. Piles of debris to make a house, the making of a house creating piles of debris. All those stones, just like those cedar off-cuts, sat in an enormous heap until being stumbled upon and their potential for becoming something other than what they are was realized. The "masks" only partially leave their nascent stage of becoming. Like kernels, or the hard center of their own development, they retain the memory of themselves even as we imagine what they could have become had they been developed with more carving, color, and ornament.
Augmenting the "masks" is a trio of photographs produced in collaboration with Eric Deis and collectively titled Artifacts of Authenticity. Meant as a critique of the voices of authority that confer value and authenticity on Aboriginal artifacts, they show an Assu "mask" installed in: a museum display case; a commercial gallery; and a tourist gift shop. Before Assu decided on "Longing" as the title for this collection of sculpture and photographs he was calling it "Faceless," an unambiguous indictment of the invisibility that Aboriginal communities experience in Canadian society with a parallel in the disappearance of recognizable reference to Aboriginal cultural objects from Western art. Assu renamed the exhibition when he was struck by the narrative created in the photograph Museum of Anthropology, and it is the keystone to understanding the "masks." Surrounded by traditional Kwakwaka'wakw masks and artifacts, Assu understood his "mask" as looking at the others, longing to become them. This simple act pushed the tenor and comprehension of the exhibition in another direction, from accusatory and outwards, to melancholy and inwards, and made room for readings that broaden Assu's intentions.
References to things outside the issues of concern to Assu aren't meant to minimize them. As successful as Assu is in directing his work towards issues of Aboriginal status and history in Canada, and the wastes of consumer culture, it is equally compelling to see the "masks" as stand-ins for "the artist," and as an echo of the history of sculpture.
As much as a chunk of cedar might embody a yearning to belong to the valued objects that surround it, or to the era, or cultural place from which its neighbors in the display case come, it also stands as a personification of artistic longing; not necessarily Assu's, but any artist's. That longing may be for a time, future or past, of perceived authenticity (for Assu that may be before the contact with Europeans that destroyed his ancestral culture; for others a time without irony). It may also be an expression of that overwhelming artistic longing to transform one's experience of the world into art.
Of particular interest in Assu's decision not to alter the surface of the "masks" with additional finish is the denial of his own artistic longing and his ability to say "these are enough;" that the "masks" already answered their purpose when he found them. By doing so, Assu acknowledges that sometimes, no matter how great our longing, we have to remain humble in the face of our world and admit that it cannot be made better by our transformations. But, of course, in the choosing, Assu has transformed the cedar already.
I say "echo" regarding the "masks'" as referents to the history of sculpture because the sculptures that resonate in them are more felt in the whole body (like a vibration in the ear) than seen and understood by the eye. The "masks" push the history of sculpture to which they refer further back than their entrance at the turn of the Twentieth century to times and places to which they don't belong at all except as they can be put together in the imagination. When I look at the "masks," I feel the hollow head of Seated Boxer of Lysippos, the unfinished sculptures of Michelangelo, the fragments of Rodin (especially Rodin's Mask of the Man with the Broken Nose), the found and readymade objects of Duchamp, and the traditional Northwest Coast masks of anonymous carvers deep in history, and those more contemporary like Robert Davidson and Henry Hunt.
In its restraint and earnestness, Assu's work reclaims some of that authenticity compromised by the ruination of earlier Aboriginal culture. Longing is simultaneously a confounding of the primary stereotype of Northwest Coast Aboriginal art; a return to the culturally significant moment when Aboriginal masks entered Western art; and an act of cultural repatriation. By adding a contemporary aesthetic parallel to its traditional expression, Assu is on the frontier of cultural transformation. It puts him on a path that never existed in the past.
Saturday, September 01, 2012
For North America's first exposure to the art of Nairy Baghramian the Contemporary Art Gallery has chosen Class Reunion (2008), a collection of eighteen individual sculptures made of cast rubber, metal, and epoxy resin that are witty and intelligent. Reminiscent of early to mid-century Modernism (with a nostalgic tip of the hat to sculptors like Noguchi and Arp) it is equally reminiscent of that outdated vision of the future that tends to black and white biomorphic abstraction in design (Woody Allen's "Sleeper" for example).
By the ensemble's title (and the titles of the individual sculptures) we are encouraged to see the gathering as a quirky cast of characters. Baghramian succeeds in engendering her forms with personality through precise and elegant formal decisions including the elimination of almost any regularity of outline. Bulbous upper portions of sculptures are smooth and glossy, with slender lower portions that swell and taper, terminating in feet or flat plates, some of which support or are surrounded by slabs of translucent blackish, purplish rubber that look like jello. Other sculptures are irregularly cut and folded plate metal.
It is interesting how naturally and definitively we as sentient beings associate form with personality. A straight line is serious; a diagonal less so; and a curving loop the loop humorous. Considering balance, symmetry is serious, asymmetry not (Part of the joy of Laurel and Hardy).
By their distribution we are encouraged to form a narrative: For instance, a husband, "Slacker 1" (the only piece without a rigid armature), lays drunk on the floor. Standing nearby his wife, "Flamingo," blushes pink. "Knucklehead Hither," the AWOL appendage from Gogol's The Nose, scurries past. And leaning in the corner distinct from all the others by amongst other things its symmetry and enclosed volume is "Tomcat," the petulant loner.
Given her attention to detail in form, Baghramian has been surprisingly casual in fabrication and upkeep. Cast forms are pitted and chipped, there are cracks and sags in painted surfaces, and what look like ill considered gaps at joints where sections meet. An explanation may be in the gallery notes which say that like much of Baghramian's other work, Class Reunion comments "on current issues of materiality, manufacture and display while examining aspects of social and political relationships." May be, but sometimes, rather than engage in conversation, it's a lot more fun to sit on the couch and make up stories about the guests.
First published in Canadian Art http://www.canadianart.ca/reviews/2013/01/09/nairy-baghramian-cag/
Sunday, July 01, 2012
Open are the double doors of the horizon
Unlocked are its bolts
Utterance 220, from the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom Egypt
In approximately 3200 BCE an enormous passage mound was completed in the Boyne Valley on the east coast of Ireland. At sunrise on the winter solstice a shaft of light penetrates the mound through a light box at its entrance to illuminate a cruciform-shaped chamber 62 feet within.
Sometime between 650 - 900 CE a cylindrical shaft was cut from the ceiling of a cave to the surface above at Xochicalco in the Mexican state of Morelos so that on the solar equinox an intense circular beam of light shines directly onto its floor. If a screen containing a small aperture is fitted at the top of the shaft it is possible for the cave to operate as a pinhole camera obscura.
No written records are extant to interpret these light directing constructions. Exactly what they were for is speculation. One thing is certain, at the moment the sun's light entered their darkened chambers a door opened between worlds.
Open are the double doors of the horizon
Unlocked are its bolts
Since the early twentieth century humanity has been held between the infinite exteriority of the cosmos described by Einstein and Hubble and it's mirror image in the infinite interiority of the psyche described by Freud. For Nizam it is particularly the domestic architecture of the house that is the physical threshold in the world between "out there" and "in here," the site of ritualized action and liminal experience where for a moment we have a foot in both.
Trace Heavens is an illumination of thresholds. It is an overlapping of worlds. It's complexity and beauty is that Nizam has drawn a picture of ancient celestial world upon perceptual world upon art world in a tangle of lines like the black chromed rebar of Interminable Structure. The photographs and sculpture are an expression of the poetic similitude that exists along two axes of metaphor: cosmos/architecture/mind and photographic apparatuses/architecture/eye. Light is the vehicle of transport along these axes, but they bend into orbits like Einstein rings. For an example, bringing light into a room is like bringing light into an ancient solar observatory, is like bringing light into a camera, or light into the skull and the vitreous chamber of the eye, which again is like bringing light into a solar observatory. Looking at Trace Heavens inevitably leads in these circular patterns, and not only in its metaphors. There are also internal gyrations between the works (as the image of Fan (a beam of light bounced from mirror to mirror to make the illusion of the partially opened leaves of a book) is like the image of Disc (an isolated set of ruined concrete stairs), is like the stepped mats surrounding the Illuminations) and beyond. Follow the spectral lines of Fan and they lead to Robert Smithson's sculpture Pointless Vanishing Point, a truncated segment of perspectival lines. By withholding the resolution of whether those lines will eventually meet at a single location or unexpectedly veer off, they could point anywhere, it might be inwards towards the self, the imaginary, and the mechanics of perception; or it might be out into the world, to the past and the architecture of stepped pyramids, or to the future and back around to Disc.
Since antiquity the optical principles of the camera obscura have been well known. In the decades around 1600 the optical camera obscura became the definitive model for the eye and the mechanics of sight; light from the object of the eyes' focus passes through its lens, the image is projected on the retina, and is then transmitted to the brain. The seeming directness of the optical camera obscura's transference of visual information came to stand for the veracity of the images of human sight. Early in the nineteenth century the objectivity of visual perception faltered; how to account for the problem of optical illusions? What of the persistence of the afterimage of a spot of light once its been extinguished (the same way we might see light from a star that long ago ceased to exist); or the appearance of a three-dimensional object or drawing reversing perspective, as in the well known figures of the Necker Cube and Schroeder's Staircase (geometries adopted a century later by artists and seen in the paintings of Joseph Albers, the sculpture of Smithson, and now in several of Nizam's Thought Forms)? Artists, philosophers and religious mystics had long talked of a veil separating humanity from what was real, but now a physical threshold within ourselves was being confirmed by physiological evidence. Color and light, rather than being causes of vision, were discovered to be effects inseparable from the tissue of our nervous system. A subjective neurological threshold, like the liquidy sheet of a waterfall at the mouth of a cave, separated us from external reality.
Following the boom of university art departments and magazines devoted to art in the 1950’s, an analogous threshold was recognized in the way art was experienced. Contact with art that mattered changed and was mainly restricted to university lecture halls and art magazines. On their screens and in their pages a curious thing happened; art as different as the Mona Lisa and the pyramids could exist alongside one another of equal size, their dimensions determined by the frame that held them. In the minds of some of the young artists looking, this novel way of perceiving art registered and contributed to a growing sense of art away from the object. By the latter part of the 1960's new types of art emerged that concentrated either on the idea as art, or on the idea of art. In certain cases art was being made not to be experienced directly, but to be seen through a record of its existence as a reproduction in photographs. For some artists this included the manipulation of architecture and light as subjects to be photographed, but in the 1960's the field of sculpture was expanded to include their direct manipulation and display as sculptural materials.
Inspired by the ancient solar architecture of Europe and the Americas, as much as by the artists of the late 1960's, Nizam performed a series of architectural slicings and piercings made to channel light, and to be experienced only indirectly as photographs. For Shard of Light Nizam cut a slit up the wall and across a section of ceiling of a house in Delta at the edge of the Fraser river. The circular pattern of Drill Holes Through Studio Wall is what a starry sky might have looked like through the shaft at Xochicalco. By the simplest of means Nizam has created a complex illusion. Through the arrangement of holes of different sizes, the circle bellies out into an orb and hangs there. A beam of sunlight through a darkened window creates the glowing geometries of the Thought Forms. In each of these, we see Nizam's manipulation of light across an architectural threshold transform nondescript rooms into containers of radiant ideal forms.
Whereas Shard of Light and Drill Holes Through Studio Wall could be experienced directly if imperfectly in the world, the Thought Forms can only exist as photographs or ideas in the mind; they are illusions produced by a bit of photographic sleight of hand. To make them appear Nizam had to use the magician's props of smoke and mirrors. Smoke made the beam of light visible as Nizam bounced it from mirror to mirror. Because the light could only be bounced three times from its source at the window before becoming too diffuse to continue, each form was composed in camera through a process of multiple exposures. After waiting patiently, anticipating the moment the sun would finally appear through the hole in the blind, Nizam had to work quickly in sets of triads always starting at the source before the sun progressed too far; 1-2-3, 1-2-3, the rhythm of a waltz.
Given how important Nizam's experience of time, anticipation and patience were to his experiencing the light and making the photographs (as it must likewise have been to the ancient astronomers marking the passage of the sun on its yearly return) Nizam's decision to fix the light in photographs is curious, but consider its effects. Experiencing the work as photographs encourages an engagement with the history of photography, and propels the metaphor photographic apparatuses/ architecture/eye forward. The deeper effect is distancing the work from a specific physical location, and more importantly, from time. What we don't see when we're looking at Shard of Light, Drill Holes Through Studio Wall, and Thought Forms is that the house in Delta was abandoned and waiting for demolition; that the holes drilled in the sheetrock wall of the studio are ragged; or that the hole in the window covering is torn and that the basement is dingy. Standing in their presence as installations, location and detail would anchor the work, and ourselves, too firmly in the temporal world. Draining our experience of time, and the associated conditions of anticipation and patience, the photographs push us away to a distance that allows the work to operate in a manner distinct from the ordinary; the light, and our experience of it, become eternal.
A fragment and a photograph are the same: An architectural fragment is a piece isolated from the original totality of the architecture; a photograph is a piece isolated from the architecture of the world. If we look for the connection between fragment and photograph in Trace Heavens besides their fundamental similarity as fragments, we find it in the effect they have on their subjects; they create distance. Fragments of demolished homes retain a residue of their original function. The entry stairs etched on the round copper plate of Disc still lead, the empty foundations of the Illuminations could still carry a home, but separated from their specific material destination they are freed to be thresholds to the immaterial and the imaginary. After the general mysteriousness of references to ancient architecture, at the top of Disc's stairs I imagine one of those liquidy mirror-like portals favored by time travelers in science fiction.
Untethering these architectural elements as fragments is the equivalent of making the light eternal through photography. The Illuminations gain additional distance from the ordinary by the strangeness of their appearance. It's not only the difficulty of picking them out of their isolation in what looks like a landscape, but through their treatment as solarizations. By flashing the photograph with light while it's being developed the lights and darks of the image are reversed so that it ends up looking like something in between a positive and a negative, and giving it it's silvery effect. Released from the specifics of time and place Nizam moves light and architecture across the threshold from profane to the sacred world. Turning full circle, when the ancients built their astronomical architectures, they did so to fix the light and make it as predictable as they could; like a photograph.
The way Nizam has formed the light in immaterial pieces like Shard of Light and Thought Forms makes them truly liminal works on the threshold between photography and sculpture. Firmly on the other side, the side of sculpture, are the works that Nizam lets us experience directly, Interminable Structure and Door Slab. As fragments of architecture they share a subject with a number of the photographs, but in many ways they're the photographs' reverse: white to black; light to the absence of light; straight to crooked; image to solid.
The familiar diagram of the way perception works is of a pyramid leading away from its base at an object to an apex at an eye. The diagram for the mechanics of a pinhole camera and camera obscura are the same, with the eye replaced by a small hole or lens. The straight lines of the pyramid represent light, so it's not too much to say that perception is light. Photography being an art of light, it is also the art of straight lines. Interminable Structure is made of bent lines, photography's opposite, therefore sculpture. The rebar from which it's made comes from the demolished buildings of the Little Mountain housing project, the site of Nizam's previous series Memorandoms. In its present arrangement it resembles a ball or basket, but its individual pieces are infinitely variable. As architectural wreckage it is similar to Disc and Illuminations.
Door Slab is the clearest representation of a threshold or doorway. Calling it a "slab" is a bit ironic since that usually implies a thickness. It's a sculpture, but barely so; a thin film of Cinefoil (a matte black aluminum material used in photography and cinema) pressed into the mere imprint of a door. With just more dimension than an image, it looks like it's working itself away from being a photograph towards an object. Rather than reflecting light it leans against the wall, a wispy, dark shadow absorbing it.
The awareness of existing at a threshold, whether within ourselves, in the world, or between this one and the next, is uniquely human, as is the desire to cross. In the hubbub of the ordinary world, that awareness is often dampened. Through photographs, sculpture, architecture, and light, especially light, Trace Heavens shows us that doorways between here and there abound, located right in front of us or deep in the primitive portion of our brains. Through the poetry of its revolving metaphors it gives us a gentle, whispered reminder of the relationships between worlds. By creating distance from the ordinary, Trace Heavens brings the recognition of our liminal state back to the threshold of consciousness and thereby takes its place as part of the fundamental expression of what it means to be human.
Friday, January 01, 2010
|Stabile of Drawers|
On the occasion of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, James Nizam presents Memorandoms that continues his use of vacated domestic interiors as the backbone of his photography, the provisional location of his studio, and the source of materials. In this case the site is the former Little Mountain housing project, which occupied 33rd to 37th Avenues, between Ontario and Main Streets, the oldest public housing development in Vancouver until it was recently demolished. This wasn't ill conceived Modernist utopian social housing like the complex in the South Bronx in which the windows were broken out by angry residents, memorialized by Gordon Matta-Clark in Window Blow-Out, 1976. No, the problem at Little Mountain wasn't tenants angry at having to live there, they were angry at having to leave. Designed by Vancouver architects Sharp and Thompson, Berwick, Pratt between 1953 and 1954, these low rise buildings across the street from Queen Elizabeth Park would have been attractive housing at one time. Large windows threw light onto hardwood floors of square, well built rooms. But that was decades ago. At roughly the same time as the finishing touches were being put on the Olympic athletes village around False Creek, the last of the tenants holding onto their apartments at Little Mountain were moved out to make way for the development of a higher density combination of market condominiums and social housing. The wrecking balls, steam shovels, bulldozers, and dump trucks moved in, creating tumuli of stucco and lumber. Shortly thereafter, even these were gone, leaving a flat, level field. A nasty rumor has it that it's just in time to be made into a temporary parking lot to service the Olympic curling that will take place at a rink nearby.
One year ago, when only a handful of tenants remained in the sprawling complex, Nizam walked up the stairs into the shabby rooms of one of the dilapidated third floor apartments at 5195 James Walk. With the management's sanction, he set up a 4 x 5 camera in one corner and turned its living room into his studio for three months. Slowly roaming the sprawling complex, he sifted through what had been left behind and imagined the lives that had collected there. Scattered around the abandoned mattresses and graffiti were random assemblages of the forgotten and unwanted possessions of the former tenants that had personalized their identical apartments and transformed them into individual homes. Standing in the midst of these unintentional temporary monuments, Nizam decided to concentrate on assemblages of the standardized, impersonal units found before the shirts and underwear, the kitchen utensils, and the individual dreams and secrets of the inhabitants are brought in, and the ones left over after they have been taken out. He began to gather together the common objects that held them (drawers and shelves), lit them (bulbs and light fixtures), cooked them (stove elements), cleaned them (copper pipe), supported them (chairs), enclosed and protected them (doors).
Similar to each of Nizam's five previous series of photographs, Memorandoms has two dominant themes: the lost or abandoned domicile, and that the personal is political. Without exception, his work has as its starting point the loss or giving up of home, and if not the structure itself, then at least its idea. As an architectural metaphor for the body, the loss of home is the disenfranchisement of the spirit. The empty home is a dead body. Into this precondition of loss, Nizam's work introduces the idea that through the performance of certain transformative, memorializing gestures, whether of violence or of beauty, like the construction of sculpture or the taking of photographs, loss can be given some purpose and meaning. That the body can be reanimated by the spirit. Even if only temporarily. Because at best, a temporariness of place is all a home can offer either the inhabitant or the artist. It is all a monument or memorial can offer. Lasting years maybe, or only moments, they all follow in the same inevitable direction that ends in tumuli of memory and materials. That is the modern experience. It's tempting to see a reflection of Nizam's experience of leaving so many homes while growing up, and his acknowledgment of the contemporary Middle East experience of eviction from home in his use of abandoned domiciles. Nizam's father is Lebanese. On a recent trip to Beirut, Nizam met many of the close relatives he still has living in Lebanon, and visited the family home he'd never seen. Soon after Nizam's birth in Bedfordshire, England, the family got stationed in the Borneo jungle in Brunei for two years. They then lived in Muscat, Oman for ten years, moved back to Bedfordshire for two, and finally immigrated to Canada.
Even if it is not clearly discerned in the sculptures and photographs of Memorandoms, the context in which they are made and photographed is crucially important to him. This is something that is internal to him, whether or not it is internal to what we see in the work. We don't see the strife created by the eviction of the former tenants in the photographs, just like we don't see the cockroaches and bedbugs that infested their apartments. Might we somehow intuit something larger going on? Or that something larger than what is in the frame is going on? How would we recognize it? There are markers. The number and identical type of objects that Nizam has collected and assembled are subtle indicators that he is working in mass or social housing. A context where the apartments, like the materials themselves, are multiple and identical. The unswept floor is another marker that something outside the sculpture and the photograph is important. The objects Nizam has collected have been made aesthetic by being assembled into sculptures, and the sculptures have been further aestheticized by being crisply photographed with a large format camera. Yet the aesthetics of neither have been thought of exclusively enough to make Nizam want to simply sweep the floor and remove the dirt and debris from the picture. Like the veiled, distorted skull in a memento mori, the unswept floor functions as a reminder of unseen forces beyond the frame, and the aesthetic. These unseen forces are political. And because the political forces affect the personal conditions of how and why one loses one's home, this is the entrance of the political into the personal.
The contest for importance between what is inside and outside of the frame is an even match-up that gives Memorandoms an insistent tension. It's like a glancing jab on the chin. The same taut balance and tension exists between whether Nizam is a photographer who makes sculpture or a sculptor who takes photographs. If he is a photographer, why the increasing frequency and importance of sculpture in his work? In Memorandoms they have grown to such prominence that they are all we see. They start to crowd the edges of the frame and stand their ground so firmly that getting past them to the background is almost impossible. The sculptures were made one after another in the same corner of the room and photographed there, the camera never moving from its spot. Why the static camera position? When there is so much shown about the principles of sculpture, how much is shown about photography using the one camera position, the one lighting source, and cropping the image so closely that almost everything but the sculpture is squeezed out? In this severely restricted use of the medium there is the familiar ring of singularity similar to the principles of Ad Reinhardt and Dogma cinema. To determine the dimensions of the photographs, Nizam used a proportionately relative scale to the sculptures they pictured. The photograph Pillar of Shelves, for instance, is proportionately larger than the photograph Sheaf of Pipe in the same relation as the sculpture of the pillar of shelves was larger than the sculpture of the sheaf of pipe, and also, without losing too much consistency of presentation, approximating the actual sizes of the sculptures themselves. A sculptural physicality even runs to the titles of the photographs in their assemblages of nouns: "pillar", "stabile", "cascade", "entanglement", "pile", "tower", "helix", "sheaf", "crescendo", "lattice", "cluster"; "shelves", "drawers", "doors", "chairs", "pipe", "sconces", "doorknobs", "oven rings", "bulbs"; they're like lists of materials and ways of putting them together. What is he telling us about photography? Is he making the equivalence of sculpting light and sculpting materials? Looking at Memorandoms it's sometimes hard to see the photography, but it's impossible to miss the sculpture.
In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries the sculptors Auguste Rodin, Medardo Rosso, and Constantin Brancusi used photography as a new tool helping them see their own sculpture and for disseminating it to others, and maintained strict control over it. For the generation of sculptors that included Gordon Matta-Clark, Michael Heizer, Walter De Maria, and Robert Smithson, a good portion of their work in the late 1960s through the 1970s was predominantly known through photographs, because it was physically impossible to bring into the gallery or was done in inaccessible locations. Part of this was a conscientious attempt to avoid participating in the art market and the consumption of art as a commodity. Partly it was a sly acknowledgment that most art was known to most people not through direct experience, but disseminated through photographs in art magazines and slide lectures in art schools. Avoiding the market was a youthful, utopian idea that none of the artists really wanted to succeed at. Because unless they were living on trust funds, all the trips to the western United States, the earth moving machinery, the rents and the food bills had to be paid by someone. Eventually Smithson brought in his piles of gravel, and Matta-Clark his cut out sections of buildings.
If Nizam is a sculptor, why doesn't he show the sculptures? He has removed from them all those characteristics that make sculpture what it is: the somatic, physical presence of three dimensionality, the experience in time of moving around it, the multiple viewpoints, and the democracy of the viewer being able to choose how and from where to look at it. By denying access to the sculptures, they are as lost to us in time as are the people that once touched their parts as utilitarian objects. Just as the sculptures are memorials to the former tenants, the photographs are memorials to the sculptures. More cleverly, as examples of disembodiment and loss, it's possible to see an empty home as synonymous with a photograph of a sculpture. Having done so much to deny his sculpture its body, is that enough to ipso facto determine Nizam a photographer? That wouldn't be satisfying. Trying to see Nizam strictly as a photographer, and Memorandoms strictly as photographs, leaves a nagging feeling. The care and quality of the sculptures argues against it. And there they are again, sculpture vs. photography circling around and feeling each other, neither one being able to take a decisive decision. In a very real way he's denied both photography and sculpture.
If you asked James Nizam if he were a photographer or a sculptor, it wouldn't make sense to him to parse the distinction. One way or another it doesn't matter. Nizam warmly embraces the ambiguity, preferring its freedom, and feels no responsibility to resolve the question. His line of thinking reminds me of the mid-twentieth century heavyweight, American sculptor David Smith. Until his life ended in 1965, crushed by a load of steel he was driving back to his home in upstate New York, Smith maintained that as an artist, it was his job to make the art, not to think about it. But looking at art is different, and the question can't be so easily ducked. It may be a woefully old fashioned distinction, but it frustrates me not to know. Whichever way the answer falls, it changes the work and the approach to it.
I haven't thought about Smith in a while, but now that I do he also reminds me of the way Nizam animates his materials and how the sculptures of Memorandoms can be organized into two groups. First there are those with more rational, formal arrangements of elements, like Pillar of Shelves and Tower of Drawers, which in their stability project a rigor and seriousness; then those like the hardly stable Stabile of Drawers; the Cascade of Doors with its jaunty conga line reference to Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2; the Entanglement of Chairs like circus acrobats; the aqueous Crescendo of Sconces; the robotic, vaudevillian plate spinner Arrangement of Oven Rings; and the Cluster of Bulbs like a froth of good ideas, that are animated with a haphazard humor that belies their somber context.