In response to Katie Ohe
To move, to spin, to revolve, to turn. What does it mean to circle? The eponymous exhibition by Katie Ohe was one of literal movement. A throughline that relates much of Ohe’s works produced after 1970 is a kinetic element, where a work’s gentle rotation is triggered through human touch. There is a levity and sincerity to the invitation to physically engage the work that seems to invite a sense of good-natured irreverence towards the abstracted, often large-scale forms. This suggestion to take part in the works’ activation also shifts a sometimes-passive sense of reception to a more physical form of engagement. The purpose of this animation is not singular or ethically coded as an inherent good, as can sometimes be applied to art which is in some sense participatory. Rather, touch is necessary for the works to be perceived visually as the artist intends, via an optical experience to which movement is central. Of equal importance to the works’ active engagement is the extended pause for contemplation that the durational and cyclical nature of their movement also allows for. As each sculpture slows and its revolutions lengthen, there is an earnest space to rest into the experience of its turning. Settling back into a static state upon its last rotation, what has changed when all appears the same?
The assembly of works spanning six decades at the Esker Foundation marked the artist’s largest exhibition to date, as well as the need for greater recognition of Ohe’s practice both regionally and in a national context. The exhibition invited a return to the artist’s larger body of work for many who have previously encountered it, or who have engaged with Ohe directly during her long career as an artist and educator. The exhibition also served to initiate younger generations into a fuller experience of the artistic legacies of their forerunners in the city’s art community. The meeting of those who have had a longstanding engagement with Ohe’s practice with others encountering it for the first time is more than a description of two notable segments of the audience for the exhibition. Instead, it is a reflection on the formation of the widening circles of relationship that the exhibition made possible; an experience of looping back to revolve again that is both aesthetically and conceptually tied to the artist’s work.
Ohe has long made her home in the Calgary area, perennially returning to it after various educational opportunities and time spent travelling in Canada and abroad. Born in 1937 and raised on a small farm outside of Edmonton, as a young person Ohe studied with prominent artists in the region, including Marion Nicoll and Illingworth Kerr at what is now known as the Alberta University of the Arts.1 Part-way through her degree she spent time at the Montreal School of Art and Design on scholarship, and after graduating she made work at the predecessor to the Sculpture Center in New York, then called the Clay Club.2 Beginning in the 1960s, Ohe was consistently producing large-scale work and received several public sculpture commissions in Calgary.3 In 1969, while in London, she was introduced to kinetic sculpture, which would prove pivotal to the development of her practice and influenced the subsequent works she would begin to produce in steel and highly polished chrome.4 In the ensuing decade Ohe expanded her use of materials and began to cast in bronze, producing work in the medium in Verona in the summers between 1972 and 1982.5 While the artist would cycle in and out of an application of the kinetic, its use, as well as her work in steel, would become recurrent grooves.
To move, to spin, to revolve, to turn. What does it mean to circle? I experienced the exhibition twice in the early part of 2020 prior to the onset of the pandemic and then again in the summer when galleries and museums had reopened after the closures of the spring. Though visitors were no longer invited to touch the works, much was done to ensure that the sculptures with kinetic elements could still be viewed in motion. During gallery hours, staff would roam the space to activate the works, and video monitors depicting their movement were also installed. Despite these changes to how the exhibition was initially envisioned, it was during these summer visits that the works came to mean the most to me; the duality of their wry playfulness and earnest contemplative qualities in constant revolution, refusing a static read.
The exhibition was not arranged chronologically, eschewing the convention of a linear march through time as the most compelling organization of a life’s worth of thought and work. In keeping with this more open sensibility towards the works’ experience, on one of these summer visits I chose to begin in a space that contained two works dating from the mid-2000s. Monsoon (2006) is composed of a grouping of small, white, cloud-like forms rendered in powder-coated steel. Arranged on the floor, each discrete work is designed to rotate and can move in either direction. Smooth and rounded, the tops of the sculptures contain either a circular depression or raised node that is slightly off-set from the centre. When spun, the variations within each form create a sense of off-kilter movement that felt both teasingly precarious and optically rewarding, a sensibility further magnified when the grouping of sculptures were made to move at once.
Opposite this work was Weeping Bees (2008), a similarly low-slung composition of small-scale sculptures. Each abstracted form is painted grey with glossed black tips and comprised of four prongs that sprout from a single, narrow base. Rounded and organic, the prongs fan out in softly curving lines, recalling moving limbs. Like a twisting hand outstretched or the reaching arms of coral, the sculptures’ permanent gesture took on a different sense of dynamism when they were made to spin. As with Monsoon, the slight variations in their forms invited reflection on the relationship between each work and the experience of their collective movement. It was as the rotating works approached stillness that I most wished to pause; the connection between the individual and the group becoming more keenly perceptible as the sculptures completed their cycles at their own rates. When I first experienced the work in the spring, it was the playfulness of its simultaneous activation with others that most resonated. Later, during a summer where many people were limiting contact and found themselves in relative isolation, the individuated movements of each discrete sculpture recalled the paradoxes of a collective (but for some, highly isolating) experience of being both together and apart. While still playful, I found myself considering questions of collectivity amongst the sculptures themselves, rather than in relation to those with whom I had activated the sculptures in previous months.
The midway point of the exhibition was a grouping of what may be considered Ohe’s most recognizable works, outside of the artist’s public art commissions. Inspired by architectural columns and each dating from between 1973 and 1980, the works Zipper (1975), Oval (1973), and Mantova Arch (1979-80) each take the form of a curved, oblong archway in a vertical orientation. Beyond their ovaline shapes, the specific sculptural formation of each work differs, with a torqued and sharply zigzagged line used in Oval; a rounded, toothed pattern in Zipper; a gently twisting and internally faceted form in Zipper II; and a softer, rounded line that loosely spirals in Mantova Arch. The works also share a kinetic logic where each half of the arch spins in either direction when touched, which creates an optical effect where the broader line composed by the arch seems to undulate. The majority of these works were also designed to spin at the base, and in this sense, were untethered from a singular placement on their foundations. The surprise of this additional and unexpected point of rotation was its own experience of pleasure; a sympathetic response to their freedom to move.
Coming around to the beginning of the exhibition, Chuckles (2015) was born out of a collection of springs. Serving as the impetus for the development of the sculptures, each spring, capped with a rounded piece of metal, curls towards the floor in a spiral coil that fans out at the base. The works are coated in an iridescent automotive paint that shifts in colour from a copper to a purpleish-green, depending on the point from which they are viewed. These works are activated by pressing on their tops to compress the interior spring. This leads them to bounce up and down, often with a slight sway. There is a certain looseness and irregularity to these movements that contrasts with the seamless rotation of many of the other kinetic works, which have been carefully crafted to produce a fluidity of movement. Activating Chuckles independently during the summer visits, I felt a kind of odd affiliation with the objects that formed the larger grouping that differed from my experience of them before. The anthropomorphism of the work’s title coupled with the particularities of the individual sculptures’ movements again invited reflection on the experience of being within and apart from a group. Sitting amongst these lively forms as they wobbled, nodded, and bobbed, there was a joy that felt renewable.
The work that I perhaps spent the most time with during the summer was one of the earlier pieces by the artist in the exhibition, Horizontal Loops (1973). The work is composed of two unwieldy organic lines that each make a circular form embellished with curves and twists. Positioned closely above one another, the two forms are mounted to a low, square base. The mechanics of the work’s orientation around a central axis creates a cyclically-changing visual effect, whether the two circular sections are spun in the same or opposite directions. As described by writer and curator Nancy Townshend, the work makes reference to “the changing contours of the Calgary Foothills and changing spatial relationships that a viewer perceptually experiences while walking through these foothills.”6 While this reference is not implied in the title nor perceptible in the movement of the two differently-shaped forms themselves, this intention on the part of the artist opens reflection on the causes of change in an individual’s experience as rarely singular, but rather multiple; conjoined, and dually shifting.
To move, to spin, to revolve, to turn. What does it mean to circle? The anniversary of the onset of the pandemic and now, of its second summer, have each felt like their own kind of loop to be closed. I would posit that Ohe’s work also holds lessons for considering these milestones. For while many of the works invite an experience of physical interconnection, of activating movement in an object, there is also a boundedness to their physical forms. Rooted in place, their advance is cyclical; they return to the same location after each turn. Like the last steps back towards the start of the path after a walk around a lake, or the pause at the returning of a season, in circling there is the space for thought, for change. In moments of return, what is different when all appears the same?
The complexity of the period in which Ohe’s exhibition took place, and which globally, we continue to find ourselves in, can also be considered in relation to Horizontal Loops. In a year that has been marked by a kind of grief that many hoped never to experience alongside the quotidian changes the pandemic has brought, there has of course also been a secondary loop on rotation. Like dual wheels in motion, much has unfolded beyond the pandemic, with the time, for some, to be most remembered for personal or familial losses that were unrelated to the virus, or by new beginnings and births. After this, how to return to the beginning? With a respect for our internal revolutions, our relationships with one another, and with an honouring of the turn.
1 Nancy Townshend, “The Multilayering of Katie Ohe and Her Work: 1937-1981.” Katie Ohe (Calgary: Illingworth Kerr Gallery, 1991), 15.
2 Ibid, 17, 18.
3 Ibid, 22.
4 Ibid, 23.
5 Ibid, 25.
6 Ibid, 25.