Land and light … and the magic of both

I have been thinking a good deal lately about light. Not only the way it shifts and changes continually, but it’s physical properties, and the connection between light and time on both the immediate scale (a 24 hour period shifting from dark to light and back) and the cosmic scale (star light, moon light, lightning, the mind-numbing distance that a light-year is). 

These musings have come about for a number of reasons.

I am incorporating more and more photographic work into my practice in the last year or so, and so I am increasingly conscious of the technical elements around photography, and the light that I want to capture in the images I make. So it’s practical need as well as aesthetics in this case … and the realization that I have a massive amount to learn about photography and about light.

Living in Halifax for the last year, I have become very aware of how different the light is here than in Alberta – and how my own perception of space have been informed by growing up and living on the Prairie. The light here on the East Coast is far more subtle, incredibly nuanced … I know there are people who have lived out here for many years and complain about how unremittingly grey it can be at times… but it’s anything but constant. Even on the most drab winter day, the light changes constantly; shaped by fog, by rain, by snow, by the odd break in the clouds.  It really struck me this past winter; I am so used to the harsh simplicity of the Prairie light: brilliant blue skies that tell you how breath-suckingly cold it is outside, and how blinding walking in fresh snow can be. Leaden skies that produce the crispest whitest snow.

I’ve just got through reading a brilliant book by Ben Tufnell, called Land Art. It traces the history and variety of land art in the US, to the UK and Europe. Really fascinating stuff, and the fact that the work addresses the variation and methodologies in the UK and Europe is a big plus for me; the approach taken by several artists – Goldsworthy, Long, and Fulton in particular – appeals to my interest not only in ideas of transience, but also to my overall desire to ‘tread lightly’ in what I do as an artist and a human. This is all a preamble to the section of the book in which Tufnell discusses Turrell’s Roden Crater, a massive project that has been under construction since the late 1970’s in the Painter Desert in Nevada. This work is utterly amazing; the way Turrell works with the sky and all available forms of light is sheer genius.  To give you some idea:
James Turrell – Goldstein Skyspace/Roden Crater Project from Rindermulch on Vimeo.

Really quite magical, both in scale and execution. I would go there, absolutely, if it is ever open to the public.


time of a different order of magnitude …

Obviously, any hope I had of updating here on a regular basis proved fruitless.

Still, the last few months have been immensely productive on a number of levels, so it’s really all good in the long run.

A number of things coming down the pipe:

–  It looks as though the chapbook for the Archives of Absence project I am working on with Catherine Owen will be coming together (literally, physically!) in the next little while. Had a marvelous meeting with Catherine and our publisher, Trisia Eddy (the genius behind Red Nettle Press) back in May – and things are shaping up well. We’ve picked paper, figured out binding options, got the final layout sorted … so now the birthing begins in earnest for Trisia!  I am so very excited by this project, and can’t wait to see the final result. I think it is going to be really beautiful as an object, and as a book.  It is so rewarding to work with people from totally different areas of creative activity, and be able to share ideas and and create something larger than the sum of its parts.

– The second (and third) parts of Archives of Absence are coming together very well also. I have finished over 30 gel transfer works on board for the gallery-based portion of this work, and am slowly wrapping my head around the arcane workings of Final Cut Express to get the video portion of the beast together. Have some more photographic work to do when I get back to Edmonton, and reacquaint myself with the Berm in all its vacant oddness, and need to resolve, once and for all, the best way to deal with the collection of objects, and what the archive will itself look like.  It’s coming together, and I’m looking forward to finishing all the components and seeing it as a coherent whole.

 – I have collected a vast array of wonderful bits in my time in Halifax: bones, bird wings, rusty metal things (many, many rusty things!), all of which will be returning to the Prairie with me all too soon. They will be fuel for the fire on the creation of a new body of work coming out of this year away.

– Plans are afoot and sample works have been created for a collaborative project with visual artist and art historian Kristen Hutchinson. This installation-based work is titled In Living Memory, and will deal with the way in which memory is presented publically – as memorialization – in graveyards, and what happens when there’s no one left to remember those passages.

– I will be traveling to Toronto next week to plan, plot, scheme, and generally hammer out another collaborative project for exhibition with my friend David Young.  This work (as yet unnamed) is going to be a process-based installation, exploring some ideas we have around parallel narratives and the conjunction of physical change, memory, and narrative processes … the constant becoming of all these things. It will be exceedingly interesting for both of us, I think, to work through our ideas in relation to our different (but related) methods of working.

 – Received some very happy news when I was back in Edmonton in May: my exhibition proposal for Profiles Gallery in St. Albert has been accepted for December 2011 – January 2012. SO … I know I have a good bit to think about and plan (and execute!!) over the next couple of years.

 – Had a piece accepted for the next Edmonton Timeraiser.  A great opportunity, and a very worthy project! 

– have been working on various grants, residency applications, exhibition proposals, and so on. Crossing fingers (and toes and anything else I can!) that some of these bear fruit.

Hmm … I guess I understand why I haven’t been keeping this updated regularly.

time and rust … a good place to start

Far too long since last posting, but such is the way of it. Grant writing, project work, field work and travel have all taken me away from this endeavour. But this is a good point in the year to begin afresh, and with a little luck, maintain the momentum once begun.

So … to turn to the thin thread of thought I was initially teasing out of my muddled brain a while back:
Things: and why I obsess about certain of them.

It seems logical to give pride of place to the category of object for which this blog is named.

Rusty Metal Things is a rather broad and rambling category for me in my collecting, but generally, the objects I find most interesting fall into two groups: those that have degraded to such a point that their former life/purpose/entire form is no longer discernible, and those that are newer to the world of oxidation, and can still tell their story of former utility. I collect  – and this is by no means an exhaustive list – tin cans (usually crushed into some interesting shape by vehicle wheels), hinges, bits of wire and wire gridding/mesh, sections of pipe (especially ends bits with joints or connecting frameworks attached), flanges and other round bits that indicate the object’s former existence as part of a structure that opened into (or closed off) something else, bolts, screws, keys (especially rusty skeleton keys!), and of course the previously-mentioned random bits of metal that have so corroded as to be interestingly-shaped abstract artifacts of who-knows-what, as you can see below:

… a bit of wire, and two bits of flat metal, one of which has numbers and letters embossed on it … probably some sort of strapping for identification purposes. All of these objects (and those imaged below) were found on Marginal Road, by the Halifax Seaport.

… a squashed bottle cap, a bit of what appears to be pipe, and some sort of flange or metal gasket.

… an old railway spike, and a rusty bolt. Love rail spikes … one of my favorite things to find – perhaps because the rail system that helped build Canada is a fading memory.

— a bit of extremely fragile metal; this piece is so powdery, and will fall apart in my hands if I am not careful.

What strikes me initially with all of these things is the surface texture. Some are bumpy like coarse-grained leather, some flaking, some sharp even on flat planes. The diversity is quite remarkable, but consistent in the transformation of what was once a smoothe, and oftentimes shiny, thing. It is as though a skin has been shed to reveal a truth lying dormant just below the surface. I am fascinated by the processes of change on and in the metal itself – the slow breakdown and erosion of shape and surface texture, and the eventual decomposition that leaves the original form and meaning of the object entirely in question. I also love the fact that most often, I have absolutely no idea what these objects once were, or what function/meaning/significance they once held in the doing of things in the world. They now have to be taken on their own terms, as they are, not as they were or ‘should’ be.

So at the root of my delight in rusty metal things is the notion of transformation, and its sisters transience and decay. These man-made objects reveal to me the human desire for some sort if permanence in this world – which of course, is the desire for an entirely illusory state. The chemical processes at work on the metal bring it away from the fabricated world of humans, inexorably back to the earth – to the land from which its components were initially extracted. There is such simplicity embodied in the corrosion of these objects, the way they encapsulate the sheer inevitability of this process. I find it both brutal and disarmingly beautiful.

I realize my position here could seem romantic – a nostalgic eye to loss and ‘the better past.’ But while an acknowledgment of loss evident in the pleasure I take in these objects, I feel they serve more as markers of the continued human blindness to the inevitability of decay and change; this is where the delusion and romanticism lie to my mind. I find the obsession in popular culture with the new – the shiny, the (eternally) young – to be exceedingly morbid. As if the world and its contents could be cast in resin, eternally the same … but of course, to do so in reality would be to preempt the consuming machine, the ‘must have more’ imperative inherent in this world view. So instead, new (artificial) obsolescences are created to feed the beast. But I digress somewhat … . Yes, an acknowledgment of loss is part of the attraction, but only insofar as that loss is really not loss at all – merely a state-change.  An example of things as they truly are.


I have been contemplating the relationship I have to things – objects, that is. This in part because of several conversations I have had with various people lately, some of them questioning my desire for –  and collecting of – what amounts to garbage. I am drawn to collect various cast-offs to the point of obsession: rusty metal things, crow and raven feathers, bits of broken or disassembled clocks and machines, the requisite beach bits (a must for a prairie-born scavenger like myself). Even here, in this small apartment, I am unable to stop myself from bringing random things home as I find them (it’s more like they have found me).

Really the question is why? Why this particular affinity for particular forms of detritus? On one level the answer is simple – it is fodder for my work, and they are objects with shapes and textures that I find pleasing. But this does beg the question, really, and raises another whole set of questions about the nature of my work. Perhaps I need to engage in a process similar to that if Roger-Pol Droit in his book How Are Things? and catalogue my response and relationship with the objects I collect, or at the very least, examine my fascination with the categories of things that increasingly inhabit my world. (This book is, by the way, a delightful read – and a fascinating exploration of the relationship between objects, their roles in our lives, and the emotional and physical connections we have with them.)

I find myself beginning this examination with a passage from Droit’s book, that bear reproducing here:

“Is anyone really persuaded that our external reality teaches us nothing? That their [things’]  quantity is indifferent, their diversity without significance? That their variety, categories, genealogies and metamorphoses are as nothing — just so many irrelevant culs-de-sac? On the contrary. Things have no residence other than in their absolute singularity. Matter in this particular place, under this particular form. Displaying this colour and no other. This texture and no other. This degree of wear and tear and no other. Each thing is itself and no other.” (pp 9 – 10)

It is indeed this – the singularity of each object that I encounter  – that draws my initial attention. But this could be true of any collection;  so the additional layer of understanding that must be gained revolves around the particular categories of object that I collect, and what whose categories and the individual characteristics of the objects within each category provide in that way of … what? Satisfaction of some sort? Understanding?

roots, deep and otherwise

Had a fabulous time at the Deep Roots Festival in Wolfville. Some amazing musicians, and the magic of spontaneous on-stage collaborations (particularly the late night sessions at Paddy’s) really left me breathless. Going to this fest was all about taking a chance on the music – there were many performers I had never heard before – and I was more than pleasantly surprised in many cases. Particular highlights, of new-to-me music: Coco Love Alcorn, Ari Hest,  the madness of Steve Poltz, The Sultans of String. And (of course) Joel Plaskett was excellent – I really enjoy his live work. All brilliant performers, and terrific musicians.  Wolfville itself was a delight; friendly, welcoming people, beautiful old houses and buildings, fall colours starting to come out on the maples and other trees. A completely brilliant way to spend a weekend.

One of the many things that struck me at Deep Roots was the love and pride people had for their town and their festival; the festival is aptly named. This is something that has become very evident in the last few months out here in Nova Scotia: the incredible support and pride people manifest for initiatives, and for individuals/artists from the area. I see this not only in the support for the musicians, but in the way art and artisanal work is positioned and promoted in the galleries.  In part, because that support is demonstrable – there appears to be a greater tendency out here for people to really come through time and again for artists they appreciate, particularly if they are ‘home grown’. This support is predicated on the conviction that what is being produced has inherent worth – and doesn’t need to be compared to work being produced elsewhere in the country or the world to have value – it could be and often is, and stands up just fine to the comparison, but it’s not necessary to prove its worth. The other side of that coin is that it may well be more difficult for someone new to the area to break into the market in any meaningful way; the dues might be long in the paying, but the reward certainly is palpable. I honestly don’t know how accurate these observations are, but as someone who is ‘from away’ this is what I have read in the cultural communities so far.

These observations do of course lead me to contemplate my understanding of ‘home’ and my sense of place as it pertains to my work in particular, and my sense of identity in the larger scheme of things. What does it mean, precisely, to have a practice that is informed by 40+ years on the Prairie? My sense of space and what it means to be contained is certainly informed by that experience … perhaps my understanding of what it means to be exposed – or more correctly, how exposure can be signified and understood – is perhaps predicated on the experience of being a small body in (at times) vast-feeling, flat, open places. So that hiding or obscuring things is more a matter of building up flat-ish layers or skins to protect or hide things, and an awareness that on some level, nothing can ever be completely hidden. The ocean has a similar sense of vast flat space, but there’s also the unavoidable depth to be considered, and the liminal space of the shoreline, with nooks and crannies of stone and layers and layers of sand and gravel on the beaches. So there’s immediately a completely different sense of what physical exposure (and protection or hiding) is here – how those concepts operate in space. 

Here too, I have to consider how my understanding of human relationships has been informed by that sense of Prairie-born space, and how that in turn shapes my work.  It’s not a compact place; with the exception of the urban centres, there’s more than enough space on the Prairies in which to be alone, or to feel isolated for that matter. Distance measured in hours between places, between people. Grids of township and range roads marking off space, but not necessarily connecting much of anyone to anyone else, and that only relatively recently … Alberta’s centenary just passed in 2005. We are all ‘from away’ out west; comparatively few born there (and fewer still stay), while the great shift of population in recent decades has been to the Prairie, to Alberta for jobs, but not for a ‘home’.  So,  out west the investment doesn’t run as deep for most, perhaps, as it does for people who have lived generations and centuries in the same place, and have built on (and over) long-laid foundations. So I wonder what it means to have roots in a place where so few stay, and where one can be considered a local by virtue of a few years residence?  I’m not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

flux, and watching the dust settle

Finally starting to feel somewhat settled, in this, my temporary home city of Halifax. The summer – and fall, thus far –  has been a fabulous, hectic adventure of arrival, travel, and settling in. So far, we have been to the Stan Rogers Folk Fest (mudfest!), the UK and Ireland for field work and family visit, Newfoundland, and will be heading off to Wolfville for the Deep Roots Fest this weekend. That’s a lot of miles since July 1 when we landed. In between times, I have been walking the city, getting to know it as a place I live (as opposed to a place I am simply visiting), and working on the two collaborative projects I have on the go with Catherine Own and Kristen Hutchinson.

It has been the ‘in between times’ – the time I have had to spend living here in this space and this city and working – that has been most interesting and telling so far. We are living a spare existence here – a very compact living space, with very little in it that is ours. But for me this is the perfect mode of existence for this year and the work we both have to hand. The move and this sabbatical have been about getting back to what’s essential to each of us, and to the two of us as a couple. The process of preparing for the sabbatical became a joyous purge, a letting go of all that was non-essential; moving from a 4 bedroom, 3 story house to a 1 bedroom apartment had a that effect purely in practical terms, of course. But that process of choosing, of being absolutely conscious and active in selecting what to bring and what to leave (or get rid of) had the most liberating effect emotionally and psychically as well. I know I was going to a place where I didn’t want to carry a great deal with me in any sense; I wanted to bring only those tools and necessities of life that were truly important for my well being, and leave the rest behind, to leave the space I need to make the most of this year away.

I find myself working in a totally different way than I have previously, as well. In part this is purely practical: I am forced to change materials and methods due to the limitations of the space we live in and the absence of studio space. But I am seeing there is more to this than simple practicalities the longer I work here. The change in venue has forced a stripping down, a spareness to my work, that I am just beginning to appreciate. It’s forcing me to be even more conscious of the choices I am making  – image selection, placement, composition –  and in a different way than I am when I am working with the wax and the plaster. These images I am working now are all semi-transparent – single skins – so all is revealed in the single gesture of printing to the panel, whereas the collage/construction work that I have been doing for the last couple of years has relied on virtually the opposite approach: building up and hiding objects and images, re-revealing certain elements.  I have absolutely no idea how this year-long method of working will impact my practice over the long term, but that’s part of the beauty of being here: I really don’t know anything, and I don’t know how it will all turn out. It’s this state of flux that I am really appreciating as the days pass; it really is all process, and not product.