Matthew Buckingham, Image of Absalon to be Projected Until it Vanishes, 2001, Continuous color 35mm slide projection, framed text, dimensions variable.
The following curatorial text accompanies Beyond the barrier of sound and soon, of light on view September 16, 2016 to October 22, 2016. Guest Curated by Natasha Chaykowski.
Beyond the barrier of sound and soon, of light is the culmination—or maybe it’s just a pit stop—of a winding, nearly yearlong course of research. Like many curatorial projects, its wellsprings are multiple rather than singular; I became transfixed with ideas of invisibility last year. Invisibility wouldn’t be my top choice for a superpower, but the unstable ground wherein the politics of invisibility and its elusive potential as an instrument of agency grow perennially in equal measure seems endlessly fruitful to me.
A second wellspring was an equally intense albeit a bit more directionless obsession with Bas Jan Ader and his final pe,rformance, In search of the miraculous—an attempt to sail from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Falmouth, Cornwall, that ultimately resulted in the artist’s disappearance. It’s difficult for me to pinpoint when exactly, or even why, this obsession was born, but ensnared in its grasp, I read just about everything I could access—books based on archival records, research-based art projects, a sort of vapid book by Jan Veroert—regarding Ader’s disappearance. What is it about this disappearance that is so captivating? What is it that makes disappearance sublimely intoxicating in some contexts and simultaneously threatening or tragic in others?
I desperately wanted to include Ader’s last work in Beyond the barrier of sound and soon, of light, however I struggled with a seemingly insurmountable curatorial obstacle: how to make material something as radically immaterial as a disappeared person in the context of a gallery exhibition? Even if it were possible, I’m not entirely sure it should be attempted (although I am entirely sure it has been). While Ader isn’t formally included here, his specter permeates the show: each of the works by Matthew Buckingham, Tatiana Grigorenko, Mami Takahashi, Lotte Van den Audenaeren and Charlene Vickers reckon with representing the absence of a body or bodies. They each contend with the complex possibilities of materializing disappearance.
In her aptly-titled series The Disappeared, Tatiana Grigorenko has excised herself from early family photographs, filling the variously shaped voids left by her disappeared body inexactly with background imagery from the photograph or other painterly and material interventions. While one might not perceive at first why these family album images seem awry, upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that the artist has tampered with the surface of the photographs, leaving distinct evidence of her interventions. Yet, the insidious historical phenomenon that she cites here—the meticulous removal of disappeared politicians, officials and others from Soviet photographs and records—operated a bit differently; there was almost no evidence left of the Soviet tampering. Grigorenko’s series pays homage to these now-erased figures of an exacting Soviet regime; her project poignantly situates historical disappearance—and the pulsating aurora of power that accompanies it—in the honeyed wooden frames of otherwise unremarkable family photographs.
Matthew Buckingham’s Image of Absalon to Be Projected Until it Vanishes, sifts through related historical material in the context of disappearance. An image of a statue of Absalon, who is a fabled, slightly mystical, twelfth-century Danish warrior/Bishop/founder of Copenhagen, is projected continuously onto the gallery wall. Throughout the exhibition, the emulsion of the slide is burnt by the projector’s bulb and Absalon slowly, and very literally, disappears in this durational installation of sorts. The bronze statue is seen from behind; Absalon appears to be riding his horse into a distant and indistinct field of space. Or perhaps he’s being propelled through time and space towards us, like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, forever moving forward while facing the reeling piles of wreckage left in history’s wake. Yet, unlike Benjamin’s benevolent creature, Absalon would be a participant in the making, and breaking of histories in this imaginary context.
Made of now-oxidized bronze—a seemingly unnatural shade of sea foam—the statue participates in an economy of monumentality, which trades in duration. The slow decay of all things that time non-negotiably demands is mitigated (but not rectified) by the use of materials such as iron and bronze. By translating this representation of Absalon from such hardy materials to the vulnerable surface of photo-emulsion, Buckingham is in effect recinding the quasi-permanence of monuments, subjecting this Danish hero to an accelerated disappearance. While the disappearance is of Absalon’s image, it becomes a stand-in for the eventual disappearance of all human histories, all traces, no matter how brawny the material they are encased within. After all, the sun has a life span as well, and will inevitably consume our world in its entirety. In cosmic standard time, everything will eventually disappear.
Bronze and copper are relatively recent instruments employed to arrest the passing of time. It could be argued however, that they are less capable than their predecessor, stone. The Paleolithic Lascaux cave paintings are about 17,800 years old, and the enigmatic Venus of Willendorf is a staggering 28,000 years of age. The earliest information that we have about our ancestors—in an era wherein hominid and human were murky not-so-discrete categories—is carved or drawn upon the mineral surfaces of stone. These early humans have long disappeared, becoming subsumed into the material economy of the rocks they drew upon and carved, yet we can siphon a kernel of knowledge about their existence through the traces they left upon stone.
A span of 28,000 years is almost incomprehensible, with our humble life expectancy of 82 years. Yet, in that immense span of time, with all the changes wrought upon civilization, we still feel the impulse to leave traces of our existence on the rocky surfaces of the world: tags on the side of freeways; lovers’ initials scratched into a bathroom stall door; the patriarchal, colonial machismo of those dull presidential faces on Mount Rushmore. Lotte Van den Audenaeren’s diaphanous silk photographic print documents one such trace. The image depicts a large stone overgrown with sprawling burnt orange lichen that obscures an under layer of blue—strangely almost the same colour of oxidized bronze. This shade however, is not naturally occurring, but the synthetic remains of paint. Barely decipherable is the shape of a heart, and lower in the frame, several xs. The remainder of the message has been eroded by weather, and shrouded by the industrious lichen. What is left are the traces of someone who was once there, compelled by a desire to leave something behind, something that endures when their body is no longer present.
The desire to last—to leave traces—is powerful, but the desire to purposely disappear can be equally potent. Mami Takahashi’s Capsule series mines the agency in choosing to disappear, rather than be subject to the unruly whims of forced disappearance, typically by way of violent patriarchal, homophobic, classist and racist structures. Capsule in Bush, which sees the artist tucked within a bush, behind the crinkly reflective surface of a small capsule made of mirror film, is shown in this exhibition on the sprawling billboard atop the front of the gallery building. When we spoke about this series in the context of this exhibition, Takahashi explained that taking these photographs was a means for her to choose to be invisible, rather than to be made to feel invisible in the context of Western cultural norms. Having moved to the West coast of the United States from her native Japan, Takahashi struggled at first to reconcile feeling invisible within a culture that prizes noise, self-promotion, and cutthroat art world politics, all typically but not exclusively wielded by a capitalist white-supremacist patriarchy.
The full agenic potential of this work is realized inside the gallery space, wherein a video work, Observations, documents Takahashi’s experience from within her protective capsule. In choosing to become invisible rather than be forced to become invisible, Takahashi affords herself the experience of observing the outside world without being observed herself, in a sort of omniscient self-arrangement. Laura Levin calls this “the aesthetics of camouflage” in Performing Ground and argues that through a negotiation of the terms of their representation in the context of a world picture, artists—particularly in performative photography—are engaging in a re-organization of the relationship between a body and its surroundings. Though in a sense she has disappeared, in doing so, Takahashi has built a space for herself within which her subject position is self-directed and newly empowered within a Western cultural landscape.
The title of this exhibition springs from this idea of agency as it relates to the politics of disappearance. In The Aesthetics of Disappearance, Paul Virilio argues that our conception of reality is based on certain things necessarily being invisible. While he uses the idea of film splicing in early cinema as a metaphor for how such a reality might be constructed, there are very real manifestations of this: the distance between large-scale meat production and consumption for example. How many people do you know who’ve been to a factory slaughterhouse still eat meat? Drone warfare also comes to mind here. In this vein, the disappearance of the suffering of others allows for the privileged to lead a less guilty existence; suffering is made to disappear. Virilio argues that reality is woven from discrete segments wherein suffering, injustice and violence live behind the clean sutures of the easy segments of this accelerated reality.
Virilio does however suggest that were we to excavate these disappeared aspects of our reality, there lies a potential for change—a chance to mitigate the violence. Charlene Vickers’s installation and performance, Occupy Anishnabe Park 1974 puts this philosophical musing into real practice: it is an exercise in countering disappearance with reappearance.
A foil for the other works in the exhibition, and the exhibition’s premise writ large, Vickers’s installation and performance do not seek to make material the absence of a body or bodies, but rather, she insists on the re-insertion of the body in spatial and ideological contexts where its disappearance has been mandated by rote forces of cultural violence. In this project, such disappearance is particular to Indigenous bodies in a settler-colonial context. Originally staged in Vancouver, Vickers’s performance quotes the 1974 occupation of Anicinabe Park in Kenora, Ontario by the Ojibway Warriors Society (OWS).
The original performance in Vancouver compelled questions about sovereignty and Indigenous territory; Vickers, an Anishinabe artist who grew up in Treaty 13 territory, employed the political tactics of occupation as a means to assert her presence in the unceded territory of Vancouver, which has been her home for over twenty years. This gesture linked the historical with the personal, and allowed the artist to collapse these typically distinct forms of knowledge to present them in a broader geographic and political context.
This iteration of the performance, staged in Saskatoon, further complicates the relationship between birthplace, heritage, home and the agency to assert one’s presence through a politically charged use of the body. Through this performance, the historical weight of the original Anicinabe Park occupation is compounded with Vickers’s personal history as well as the dimensions of possibility for other iterations of asserting Indigenous presence across diverse colonial contexts. In this performance, as well as within the installation in the gallery, the forced disappearance of Indigenous bodies across the very land that they occupied for thousands of years before colonization, is confronted, and in a small way undone by Vickers physically re-inserting her body into the places and spaces from which it has been historically barred.
In British artist Tacita Dean’s essay “And he fell into the sea,” about Bas Jan Ader, she succinctly states that, “with disappearance will always come the hope of reappearance.” While most of the works in this exhibition refuse to fulfill this desire for reappearance and propose instead how to make absence material, Vickers’ performance enacts reappearance fully. As such, she also fulfills Virilio’s suggestion to seek that which has disappeared and insist on its presence in our construction of a reality. I think Dean’s description of disappearance, which charges it with hope amid the unknown, is at the crux of my obsession with Ader, and with disappearance in general: it is a murky ontological zone wherein irresolution, in-betweenness and the unknown reign supreme. This uncertainty that colours disappearance casts it as a sublime phenomenon—the unknown can be terror-inducing and tragic while simultaneously the subject of interest and enthrallment.
In the esoteric last line of The Aesthetics of Disappearance, Virilio waxes poetic about the final oblivion of matter, the ultimate metaphysical record, and how we might exist as disappeared, beyond the barriers of sound and light. I recently asked an astrophysicist friend of mine about what happens beyond the barrier of light, which as it stands, is the limit of quantum physical understanding, and also the scientific limit of what can possibly be known about our universe. He replied that the question of breaking the barrier of light is meaningless: everything we’ve ever observed, and what every one of our theories can predict ends at the barrier of light. It’s the sublime on a cosmic scale. We can’t know what happens past the barrier of light, and the disappeared, although they leave their traces, are those whose fate is forever unknown.
Written by Natasha Chaykowski
Natasha Chaykowski is a Calgary-based writer and curator. Previously, she’s worked with Canadian Art, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Banff Centre, in curatorial and editorial capacities. She was the 2014 co-recipient, with Alison Cooley, of the Middlebrook Prize for Young Canadian Curators. Currently, she is Director of Untitled Art Society.