Object, Gesture, Iconography, and Belief
In response to Neil Campbell and Jeremy Shaw
The time is out of joint; O cursed spite!/ That ever I was born to set it right!
– Shakespeare, Hamlet, I.V.211-2
Enfin, mon âme fait explosion, et sagement elle me crie : N’importe où ! n’importe où ! pourvu que ce soit hors de ce monde!
– Charles Baudelaire, “N’importe où hors de monde”
For years I lived my life by assignment, taking what was offered to me, critical of the market and its relationship to the topic at hand, yet accepting of the market’s effect on my diet, my dress and my living arrangements. In those days the phone would ring and, like Camus’s Meursault or Condon’s Raymond, I would answer it, mechanically. If it was not a solicitor trying to sell me on a charity, or a friend or a family member wanting to know how I was “doing”, it was (if I was lucky) a curator or an editor inviting me to read or write something – an invitation that usually concluded with a sum. In those days, even the slightest sum was enough to cover a month’s rent. The sums haven’t changed much, but the rents have.
The days to which I refer are now buried in the ‘90s, the decade when (or is it where?) I lost the ability to liken a decade to a shape or a flavour. Or maybe “lost” is not the right word – maybe it is closer to indifference, not caring, remaining open to that which challenges the tendency to assign similes to complex concepts like the market, or the market’s love of certainty, I don’t know. But something I do know, something I think about all the time, is what has changed since then. More recent questions include: How can I better understand these changes without relying on static figure-ground conceptions of difference? Or to put it another way, How can I construct more dynamic time-based models of understanding, as opposed to essentialisms re-enforced by relativisms derived from that which we are told are immutable, immemorial or, to use a market term, non-negotiable?
Everything I have written thus far began as thoughts jotted down as I travelled by foot from the Alt Hotel in Calgary’s East Village (Treaty 7 territory; Métis Nation of Alberta, Region III) along the Bow River past Fort Calgary to the bridge that acts as a gateway to the historic town of Inglewood. But there is more, and it concerns what I already knew of Inglewood before it was called Inglewood1 and after its land was parceled into real estate by Ottawa bureaucrats – a site whose first lots were gobbled up by speculators, only to be passed over by the Canadian Pacific Railway for a stop west of the Elbow River, in what we know today as Calgary.
Taking out my pen I note my presence at the centre of a bridge that straddles the Elbow, how appropriate it is that from where I stand, at the confluence of the Elbow and the Bow, it is not only the rivers that merge but the spellings of their names. Also, how close these names are to their referents: the former after the joint that hinges the upper and lower parts of the human arm; the latter that which requires the use of that same hinge when pulling back the string of a weapon whose materials were once found along the banks of the river that allowed the Bow its name. Is there something to these relationships? Is there something here that might allow me to hinge together the work of the artists whose exhibitions I am returning to on the morning after their openings? Is such a hinge even necessary, or is it inevitable, given our tendency to apply narratives to make sense of our world and its never-ending supply of events?
According to Artnet, Neil Campbell was born in Saskatchewan in 1958.2 Though I do not dispute this, I am curious about the lack of specificity (where in Saskatchewan?). As for the year, it seems out of joint that Campbell attended Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Art as a seventeen-year-old, or that he was enrolled in Concordia University’s MFA Studio program at twenty-one. But rather than pursue this (as Benjamin H.D. Buchloh did in debunking Joseph Beuys’s infamous World War II rescue story3), I would prefer to work with its text and accept Campbell as a temporally ambiguous figure whose formal sculpture (in contrast to Beuy’s “social sculpture”) is concerned less with an attempt to “change the social order” (as Beuys aspired to do) than to alter the perception of his viewer. That Campbell often presents his work in relation to the specificities of the site of its display (applying his materials directly to the gallery or museum surface, to be painted over at the conclusion of the exhibition), allows his largely painting-based project to be spoken of in terms that include the conceptual, the performative and institutional critique. On a more personal note, Campbell’s willingness to work with the surfaces at hand is reminiscent of what I said at the outset – about taking what is offered to me. Indeed, if I am to learn anything about myself, it is important that I pay attention to those who behave similarly. And what better way to do that than through an interest in the uncertainties and ambiguities that attend the production, display and reception of Art?
Working towards a similar end (albeit in a different way) is Jeremy Shaw, whose Quantification Trilogy (2014-18) uses documentarian and ethnographic filmmaking strategies to profile human transcendence and the technological and genetic interventions that assist in both its fictive and material realization. In much of Shaw’s work, transcendence is represented as an ecstatic affair and is achieved less through individual human activity (the individual in relation to the object, a la Michael Fried’s theory of absorption4) than through that which is carried out as a group. Like Campbell, who uses existing architectures as both support and surface, Shaw too makes work that relies on existing materials. In Towards Universal Pattern Recognition (2016-), Shaw gathered archival photographs and attached to their frames multi-sided acrylic panes that act as both an image protector and a “lens” that allows for multiple images (or if the viewer is moving, kaleidoscopic “motion” pictures). In the first work of his trilogy, Quickeners (2016), Shaw re-recorded the audio track of a late-1960s black-and-white documentary on rural Christian snake-handlers to tell the story of a futuristic sect of humans whose bodies have been genetically altered and who speak a language that seems familiar (to English speakers), while at the same time is almost unintelligible. The second work in the trilogy, Liminals (2017), updates the conceit by way of a mid-1970s-styled communal dance troupe, but this time the picture track was shot by Shaw. Same too of the third work, the early-1980s-dressed I Can See Forever (2018), only here the future is closer to Shaw’s lifetime (hence his decision to provide the video’s voice-over), with the focus not on a group but on a single (Christ-like?) dancer who was the first child born to parents whose DNA was altered.
It is a lot to spend time with art. Trite to say, but sometimes one needs to get something down in order to get it started. I am on a break now, waiting for my “El Jefe” burger at the Nash, a popular Inglewood restaurant whose name derives from its location inside the National Hotel, a three-storey brick building designed for railway workers in 1907, then later a beer hall that became too seedy for itself and closed in 1998. Before arriving I spent a half hour walking up and down Inglewood’s revitalizing 9th Avenue, noting the early 20th century brick and sandstone buildings that line it – an Edwardian architecture that, at least in the Vancouver I was born and raised in, is indicative of historic commercial and industrial neighbourhoods (Gastown, Yaletown and Railtown) that for years “escaped” private development in part because of their inability to produce an economic return. Like Inglewood, these are sites that do not so much “return” us to a past but attach themselves to us as we drag them into the future, as Shaw does with the 1960s, 70s and 80s esqueness of his futuristic Quantification Trilogy, where the fictive present of his videos (like more recent theories of our temporal present) contains “scattered” elements of the (just-)past and the (near-)future.5
But yes, a break makes sense after viewing what amounts to a feature film’s worth of videos, with the Quickeners at 36 minutes, the Liminals at 32 minutes and I Can See Forever at 36 minutes (Could these not be the numerical dimensions of a human body?), and a similar amount of time spent with Campbell’s paintings and hot rolled steel wall works, which bring with them their own sensorial demands. I close my eyes and can still see the red heat cloud nestled in the corner between the huge black painted orbs of Campbell’s Bloodline (2011/19); same too of the optical erasure of another corner in the more angular pink, black and green Axel (2017/19). However, the work of Campbell’s that achieves the highest degree of retinal burn is Field (2019): a wall-mounted grid of 38 same-sized acrylic black crosses stacked in five alternating rows of 8,7,8,7,8, with same-sized “blank” spaces between each of the interior facing cardinal points. A serial abstraction, Field is propositionally reminiscent of Dan Graham’s Homes for America (1966/67) and its insistence that minimal sculpture, in the form of suburban tract housing, is not independent of everyday life. For in Field we see a similar social-formal nexus: a cemetery whose arrangement of crosses produces a haunting of blue balls pulsating in those aforementioned spaces.
“Your burger,” says the server, placing my lunch before me. “Anything else?”
“Yes,” I reply (almost mechanically). “Does Inglewood have a graveyard?”
The server makes a thinking face, so I already know the answer. Or do I?
“Isn’t every city a graveyard – of some kind?”
It is fitting that Campbell chose the Esker to introduce hot rolled steel into the making of his recent works. After all, the most common forms of hot rolled steel are I-beams and railroad tracks, and the Esker required more than a few I-beams in its spectacular deconstructivist/interventionist gallery atop a building in a neighbourhood whose earlier future was determined by the comings and goings of the railway. Here, too, is another parallel with Vancouver, a city that, like Calgary, came about only because the land on which the CPR was believed to be stopping at (Port Moody, B.C) had already been bought up by speculators, and that in order to make the kind of profit the CPR desired, it would require full title on the land surrounding its station and hotel (what was known then as Granville, only to be renamed Vancouver by the CPR’s William Van Horne). Although it is a stretch to suggest that this form of speculative investment is similar to the intervention into the DNA of Shaw’s human subjects, the effect might be closer to where our world is headed – where human relations are determined by finance, where transcendence is less a metaphysical act than the result of an increase in one’s capital and, by extension, an elevation of one’s class position. So powerful is the desire for social mobility (a material form of transcendence?) that many of the first speculators who built houses in Inglewood dragged them west over the Elbow after the CPR announced it would be building its station and hotel in what we know today as Calgary.
On my walk back to the gallery I find myself looking up, curious to see a cross, a star, a symbol that might shed light on the interior life of Inglewood. I pass another older building and wonder what it was built for. Was it a foundry, where mill stands popped out I-beams and train rails? These products are still used today, and will be for the foreseeable future, but like many products that were once produced locally, they are now produced elsewhere, where labour is cheaper, where industry is less regulated, where governments are less democratic – closer to a feudal mode of production than the capitalist mode that supplanted it in the 19th century. Back in the ‘90s, many of these production sites were located in what was once referred to as the Third World. But this “elsewhere” argument is becoming harder to make, particularly when images of these sites – people dressed in sportswear getting out of minivans talking on their cell phones – do not look much different than those in the figure-grounded “First World”. Until recently, it was difficult to divest people of their belief in the veracity of images. Now images can be easily manipulated, made to lie (everyone knows this, yet no one seems to care). As for Time, it is any time – all the time. And if we have any time left for inanimate objects, it is increasingly for those that do what machines are said to do, and that is to transform us, assist in our transcendence, get us, as Charles Baudelaire once wrote, “n’importe où hors de monde.”
- Draft of the Historic East Calgary: Area Redevelopment Plan. The City of Calgary. May 1, 2018: 10. Online. https://s3.apsoutheast2.amazonaws.com/hdp.au.prod.app.cgy-engage.files/4015/2512/6233/18.05.01._-_Draft_of_The_Historic_East_Calgary_ARP.PDF. Accessed February 28, 2019.
- “Neil Campbell.” Artnet. http://www.artnet.com/artists/neil-campbell/biography. Accessed February 28, 2019.
- Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol.” Artforum, 5.18, January 1980: 35–43.
- Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980: 103.
- Jonathan O’Callahan, “Is your future already decided? New theory of time suggests that the past, present AND future co-exist in the universe.” DailyMail.com. January 30, 2015. Online. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2932870/Is-future-decided-New-theory-time-suggests-past-present-future-exist-universe.html. Accessed February 28, 2019