On a visit to Esker Foundation
In response to Rebecca Loewen, Charlotte Moth, and Celia Perrin Sidarous
I’ve often traveled from far away to be somewhere unfamiliar, to look somewhere else, and to ask questions that travelers ask. In the middle of October I traveled 3,000 kilometers north, from West Texas to southwestern Alberta, to do these things and to see the work of two close friends, Charlotte Moth and Rebecca Loewen, and another artist, Celia Perrin Sidarous, at the Esker Foundation.
During the chilly walk from my hotel to the gallery, the air proved my breath and echoed the cold garden behind this city’s name. I kept warm with thoughts of home, and with distance and future in mind I entered the Foundation through a revolving door, which because of my mood, I found oddly poignant. I thought of how the structure of such a door implies the intractable passage of time and the singularity of life: a body enters, belongs briefly to a private revolution, and is expelled, making way for the next person’s turn. I was in the contemplative mindset of the recently-arrived, my eyes new for these unfamiliar surroundings but unable to see much beyond surfaces.
1. Charlotte Moth’s living images
I could ground myself in a familiar visual language with the first installation I encountered in the gallery’s high-ceilinged foyer, Charlotte’s Noting Thoughts. I’d seen elements of it at the 2013 Fellbach Triennial of Small-Scale Sculpture, and I knew of the work’s relationship to Charlotte’s ongoing Travelogue project, which was one of the many things we talked about during a long walk through a Swabian snowscape several years ago, when she and I were both recently-arrived residents at a baroque castle outside of Stuttgart. It was then that we learned about our mutual interests and concerns, as we spoke of art, travel, poetry, and our lives. Standing surrounded by the art of my friend, it was fantastic to realize how for me that walk’s trajectory continued all the way to Canada. There were several works that I’d learned about when they were merely plans, and even a couple in which I’d played a part. Noting Thoughts, here expanded from the excerpts I’d seen to elegantly occupy seven tables, was a particularly illustrative preamble to the rest of the exhibition, since it is photographic and sculptural, relates travel to seeing, and incorporates fragments of text by anthropologist Alice D. Peinado. Its form highlights the conversational, interdisciplinary, peripatetic, and historical elements of Charlotte’s oeuvre and presents the artist as a:
Reader of literatures and signs
Maker of subtle connections
Collector of colours and horizons
The formal choices of this installation gave rise to a string of questions that still continues to lengthen and complicate my seeing.
Is it possible or useful to separate
A work of art, or anything for that matter,
From the landscape in which it is situated?
When we look at La Gioconda can we see
Beyond Paris? Or does the painting exist like
An image behind an Advent calendar door?
Does the shadow of the Eiffel Tower fall back
Onto Florence in 1504, and do we
Live there, then, again, when standing by this painting?
Something that’s quickly recognized about Charlotte’s photographs and films is the absence of people. The focus is most often on objects, landscapes, interior spaces, or architecture, subjects that gather mystery in isolation. The images in Noting Thoughts are like this and echo one of the attending fragments from Peinado’s text: “a metaphor for all places, any place.” I am reminded of Chalk Cliffs on Rügen by Caspar David Friedrich; not the painting from 1818, but a smaller watercolour he painted six years later of the exact same scene. The setting and the composition of the two paintings are nearly identical, but the watercolour is free of the three figures that appeared in the original. The narrative has been removed from the image, and the landscape is allowed to express its lyrical power, which is in fact amplified by the knowledge of the early painting’s people; the viewer has room to step into the scene.
Attempting to see with this sensibility I continued to the next room, where I saw, for the first time, two works that I’d heard much about, Inserts and Filmic Sketches – works that converse with the great English sculptor Barbara Hepworth. Inserts is comprised of four large wall-mounted vitrines with evocative backdrops, each a different material and colour, upon which photographic work is displayed. Because of the austere beauty of the displays and their formalism, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Donald Judd, who once lived three blocks from where I now live in Marfa, but thoughts of him dissolved as I examined the photographs. They seemed a perfect window into Charlotte’s mind and the imaginative archive she draws from, as well as her research methodology, and despite the wide array of images (clouds, mirrors, hands, architecture, plants, and plinths), the display presented a lucid vision.
The strangeness of the objects, places,
And ideas surrounding us
Is that of selfhood questioning space
Upon the wall to right was a projection of Filmic Sketches, a corresponding work that not only speaks to Hepworth, but reaches out in many other directions. I sat down and took notes while watching the film. Later, I wrote a poem that used images from the film as starting points.
What will remain in one hundred years of green leaves
against a blue like the sky but not of the sky? Or a purple
blush edged sharply? Or of stones, sea, songbirds, buildings?
Which hands and which forms reflected, like the geometrical
chair and table, will continue to instruct upon how to hold
or how to draw? A young person, learning colour and form
for the first time, selects green and purple, blue like sky
but not of the sky, and sets down the sea, some stones,
then bursts into song. The interior overcome by a flower’s
blush while the fiction of a frame conceals a shadow’s depth
behind podiums before removal. To speak of ceilings as stages,
there again is green, several greens, and always the question
of form. Outside is the river. In here, a window doubled
by a mirror. What will remain in one hundred years of these
backdrops and their shades? Of such recent things as us?
On a wall in the hallway outside this room (and on the parallel wall of a nearby hallway) was another new work, the living images of the encompassing exhibition’s title: bronze hands, each holding a real object. Here my expectations were inverted, as the artist is cast while the regarded objects are left to express their formal mysteries as themselves. I was reminded of the famous line from Marianne Moore’s poem “Poetry” – “for inspection ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them,'” – which has always confounded and inspired me. I thought that Charlotte had captured an elusive problem similar to Moore’s. Also, it is supposed that Moore was quoting herself in her poem, and what is an artist’s bronzed hand if not a gesture at self-quotation? I thought momentarily of Méret Oppenheim and Marcel Duchamp. For more clues I looked to the wall across from the first set of hands, whereupon were displayed nine black-and-white photographs, To see the things amongst which we live. In that moment they perfectly echoed living images, and the ordinary objects in ordinary rooms portrayed in the photographs seemed uncanny, lit by what I imagined to be the fading light in the first moments of an eclipse. I headed to the next large room to stand before the flashing colored lights of a sculpture that had inhabited my imagination since I first saw documentation of it. To see Sculpture made to be filmed was reason enough to make the journey. Charlotte made it while living in Marfa, before we knew each other, and I’d seen photographs of it standing like a weird beacon in the desert near my home. I’d felt a kinship with it.
Each medium a resting place for
The preceding mediums
Until finally silence and sky
In the same large room were other works I’d admired in documentation but had never seen. Willa Niespodzianka and … this was the plane – the variously large and accentuated, but always exactly determined plane – from which everything would be made … are two large photographs bathed in blue light which each draw the eye to imposing central subjects: a photograph placed in the forest and a solitary plinth on a hillside. Also in this room, speaking to the uneasy relationships between art, objects, ideas, and duplication, a projector with 80 slides of color field arrangements, reflected as they cycle in a blue mirror. I again thought of Friedrich, of the mix of melancholy and grandeur in Das Eismeer, Der Mönch am Meer, and Abtei im Eichwald. From this space bathed in blue, I turned to see Charlotte’s newest sculpture, Backdrops. It is a simple table or stool with wheels and a mirrored top, stationed against a wall by a blue print which evokes the sky and is reflected in the mirror. Having just seen the empty plinth in this was the plane … , it seemed the sky had become a sculpture. I was reminded of a visit to the Atelier Brancusi at the Centre Georges Pompidou. At least one of his sculptures sits on a mirrored stand. I wondered about the placement of Hepworth’s work, then read about the moveable plinths she used in her studio. What is the equivalent for a poem, I wondered. Is a book a sort of plinth? Is the poem a kind of sky that can only be recognized as a poem in its reflection?
In the next rooms I saw Charlotte’s Story of a different thought, a work I already knew well, having played a small part in its making by contributing three poems that appear in the film. As I watched, my memories accompanied the camera through rooms in the Rathaus and Skulpturmuseum of Marl, the town that was the focus of the project’s research. My poems are scattered throughout it but read with British inflections, and hearing them I momentarily believed that the poems must have actually been someone else’s, someone born across the sea who lived a life parallel to mine, who lived inside the world of the film. Simultaneously, I felt a sensation opposite of what Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote about in the first chapter of A Time of Gifts, when he is overcome by memories of Netherlandish Renaissance paintings of the landscape where he walks. “Each scene conjured up its echo,” he writes. I was, however, there inside a perfect echo, and when I left the gallery and Charlotte’s exhibition, I felt a little as though I had traded places with another version of myself.
2. Celia Perrin Sidarous’s Interiors, Other Chambers
Stepping into Celia Perrin Sidarous’s exhibition was like traveling across an open border, where a new language is the only checkpoint. In both exhibitions, one medium often revealed itself as the staging ground for another. In the first black-and-white photograph that I looked at upon entering, Oslo Structure VI, a mysterious suburban scene exuded autumn. The image was held by an elegant wooden frame and lived beneath glass, and I was reminded of something someone said about poetry in the States, that it can all be traced to Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, that Whitman is the poet of looking out through a window while Dickinson is the poet of looking into a windows or perhaps a mirror-as-window. On the wall to my right was an enormous black-and-white photograph, Oslo Structure III – Portal, pasted to the wall like a mural. Because of its scale, it seemed a scene I could enter if I simply went outside, but because it was monochrome, it felt separated in time. The image showed a staircase descending into the ground, as if the artist were indeed a poet, Virgil, inviting me on a tour of the underworld. The structure surrounding the staircase was overtaken by plants, evoking both the past and a post-apocalyptic future, and again remind me of Virgil, his Georgics:
Now the tree-mother’s towering leaves and boughs
Darken, despoil of increase as it grows
Turning to the parallel wall, I looked closely at three photographs. Grey I and Oslo Structure VII – Building with rhododendrons, were framed and roughly the same window-scale as the introductory photo, and showed, respectively, a stand-alone drape (“L’angle fugitif d’un rideau,” wrote Breton) and a building overgrown by vines. The third photograph, Black coral, its subject displayed atop a mirror, was much smaller, unframed, and hung so as to levitate away from the wall. There: a Dickensonian vision and a stone from her poem XXXIII.
Whose coat of elemental brown
A passing universe put on;
And independent as the sun,
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute decree
In casual simplicity.
Around the corner, four more medium-sized framed photographs in a little cove formed by two walls at right angles. These were in color and showed arrangements or assemblages of prints and objects, still lifes of a sort, detailed in their titles: Folding fan, hands, Venus, geode and hairstyle, Pompeii, interior, flamingos and triton shell, Sponges, seashells, blood orange (for F. Ponge), Macellum and apertural view of a triton shell. Here again Virgil and his Rome, but more powerfully, the feeling of Sapphic fragments (“do not move stones” or “life is lovely”). On the facing wall, two more small photographs of a drape in different states of revelation, a small black-black-and-white plant box, austere against a wall, and a larger image framed and behind glass, of two arms reaching out toward a piece of marble. This work and its title, Chorégraphie de la main et de l’objet, echoed the hands of Charlotte’s show and seemed to be a compressed ars poetica. I started to look at things with invisible hands in mind. Also in this room, a head-high white staircase to nowhere stood like a visitor from a world of forms, perhaps having stepped out from a dream of the photographs.
Entering the next room I saw three tall and empty pedestals and a low stage or box, all completely white, cousins of the staircase, all titled, simply, Structures. Also in this room, more photographs: landscapes and still lifes sharing the walls at varying heights, a photograph of a photograph, Coral and sea glass, leaning against a wall. More evocations of the sea. Another mirror and another, a photograph of a dreamy diorama of columns shrouded in blue gauze, a window and an interior, perhaps a studio. I turned the idea of the poets and their windows in my head, and it led to questions about rectangles on walls. Can we look at art without the echoes of mirrors and windows? How much do we think of representation and reflection when we see real things? When we look at a vertical canvas, is our mode of seeing automatically the same as when we look into a mirror, and are we expecting to find some part of ourself in what we see? When we look at a horizontal frame do we strike the pose of someone looking out, at an approaching carriage or storm? When was the first horizontally-oriented self-portrait painted?
Sidarous’s intensely sharp focus and ability to capture the haloes and auras of objects through meticulous arrangements. I thought of how references accrue and are restaged in both artists’ exhibitions, and I remembered Emerson: “The eye is the best of artists. [. . .] And as the eye is the best composer, so light is the first of painters.” I endeavored to compose two texts devoted to looking closely at what Sidarous had already seen so clearly.
VIEWS OF UNKNOWN OSLO
The sea nearby is in the air and the smell of fire too. Nothing so still as an abandoned trampoline, nothing more supernatural than flourishing topiary sculpted against a backdrop of deciduous trees in late autumn
Rocks angled in epitome of epeirogenic movements, land emerging. Sky and ocean like rival scholars decifering the same ancient text. The moon and sun align and a spring tide rises.
Misremembered room illuminated by light from an articulated window in a wall that curves in the manner only of institutions or history. Curtain behind which darkness holds the memory of a suitcase
For every wall, an idea of climbing over. For every architecture, some conspiracy of nature to destroy it.
In the correspondence between natural beauty and time’s terror, such declamations as a shelter for holding gentler plants.
A staircase and its passage, to go down into where from one comes up, to enter the tomb of human curiosity.
What was a roughly rolling series of arrivals diffused into oblivion becomes a sense of time to step behind.
The word is veil until it is removed.
The other word is door and it is made into a table.
A surface transforms into a sense of things when one object adheres, its name the only fitting description, to another object named only for its display.
That is, reflections are seen to lean against and climb aboard the lives of things.
Black coral, a shell, the blue elements of night.
To stare into the water and see a face reflected.
To reach for the past as it explains the time of flowers and the time of stones, and the end of all the roads they reach.
Sponges, seashells, blood orange.
What the eye describes, the word undoes.
There is fire in the sea.
- Rebecca Loewen’s Just for Staying Together
On my way out, in the Project Space beside the entrance to the building, was Rebecca’s installation, Just for Staying Together . . .
Cascade and thin stream of water, golden bowl and channel, a shroud of fog that comes and goes, crossover unhidden with its orchestra, the atmosphere without a sequence, until someone arrives on the other side of a window, breathes onto the glass and writes, there with a fingertip, Dear friends,