Curated at the Western Front by Pablo de Ocampo
The Western Front
September 14 - October 20, 2018
Opening September 13 @ 7pm
Through the process of working on this exhibition with Brown and Mackenzie over the last couple months, I’ve been thinking about the tension of contradictions in a bog, an ecological terrain that is characterized by having a foundation of peat, which is basically a heap of rotting plant matter. The other characteristic of a bog is that their peaty deposits of decay are the fertile ground that spawns life, a landscape that exists in an natural state of equilibrium. Brown and Mackenzie’s exhibition embraces these contradictions and ambivalences as they imagine the bog as a meditative and regenerative place using their primary mediums of sculpture and sound.
Here, Brown revisits the form of the mobile, a structure she’s worked with several times. Brown’s material of choice is steel, a material that seems ill equipped at rendering the soft and damp landscape of a bog. But in a departure from much of her recent sculpture that goes all in on steel as a singular material, the three mobiles that make up Veils of a Bog use the sparest of steel rods to make the skeleton of a mobile upon which hang photographs, ribbon, textiles, organic material, and other elements. Where the mosses, grass, reed, and twigs make these literal and direct representations of elements one might find in this ecosystem, other elements speak to the imagined environment in different ways. Hanging ribbon might be suggestive of an aquatic plant slowly waving in a stream or tufts of usnea dangling from tree branches. Amongst this constellation of objects slowly rotating around on the mobiles are a series of photographs of sculptures, printed on heavy rag paper, mostly depicting gowned women, some embracing infants. The photos are presented cropped and cut up—with the undulating folds of their robes abstracting into waves of hand painted lines on the large format prints. It is significant that these photos were taken at the Bode Museum in Berlin, specifically from their collection of late antique and Byzantine art. While Brown sees these statues of maternal figures as comforting and objects of beauty, she also can’t ignore their place within the history of the Byzantine Empire as tools and representations of imperial power.
These sculptures float amidst the multi-channel sound composition Post Meridiem by Michelle Helene Mackenzie. Made specifically for Brown’s sculptures, Mackenzie’s composition consists of two primary elements, that, like the sculptures, sit between literal representation and a more suggestive evocation or abstraction. The first element is a collage of field recordings of frogs, crickets, birds, and other living creatures of the bog. The second is a low frequency drone positioned across four full range speakers and a subwoofer that rest on the floor around the perimeter of the room. The speakers point towards the walls at an upward tilting angle, the drone reflects off the walls, folding back in on the gallery and enveloping the room in an omnidirectional fog of sound. It’s a sound that, even with it’s subtle variations and shifting cycles feels like a uniform substance, a dense substrate like the peaty foundation of the bog. The field recordings are installed to play back across four speakers mounted onto the ceiling, the animal sounds cascade down through the thick bog drone that fills the room. Lasting 26 minutes, Post Meridiem is broken into three movements, with each having its own cycles and rhythms of sounds and relative levels. Crickets float above the soundwaves only to crest and fall back below, subsumed by the din of a low frequency rumble.
The bog is disorienting. It’s lit quite minimally, but even when one’s irises adjust to the low light level there is an uncertainty in the space. Brown and Mackenzie repeatedly refer to the bog as a place of ambivalence. There are elements of comfort—the tranquil chirp of the frogs and crickets, the lunar orbs rotating up high like familiar points of light in a night sky, the soft drape of the ribbons, even the warm glow of the lights and the soft bean bags that one can sink into. Within all this, something else lurks that counters feelings of comfort. Hidden amongst the moss and the draped ribbons are sharp metal fish hooks, not directly threatening, but emanating a sense of danger much larger than their subtle form seems capable of. On first encounter, Mackenzie’s composition seem to be on two ends of that spectrum, with the soothing field recordings standing in contrast to the louder ominous tone of the drone. Settling into the space, both sounds embody this ambivalence. As the drone envelops me in the space it feels like a supportive embrace, a protective cloud, and the insistent chirps of the animals suggest an environment where the animals of the bog have taken over and flourished, possibly in the absence of human civilization. That feeling is only further echoed in the photographic reproductions of the sculptures. Floating here in the bog, as fragments, pieces of larger figurative object, one can’t help but wonder how these sculptures ended up here, sunk into the muck.
Perhaps this cacophony of animal song is imagining a post apocalyptic world where the bog has swallowed up the physical remnants of human life. All of these bodies and things have now succumbed to decay and in the cycle and balance of the bog, are floating here, decomposing. The detritus of empires broken and sitting amongst the reeds and the grasses, slowly eroding back into the ground from which they were built. And while these descriptions may be painting a portrait of this space as the set for an apocalypse, Brown and Mackenzie’s installation is ultimately a place where the spectre of death and decay is not a threat, but rather a element that sits in a delicate equilibrium with the warm comforting glow of the bog. -Pablo de Ocampo
Vanessa Brown would like to thank Tom Hsu (prints) and Joseph Band (metal) for their studio assistance with this project.
Veils of a Bog was produced with the support of the Esker Foundation Commission Fund
Veils of a Bog, 2018
Steel, Inkjet prints, gouache, charcoal, oil paint, netting, nylon, ribbon, MDF, vellum, ultracal, dried flowers, branches, dried bullrush, dried grass, moss, shrimp hooks, beads, paper clip, shell.
Post Meridiem, 2018
Michelle Helene Mackenzie
Multi-channel sound composition
Footage: Alysha Seriani
Editing: Lief Hall
with Post Meridiem by Michelle Helene Mackenzie
Curated by Shauna Thompson
The Esker Foundation
May 26th - September 2nd, 2018
Image credit: John Dean
We are drawn toward a chorus of amphibious croaks. Slipping into the dimness of a meditatively droning bog, we encounter the hypnotic movement of clusters of objects. Undulating as if caught in a slow eddy, these elements are suspended in front of us within a romantic, semi-apocalyptic swamp. The aura here is ambiguous, though the invitation to rest and stay awhile is clear. In the gentle flow, we find organic detritus, planetary reflections, and the debris of art history which has been liberated from the museum and sunken with us into the murk. The rotation of the mobiles gestures to a cyclical sense of time, and perhaps, the cycles of life and death. We are brought in close, enveloped by colour and sound: shrouded inside of an internal space, maternal and womblike, but unclearly prenatal or posthumous.