Surface Tension 1998
photo-based installation

 

 
1998 - The Art Gallery of Windsor, Canada
vvvvvvvvCurated by Helga Pakasaar. Catalogue with essay by C.S. Matheson, video portrait by Connie Bruner
1999 - The Pekao Gallery, Toronto, Canada

 

The work is comprised of two elements: Seven mural type shower curtains depicting natural scenes and hung on rails and twelve sculptural lamps displaying backlit photographic transparencies of body parts. The walls of the space are painted a deep dark blue.

The seven curtains have all been used and the surface shows residue of soap and water.The curtains display images of
idealized nature; a tropical underwater scene, a section of grass, penguins sitting on an ice flow, a school of goldfish, a tropical beach scene. The curtains are hung on rods at a height of 7 feet and 1 foot away from the wall.

The twelve sculptural lamps display duratrans of three different sizes, 14, 16 and 18 inches in diameter. Each is an image of a body part; a male nipple, a belly button, an armpit, a sunflower tattoo, a dodo bird tattoo, female distended cat nipples, cat fur, a black panther tattoo, an anus, the crown of a head, a blister, a stubble chin. The lamps range in height from 5.5' to 8' and have been constructed to reference large flowers, shower heads and photo lamps.

 

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Seeking After That Sweet Golden Clime :
Intimate Landscapes of Loss

C. S. Matheson

What one first feels is the presence of the lightstands, which tilt and thrust and soar to fill the space like a grove of baleful sunflowers. Some spring upwards with a rigid impatience, others stand fixed in the fleeting equipoise of maturity, while a few slowly succumb to gravity. The stiff expressiveness of these forms and their defiant autonomy act as an imperative summons to the spectator. One can't help but recall Alice's brush with the ill-mannered talking flowers in Wonderland. Drawn into this outsize garden of potential and extremity, revelation and loss, we register both the resilience and weightedness of the forms. Threading a path through the black stems, silvery bowed heads and slender light, we turn like Blake's sunflower ''weary of time'' towards the source of illumination.



The nature of this illumination is at first ambiguous. The bulbous, cupped heads of the nightstands are utilitarian as well as organic, evoking the surgical theatre as readily as the photographer's studio. Each of the images held by tension within the light throws the represented bodies and by extension our bodies - into relief. ls our scrutiny of these isolated parts meant to be clinical or aesthetic? Is our gaze constructed as pathological and potentially invasive, or reflective, lingering and documentary? The surfaces of these bodies bear marks of stress and passage, from the distant trauma of birth to the recent stigmata of a blistered palm. These are clearly bodies in contact with the hard edges of the world. The coloured, patterned surfaces of the skin also speak to the reality of struggle, or more seriously to the threat of eradication: a sunflower tattoo, for instance, is bisected with macks that snake like geological fault-lines, rather like a fresco grazed by time or scarred by tectonic shift. A red-fanged panther suggests defiance in the midst of extremity, while the dodo is a species that has already been hunted to extinction and therefore now exists only as representation. Against this Carrollian reminder of a failed species, an ornithological memento mori, the prognostics for humanity do not seem favourable. As the only human orifice imaged here is an anus, this seems to be a body that consumes and expels rather than one which reproduces or generates. Birth is only a distant memory a navel is photographed like a crater on a barren lunar landscape - bodies are gendered largely through secondary sexual characteristics, and although a potential for nurturing is suggested by a feline teat and male nipple (vestigial in the latter case of course), there is no overt biological outlet for this possibility.

The present and future singularity of these bodies contrasts the apparent multiplicity of the animal kingdom, in which creatures are paired or appear in flocks or schools. The images on the curtains initially appear to document portions of the natural world a confab of penguins on an Antarctic iceflow, exuberantly coloured fish in a tropical sea, an aggressively unremarkable portion of a grassy lawn, the restless regimentation of a school of goldfish, gamboling wolves in a fantastically-imagined mountainscape. At first blush, the humour of these objects derives from an inherently comic juxtaposition between their decoration and function, between the apparently panoramic and naturalistic representations of ''Nature'' they display, and the enclosed, private, diminutive, sanitized space destined to be their receptacle. Here is a point of intersection between the exterior world, with its apparent variety and exoticism, and the banal inferiority of the everyday. We draw these images rattling behind us as we climb into the shower; they veil our nakedness, close us into the warm, womb-like space of a watery immersion. The curtains hold small hairs and shed skin like fossils in amber, we contemplate the fish or grass or birds as we shit. Glancing into a bathroom mirror, these fragments of earth or sea or sky could hover just beyond our gaze, a backdrop to a moment of selfcontemplation. In a small space coyly fitted up to administer to even obviate the effects of our greying, consuming, excrescent bodies, we are ambushed by a sense of organic inevitability, the connection between our corporeal selves and the larger elemental world. Like the speaker of Elizabeth Bishop's poem ''In the Waiting Room'', "I scarcely dared to look to see what it was l was''.

But this visual play with scale and different senses of the ''natural'' is only the surface of the joke. The humour of the piece darkens as one registers the extent of the constructedness of the images on the shower curtains. What might initially pass for enlarged photographs of nature are in fact completely artificial pastiches - a few creatures or a few inches of landscape mechanically sampled to give the illusion of multitude or breadth, while the mammals and birds of the ''drawn'' curtains are as conscientiously grouped as if they were part of an edifying Victorian diorama. These images are not nature then, but surfaces that reference nature. Ironically, our shock of vulnerability has not only been anticipated but in one sense prefabricated.

The artifice of the curtains is underscored by the manner in which they are hung in a manner akin to objects in an exhibit, with only a slight allusion to their original function in the rails from which they are suspended. Behind the curtains is a shadowy, liminal space: the wails are a twilight blue, the colour of day resigning itself to night, or a dark submarine blue evocative of depth, mystery, even perhaps of the place/moment in which life originated. We are curtained off, however, from this primordial space; we are not placed within the realm of possibility, but in a place where things have already happened. Turned inwards towards us, the curtains bear signs of their contact with a body, a soapy film and faint odour that is a thin layer of corporeality washed over the surface of a commercial image. These Darks are left like the imprint of a body on a holy shroud, or the faint outlines of a human form that linger in a cityscape after some cataclysm. A body has been and gone, the high tide marks of its presence may be traced on the curtains, and now we inhabit a space defined by absence.

Surface/Tension's engagement with the themes of bodily displacement and deferral encompasses the geographical as well. In one sense this work explores notions of landscape and identity through the eyes of the dispossessed. The installation is bounded by a succession of images that cite land and sea, simultaneously evoking surface and the juncture where surface washes into depth. The body is suspended within this play of topographies and must undertake to locate itself a critical, isolating, and potentially dangerous proposition given the literal range of continents and islands (Antarctica, Europe, America) as well as the environmental extremes represented here. ''Foreignness'' is not simply conceptual or even personal and experiential, but is reconstructed as an elemental fact: on a frozen continent or beneath the ocean, difference physiological difference at least must be immediately negotiated if one is to survive. Confronted with this tangle of directions, one can only turn inward to consult a fragmented map of the body.

--- copyright CS Matheson 1998. ISBN 0-919837-58-1