Hybrid Entanglements & Cyborg Traces: The Sculptural Art of Twyla Exner
Essay by: Amy Gogarty
Organization of Saskatchewan Arts Councils (OSAC)
To accompany "Entangled" touring exhibition at various Saskatchewan venues 2010-2012
Twyla Exner operates at the crossroads of alchemy and mad science, creating striking sculptures that appear to thrive like living organisms or cyborgs. From her studio/laboratory, she transgresses boundaries of discipline, process and material, freely applying methods associated with hand-crafting to electronic components scavenged from computers and other communications devices. Surprisingly colourful and user-friendly, these sculptures harvest post-consumer e-waste, wires and circuits from the ever-growing stockpile of obsolescent technological products that shape and define our environment. Using processes of de- and re-construction, Exner simultaneously domesticates abstract elements of control through hands-on manipulation and restores currency to age-old art forms.
In the 1980s, Donna Haraway theorized the cyborg as a feminist trope with which to critique patriarchy and technology. Using irony and wit, Haraway deconstructed numerous cultural myths relating to nature, language, labour, warfare and social relations. In the late-twentieth century, she asserted, we are all chimeras, hybrid machine organisms: “in short, we are cyborgs” (191). Exner updates that assertion from the perspective of a generation born to cellular devices, social media and computing. Rather than relinquish the pleasures of hand-making to the virtual, she addresses the material components of electronic technology.
Perversely stripping exterior casings from coated wires--subjecting them to dissection and analysis--the artist rescues quantities of waste from the un-ecological fate of the landfill. The bright colours coding the functionality of wires form a bold palette, which the artist deploys with rich effects. Weaving them into forms resembling internal organs, seed pods, roots and branches, Exner draws specific parallels between the electrical wires and their biological counterparts in living organisms. The exhibition’s eponymous work, Entangled, consists of a ruby-red heart-like form enmeshed in a web of tubes constructed from colourful wire and raffia, a true fusion of culture and nature. System suggests an anatomical diagram, tube-like connectors punctuated by erratic and pathological growths. A computer work station forms the basis for Invasion, an installation in which wires woven in the form of flowers, mushrooms, roots and fabric engulf the computer in a playful if ominous thicket of preternatural growth. Accompanying but not illustrating the sculptures is a series of sensitive drawings that explore the dynamics of exponential cell division such as one might find in a Petri dish or pond of undisturbed water.
Concern is often expressed in craft communities that new virtual technologies will render older craft forms obsolete, leading to a massive loss of cultural and tacit knowledge. Swedish critic Love Jönsson, however, points out that “[t]races of the seemingly bygone will always surface, claiming their territory and challenging the idea of a coherent present” (241). Twyla Exner’s “entanglements” of old and new technology, nature and culture, acknowledge these traces as fissures rending the technological dream of transparency and control. She challenges us to question the seemingly monolithic structures of technological dominance, to reclaim and redirect these structures so that they serve us in ways that incorporate historical and cultural values, integrating them into a sustainable whole.
Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” Linda J. Nicholson, ed. Feminism/Postmodernism. New York and London: Routledge, 1990. 190-233.
Jönsson, Love. “Rethinking Dichotomies: Crafts and the Digital.” Sandra Alfoldy, ed. Neocraft: Modernity and the Crafts. Halifax: The Press of Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 2007. 240-248.
Curated Exhibition Catalogue
Essay by: Leanne L'Hirondelle
Gallery 101, Ottawa, ON
April 16 - May 21, 2010
The artists in "Detritus Ecologies" Griffith Aaron Baker, Twyla Exner, Mae Leong and Tory David Ouellette take waste, the occurrence of our excess and turn this into artistic statements, thought provocative projects that raise awareness to the tragic amount of stuff our lifestyle(s) generate. The works in this exhibition reach beyond any form of didactic that may be mistaken for guilt inducing messages. Rather they are subtle processes that utilize the creative process of contemporary practice and dialogue to grapple with a subject that will affect our culture, its means of production, sustainability and stability. Archeologists will attest that humans have always been creating waste, but never to such a degree and with such widening consequences.
The material used for the construction of objects can be as powerful conveyor of meaning as the form of the object itself. Griffith Aaron Baker's "The Raft of the Doldrums" is part of his bottle cap series, works that are essentially constructed from used plastic. The work is inspired by "Raft of the Medusa" by Théodore Géricaul, a painting in the Romantic genre that embarrassed the French monarch due to the incompetence of one its Generals resulting in a large number of deaths. The raft in the painting was constructed from the ships (Medusa) wreckage and proved to be ineffective in saving the lives of those who counted on its stability. Culturally, we count on the ability of our creations and discoveries to sustain us, just as those adrift on the raft. How would a contemporary artist call attention to a perilous situation - today a painting would be ineffective, instead he/she may create a piece such as Griffith Baker's Raft.
In relation, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean floats an island of plastic debris that is about the size of Quebec amounting to an estimated 3.5 million tons of trash. It is an unexpected, absurd physical realization of lifestyles and attitudes that disregard the unseen result of our castaways. Creating work out of discarded materials made from petroleum products is a contemporary twist on the toxicity of materials once plant, sand (glass) and animal based. Ironically, some of the objects such as syringes, laundry and water bottles and so on are carriers for liquids created to clean, heal and nourish now have the opposite affect, poisoning our environment. Indeed Baker writes "Instead monumentalising this raft, afloat in the permanence and reality of the manufactured material condition of our time, reciprocates Géricault's painting both in its pyrimidal composition and political engagement."1
Twyla Exner is another artist whose interest in the materials informs her practice. The works "Circuit City", "Alternative Context for Science & Technology II" and "Outgrowth from Input" provide an account of disjointed inventions gone astray. Exner's drawings, like some kind of madcap blueprints, successfully examine technology mixed with organic shapes. Perhaps both could be understood as fragile living things, but one is the creation of the other, in effect its God. In the western sense, is the all seeing and knowing 'God' replaced by technology with the ability to create life? Technology, like 'God', now has the ability to simultaneously peep at virtually many realities and actions that were once private. Lines are blurred and crossed, when does our technology mimic natural processes - as in this case and take over biological responsibilities? Technological creations spring from human consciousness, her works not only resembles biology, but technology manifested and imagined, if these things themselves were materially self-replicating. There is the belief that our demise is inevitable because it is part of the organic, natural process. Extinction of our species is part of its destructive nature and the inability for long-range planning. 2 Exner's work realizes that the distinction between nature and society is an illusion invented by us as part of the culture making process, indeed this simple binary opposition, is too elementary.
The amount of waste generated through consumption is called to mind in Mae Leong's "Barcode + Sound: Traces of Invisible Codes". The work is constructed from barcodes collected from items that Leong purchased over a one-year period from common products whose sources were global. The fluxus nature of the work is furthered by the musical sound the work generates. She creates a new type of music that usually forms part of the unacknowledged part of the purchasing process. It is a novel type of creation, a futurist possibility in the way that we may be forced to create art, to see the value in stuff that was once discarded. She writes that the process of creating the work, long hours of tedious construction reflects the assembly line nature of those whose labour is used in mass production. Globalization when linked with consumerism is never an equal process, more often than not those mainly affected are the most vulnerable, in this regard those whose labour is cheapest to exploit and lands easiest to denigrate.3
Leongs' Barcode is similar in thought to Ouellette's "The Polictics of Trade and Trash". Both artists reference international trade using garbage to examine the lack of the local in our consumption. On a map of North America, Ouellette traces the source of trash he collected to its found location in Windson, Ontario. As individuals, our actions may seem small, and many times the choice of consumption is left to the higher power of who controls the market. But as critical mass our actions may be reversible. The collection and movement of consumer products, many that can be produced locally is within our power as individuals acting as critical mass. Ouellette's work further offers awareness, "One couldn't imagine product packaging reading: this item was not union made instead it was produced with materials from an important watershed made from sweatshop labour under totalitarian tyranny with genetically modified organisms from countless hours of animal testing and undetectable nano technologies".4
The artists in the exhibition follow a legacy of creating critical works from found objects beginning with Duchamp's urinal. 5 The artists Baker, Exner, Leong and Ouellette, offer hope, the excess materials, say garbage that we generate, can be turned into something interesting, and move us forward to consider possible solutions while hopefully propelling us past stark awareness. Therefore, possibly the acts of imperialism and globalization may or may not turn the whole planet into a macrocosm of Easter Island. 6
1. Griffith Aaron Baker, Artist Statement. http://www.griffithaaronbaker.com/Raft.htm
2. Some would argue that this is a western approach that supports linear thinking. Many north America cultures traditionally believe in the concept of intergenerational responsibility.
3. "Since 1950...we have consumed more of the world's natural capital than during the entire history of mankind". Ellwood, Wayne. The No-Nonesense Guide to Globalization, New International Publications Ltd., Oxford, 2001. Page 92.
4. Troy David Ouellette, Statement on the Politics of Trash and Trade. http://www.flickr.com/photos/troyouellette/90776139
5. An interesting approach to the use of garbage, i.e. post consumer materials and community is the Heidelberg project created by Tyree Guyton in Detroit. www.heidelberg.org
6. Diamond Jarod, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin Books, USA, 2005.
Raw/Medium Rare/Well Done
Curated Exhibition Catalogue
Essay by: Sandra Alfoldy
FOFA Gallery, Montreal, QC
March 23 - April 17, 2009
Clement Greenberg enjoyed provoking the ceramic community. During a 1979 keynote speech at “The Ceramics Symposium” in Syracuse, New York, Greenberg argued “what happened towards the end of the 1960s…medium scrambling and medium mixing” resulted in the “sanctity of the boundaries between the different mediums” losing its hold. The worries expressed about ceramic’s nomenclature and status in this new environment, he stated, were a waste of time, as “Ceramics get left, abandoned, to the lowly vessel maker: ceramics proper that is.” At the same moment Greenberg was riling up ceramists in Syracuse, Concordia University was launching its Ceramics Programme in the VA building. This new department was developed to “offer a context that links contemporary art practice to a rich and diverse material history…(to provide) students with a point of departure for investigating diverse subjects ranging from traditional craft practice to new technology.” Concordia’s timing was fortuitous. As a field ceramics was breaking down traditional barriers, and in spite of Greenberg’s teasing claim that sculptural clay did not count as ceramics proper, an exciting new range of approaches were being encouraged. Concordia benefited from having no past history embedded in utilitarian clay production of china painting, or the Leachian ideal of the humble brown pot. The possibilities were endless. David Dorrance, a recent MFA from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, was hired as the first instructor in the new ceramics department, and he brought his interdisciplinary (or medium scrambling) approach to the programme. Dorrance used clay when it suited his ideas, and he was quick to mix it up with other materials ranging from latex and rubber to polyester resin. From the start ceramics at Concordia operated outside the box.
Thirty years later this rebellious approach remains intact. Yes, the majority of ceramic departments n North America pride themselves on their interdisciplinary conceptual savvy, but Concordia continues to provide something unique – the richest cultural mix in Canada. As Raw/Medium Rare/Well Done demonstrates, there is a constant interplay and tension between identities and languages. Here at Concordia one cannot reference William De Morgan or Limoges as the cultural standard bearer for all (like some institution so smugly do); rather, diverse backgrounds are untied by a love of the possibilities of clay. In this exhibition the talents of a wide cross-section of students, faculty, and alumni intersect. Whether it is the long-term knowledge of Kit Griffin, who has served as the Ceramics technician since the inception of the department, or the emerging impact of undergraduate students like Andréanne Hudon, Colleen Dwyer MeLoche, and Karen Warshaw Lampcov, Raw/Medium Rare/Well Done highlights the community of this programme.
Although there are a wide range of concepts, materials, and techniques on display, two broad recurring themes have emerged within the exhibition: nature and culture. The title of these show obliquely references Claude Lévi-Strauss postulated that empirical categories “can nonetheless be used as conceptual tools with which to elaborate abstract ideas and combine them in the from of propositions.” As the works in this exhibition demonstrate, adhering to traditional expectations (one could argue empirical categories) around ceramics, like containment, have not been abandoned in Concordia’s ceramic department. However, it is assumed that such empirical “givens” will be abstracted and made into larger propositions, like Célin Lepage’s miniature teapots that conjure associations between gender, ornament, and domesticity through the most common of clay forms, and Diane Brouillette’s thrown porcelain pieces that use piercing, collapsing and evidence of a skilled hand pushing to call into question the inherent plasticity of the medium.
Lévi-Strauss’s The Raw and the Cooked explored the dichotomy between nature and culture by examining myths, but it was the analogy of cooking that most powerfully spoke of the alteration from nature to culture. This theme is contained in many of the pieces in this exhibition. Daphna Lewinshtein’s work plays with the micro organic links between nature and food as culture by abstracting beautiful details of plant cells. Making ceramics, Lewinshtein suggests, is like cooking – both enterprises rely on faith and the ability to enjoy surprise and spontaneity. Colleen Dywer MeLoche’s abstracted vegetables are playfully stacked with forms that suggest children’s building blocks. Her interest in the ambiguity between play, desire and innocence reminds the viewer that a central part of “civilizing” children involves conquering their natural raw emotions to result in a “cultured” adult. Carmela Laganse’s bubble wands fuse childhood pursuits with popular cultural hybrids and speak to the separation between the body, the site of our earliest impulses, and the mind, the seat of “progress” and civilization. The darker side of cooking is also a shared subject. Andréanne Hudon’s personalized hunting trophies employ feminine kitsch details to highlight the irony of placing foodstuffs on display in your home, rather than on your plate. Vency Yun’s The Dining Room features a haunting and lonely long table that serves as a metaphor for the small intestine. Here, Yun’s personal identity is explored through her fraught relationship with the social act of eating, but she also addresses food as a gateway into culture. Shelly Low makes this point even more explicitly in her Pagoda and Dragon videos, which critique the “contrived exotericism” of the Chinese restaurant and the problematic North American stereotypes of Chinese Canadian citizens. Individual identity is central to Jean-Pierre Larocque’s figures, where intricate layering is a metaphor for the depth of personality. It is also a physical reminder of Larocque’s artistry, where his talents create the impression of “the unfinished and sketchy nature” of his work. Laurence Vallières pokes fun at the thin line separating the powerful individual (here a businessman) in contemporary society and his or her evolutionary predecessor of the monkey. Overtly political, Vallières questions how today’s economic crisis will be perceived by future generations.
Lévi-Stauss employs an ethnographic approach in The Raw and the Cooked to trace how one community’s myth can be gradually broadened out until it becomes almost universal. Certainly universality is a contested concept in our postmodern world, and as Low’s Pagoda and Dragon demonstrate, essentialized stereotypes are central to this idea; however, while culture quickly erodes into individual perspectives, nature can more easily be treated as a poetically shared point of reference. In Raw/Medium Rare/Well Done several artists explore how culture reflects nature. Francine Potvin’s Parcelles de temps sauvage (deuxième version) masses together one of the most neglected of all natural elements – the weed. Entire industries are built around the extermination of weeds, considered by many to be indicators of an uncultured environment, but Potvin reminds the viewer of the tenacious beauty of these maligned flora. Amélie Proux confesses to being preoccupied with nature, and her Catalogue des Gravités Celestes uses careful scientific method to collect images that are then brought to life through thin porcelain sheets. Metamorphosis and clay as metaphor are strongly suggested here, where mud and fire gives birth to the sky. Thérèse Charbot’s porcelain flowers offer a fragile, ephemeral beauty and serve as poignant reminders of nature’s ability to trump culture. Chabot’s work was inspired by the devastating ice storm of 1998 which left thousands without power in freezing January weather. The storm seduced her with the beauty of crystallized ice on tree branches, but soon its brutal strength stripped away its loveliness. Her porcelain flowers, like ice and snow are colourless, and offer only remnants of summer’s warmth and growth. This is a meaningful piece for all the artists in the show, who despite cultural differences, share the depth of Montreal’s winters. Élizabeth Gélinas’s organic terra cotta building blocks speak to the connection between creativity and playfulness, but they also suggest how clay’s materiality is closely linked to nature. Really, what is finished ceramics but fired sand, mud, and water? The materiality of clay is mixed with textile reference in Karen Lampcov’s knit cotton yarn forms that are cast in porcelain and fired. These objects suggest vessels and architectural environments but confuse our initial reading of them by fooling the eye and playing with out material expectation of clay.
It is obvious that the ceramic artists who are a part of Concordia’s thirty-year history enjoy manipulating the material properties of clay. While they embrace experimentation it is apparent that they are unafraid to return to more traditional ceramic forms and techniques. Greenburg’s insistence that “real” ceramics belong to the vessel does not apply here. Concordia University’s ceramic department has never relied upon these artificial and hierarchical divisions, and this places it in an excellent position to embrace the future. Twyla Exner’s Passage offers a connection between the past and future. Exner discovered a computer motherboard loaded with symbols that reminded her of Egyptian hieroglyphs and inspired her to research a type of battery that dates back to 250 BC. Her installation is composed of terracotta urns resembling olive oil just that are filled with vinegar and linked together with copper wires to provide a power source charging two speakers and an iPod. Rather than obliquely referencing the past and future Exner has brought hem both to life. New technologies are not feared, rather they are embraced as one of many possible pathways to the future. Given Concordia’s open-minded and inquisitive approach to ceramics, as evidenced through the works in Raw/Medium Rare/Well Done, exciting possibilities lie ahead.
1) Clement Greenberg, “The Status of Clay,” in Garth Clark, Ed. Ceramic Millennium (Halifax: NSCAD Press, 2006) : 4.
2) Ibid., 6.
3) Concordia University Ceramics Newsletter (December 2005), Vol. 1 : 1.
4) Suzanne Devonshire Baker, Artists of Alberta (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1980): 64.
5) Claude Lévi-Stauss, The Raw and the Cooked (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983): 1.
The Raw and The Cooked
Student Run Newspaper Article, Journalist: Karen Herland
April 2nd 2009, Vol.4, No. 13
The transformation of clay, from yielding to brittle, from found to processed and from field to table is the underlying theme of Raw/Medium Rare/Well Done.
The show, on at the FOFA Gallery until April 17, explores the medium in a variety of traditional and alternative forms. Besides the show, the event also included a well-attended symposium on March 27, the day after the vernissage.
“When I was on sabbatical two years ago, I got the idea to have a show that covers the last thirty years of ceramic art at Concordia”, explains Studio Arts Professor Thérèse Charbot of the decision that had her tracking down students, faculty members and technicians who have contributed to the program.
Charbot, who has been here for 25 years, says finding those who played a role before the age of email was not easy.
“We reached at least 200 who had been here since 2000,” she says. Those who answered the call submitted their work to a jury. Ultimately, 17 ceramicists representing the past and future of the program have work in Raw/Medium Rare/Well Done.
“Once I had the work, I brainstormed a title,” says Chabot. “I wanted something covering all the ways we can look at clay, from mud, that is not permanent, through bisque firing and then finished pieces. I wanted to capture different manifestations of the material”.
The show does just that. At one extreme are the tiny, handmade, delicately decorated teapots of Célin Lepage. Lepage, now in her 70s, studied with Chabot in the ‘80s. At the other extreme are photographic images transferred onto tiles in the work of technician Kit Griffin, representing the gap between the haves and have-nots in Africa.
Somewhere in between is the work of graduate student Twyla Exner. Over a year, Exner threw 300 earthenware urns, glazed their interiors and filled them with vinegar. Linking them together with copper wire she was able to generate enough power to run an iPod shuffles. The installation occupies the front of the gallery facing Ste. Catherine St. “It’s a nice combination of the ancient and the modern”, says Chabot.
Similarly, Karen Warshaw Lampcov knitted small sacks, then dipped them in porcelain slip and fired them at high temperature. The pieces look both contemporary and crafty. “The work reflects textiles, domesticity, vessels and the materiality of clay itself.”
In the black box section at the back of the gallery, an intimate space has been created to display a piece by Chabot. Ephemera from around her South Shore home and garden – flowers, seed pods, grasses, even bones and baby birds- have been dipped in translucent porcelain, fired and delicately arranged in frozen tableaux (referencing vanitas) on pierced platters lit from blow.
“I wanted to portray the cycle of life, both dying and renewal, to capture both beauty and tragedy”, she says of the work partly inspired by the ice storm. “I also wanted to recall a feast, which relates to ceramics.”
World Wise: Exploring Environmental & Postconsumer Critique
Essay by: Isa Tousignant
Espace Artefacto, Montreal, QC
April 4 - 20, 2008
It's hard to think of a theme more relevant to today's gestalt than environmental and postconsumer concerns. Though every generation udoubtedly claims their as expressive of both the best and the worst in humanity - "those were the days" vs. "in this day and age" - it is true that today's climactic reality alone is cause for worry for those among us who are comforted by dreams of a future. It does feel, often, as if we're on the brink of our self-destruction. In my case that feeling is as likely to be inspired by 15-degrees days in January as the latest slew of gossip mags about the state of Britney Spears' weave.
Among the artists in this group (Twyla Exner, Griffith Aaron Baker, Alison Slack, Zoie So, Jonathan Villeneuve, Marijke Johanna Bourchier, Patrick Bureau), few work consciously with this theme - yet all, either directly or not, touch upon it.
Twyla Exner, for example spends much of her creativity breaking down humanity's contemporary relationship to nature. "I'm not a hardcore activist, but I'm interested in the way in which we've absorbed technology into the fabric of society - into our bodies," she says. Typically, she uses the most primordial of "technologies," hand-weaving, to build structures that sprout, seemingly organically, out of the mechanical tools of our lives. Outgrowth from Input, for example, is composed of electrical plugs placed downward into a pedestal, cut at about two feet and transformed into the stems of beautifully woven copper-wire plant-like compositions. Her past work, Invasion, saw a personal computer get taken over by multi-coloured woven-wire growths, made from rainbow-coloured telephone wires she scavenged. Green and white flowers grew out of the keyboard, while the inside of the monitor was overwhelmed by purple, blue and red blossoms, themselves taken from inside machines. The wires and e-waste that Exner uses are re-purposed, given a new quasi-organic role as viral destroyers of the mechanical age.
Her work may be misleading in its apparent innocence, though Exner is well versed in robotics and the very technology she questions. "i don't want my art to actually work", she stresses. "i want it to remain a comment on the situation without becoming part of the situation." For this exhibition, she is also presenting drawings and Clusters, an installation work that builds a series of multi-coloured cell-like structures into a molecule, which grows into even more molecules. Here, the tragic contrast the artist points to between nature and culture could no be more direct.
At the Galleries: Artists Consider our Effect on Earth
Newspaper Article, Critic: Jack Anderson
Leader Post Newspaper, Regina, SK
February 7, 2008
Pale Blue Dot is a well-intentioned exhibition broadly scanning artists' responses to the timely issue of our sorry and frankly abusive relationship to the earth. Clearly a hot topic in the media and an "apple pie and motherhood" one in the corridors of power, the moral and ethical debates swirling around this issue are vast and complex. There are also often debates that can, and do, lead to didactic speechifying and finger-wagging.
While there is little of that in evidence here, I am unconvinced by this very large exhibition, which tries to touch on many of these multiple issues in one show. The result is that we come away wishing we had either seen an exhibition with a more restricted theme or seen a tighter selection of artists who had each been given more space to exhibit their specific concern to greater effect.
There are, however, several individual outcomes here that make us want to see more on these topics from these artists.
Saskatoon artist Iris Hauser steps positively into new territory with her apocalyptic the Machine Age, a no-holds-barred painting that is part cynical soft-core boy-fantasy heavy metal album cover and part soft-focus children's book illustration. Brimming with both humour and horror, this take on 1970s van-art pits the American myth of freedom against nature's own dynamics, loading a dollop of Hummer-esqueme-ism on top. A surprising and welcome new direction for her work. While I would like to see this particularpiece executed on a larger scale and with more technical finesse, Montreal artist Arshin Matlabi's quirky
colour photograph, Cuba II: the Fatman, not only speaks to individual privilege, but to global economic and political dynamics as well. With his figure dallying in the ocean waters off a beach resort -- a cipher really -- he brings into the mix not only questions of the abuse of privileged individual and national power,
but reminds us that our own Americanized comforts not only come at someone else's expense but have global environmental expenses as well.
Satellite Bureau, a collective which includes local artists Jen Hamilton and Christopher St. Armand and Jen Southern from the United Kingdom, offers up a full-size satellite dish that seems at first glance to deconstruct our 'science-izing' of the earth. But, glittering like a constellation seen in the night, a tracery of small lights in the center of this dish actually maps a walk that Southern took in her home town. Glance at the reverse side of the dish to find a small-monitor looping the video image of a person flying a kite. Collapsing here into there and small into big, this work is less about either science than self or location, than being located: it is about acts of communion and community that fuse identity with place, in the
broadest sense of the word.
Although I mentioned both Griffith Baker's water bottle cap sculptures and Twyla Exner's small wire botanical forms in the context of another recent exhibition, their works continue to fascinate. While I prefer Exner's unpredictable sci-fi-ish blobs where she continues to abstractly mash up the morphologies of both biology and technology, Baker's humorous new work here is a smart step forward. Referring
directly to our phobic North American pathology for cleanliness and its effects on our waterways, he also metaphorically references French Romantic artist Theodore Gericault's famous 1819 painting, the Raft of the Medusa -- itself an journalistic work depicting a real maritime disaster in which sailors who, stupefied and afloat on a raft churned by turbulent waves, wait helplessly for someone else to rescue them.
And, in the end, Joan Scaglione's video projection of a figure floating weightlessly under water is mesmerizing in a Bill Viola slo-mo kind of way. I wonder though whether the rubble of bricks foregrounding it is more distracting than contributive to her overall theme of a rebirth into a 'real' more sustaining than the physical world we occupy.
Pale Blue Dot
Curated Exhibition Catalogue, Guest Curator: Wendy Peart
Art Gallery of Regina, Regina, SK
January 23, 2008 - March 4, 2008
"There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we have ever known."1
Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, 1994.
It is a matter of fit. After all, we have already been placed, located by a dot - a pale blue dot - by NASA's space machine Voyager 2, in 1990.2 Stealthily taken from beyond the orbit of Neptune some 3.7 billion miles away, this highly circulated photograph visualizes for us Earth's distinguishable presence in a cosmic sense. Not only does this image exemplify our frontiersman-like drive, it incites us to respond to the urgent predicament of our ecological situation here at home. We are keenly aware of the role that humans have played in the demise
of global health. For instance, rampant chemical usage, rainforest reductions and fossil fuel burning have hastily increased the greenhouse effect, putting global warming on the centre stage of most international agendas. (Incidentally, the greenhouse phenomenon was initially identified through space exploration of lifeless conditions on other planets.)3 We are all looking for answers, or even mere suggestions, as to the reversal of current debilitating processes on our planet.
If we are to improve our relationship with our earth, where do we begin? According to authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart in Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, change begins simply in recognizing our own negligence by, "doing things over and over even though we know it is dangerous,stupid, and wrong."4 Recognizing how we created our circumstance is crucial. Like the fantastic and enlightening images from outer space, the work of the artists in the exhibition, Pale Blue Dot, make our condition more visibly poignant. This exhibition call for restorative action, urging us to consider better ways to exist within our natural world.
We have become a materialistic and disposable culture, fixated on objects and mass production. Ironically artists typically work with materials to make objects. Negotiating this contradictory position are artists, Griffith Aaron Baker and Twyla Exner (Regina / Montreal). Their work directly employs objects we consider offensively emblematic of the technological age. Refusing to merely recycle bits of plastic, rubber and wire, Baker and Exner employ a type of "upcylcing," by refashioning them into intentional ideas, cultural objects that are equal to or exceed the value of the materials' original functions.
Griffith Aaron Baker's Raft of the Medusa is gregariously constructed of thousands of discarded cola bottle caps. He has arranged troops of caps into one singular magnified cap raft caught in a squall; its destination unknown. Baker recognizes the futility in the cap's path as it travels from the bottle to the landfill, into the natural environment and, inevitably, into the food chain. Ironically, existing recycling programs do not reprocess caps and there is no current method of properly managing these small bits of plastic which clearly do not fit in the biological world. Through his work Baker considers not only how and what we consume but also the destination of our consumables and their dubious misplacement in our ecology.
The Exhibition, Pale Blue Dot, indicates that our relationships with the world and with each other need devoted attention. Presented here is an opportunity to embrace our inventiveness, our drive for originality and love for prosperity so that our work will someday "imitate nature's highly effective cradle to cradle system of nutrient flow and metabolism" eliminating waste altogether and becoming even beneficial to Earth's biological mass.5 Our connection with the world can be more than just sustainable, it can be stimulating, eloquent and emphatic. We
need not establish ourselves on other planets, as Carl Sagan had suggested, but take care of our own. We can be like ants, dovetailing in every possible way with Earth's dense abundance.
1 Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of Human Future in Space, Random House: New York, 1994, p. 9.
2 Carl Sagan, ibid. p. 4.
3 Carl Sagan, ibid. pp. 222-223.
4 William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.
North Point Press: New York, 2002, p. 117.
5 William McDonough and Michael Braungart, ibid, pp. 103-104.
Our Abnormal Life
Student Run Newspaper Article, Journalist: Hailey Greke
University of Regina Carillon, Regina, SK
December 6, 2007 - January 9, 2008
Once you enter the doors and turn the corner into the Sherwood Library Gallery, the first thing you see is a ten foot tall Coke Zero bottle.
The exhibition titled, Abnormal Growth, is based on the theme nature and technology coexisting. The main question asked is, "Has modern-day technology created abnormal growths in nature?" Three Quebec-based artists - Griffith Aaron Baker, Twyla Exner, and Tricia Middleton - contribute to the exhibition, and they each try to explain in their own way.
Baker, who made the giant Coke bottle, takes mass produced items from the cycle of production, consumption and waste and gives them a new opportunity to exist as meaningful items. Not only did he make the Coke bottle but he also made an Evian water bottle. Both of these pieces were made out of pop bottle caps and didn't feature the product name. The coke bottle said, "Con-cern Zero" and the Evian bottle said "Naive," though they were completely recognizable.
Exner's pieces also stood out because of the incredible intricacy each one entailed. She imitates plant pods, root systems, and human physiological forms, reproducing hybrids of technology and nature by using the materials that allow us our fast paced life. One piece called "Invasion" consisted of a full desktop computer, taken apart and with foliage made up of wires woven together growing out of it. Some of the letters on the keyboard were popping out and there was a flower growing out of the mouse. Similar works of hers were called "Bacteria,"
which was made completely of woven wires, and "System," which looked almost like yarn from far away.
Middleton was my least favourite of the three. the only piece of hers that was intriguing was "Response," which looked like a fake coral reef made of paper and plastic. It is supposed to be her response to the effects of dragnet fishing. By building fake reef on the bottom of the ocean, fish would still have a place to live and it would deteriorate over time with little or no pollution. She calls into question the evaporating meanings and values of the objects that make up our human environment.
Overall, the exhibition had a very strong message tied with an obvious environmental conscience. All of theworks were beautiful but ugly in their own way, especially Middleton's work. Everything was very meticulously done and had an organized yet chaotic fell to it as well. Baker's bottle cap pieces were very
aesthetically pleasing and Exner's wire-weaving techniques are incredible and her pieces were very intricate and slightly creepy. As for Middleton, her pieces were very odd and messy.
Abnormal Growth is on at the Sherwood Library Gallery until January 6, 2007.
At the Galleries: Review of Abnormal Growth
Newspaper Article, Critic: Jack Anderson
Leader Post Newspaper, Regina, SK
December 27, 2007
Abnormal Growth arrives on the cusp of hurly burly consumption surrounding us at this time of year.
Conceived as an oppositional proposition to all forms of capitalist excess, this exhibition examines our relationship to the environment and to the problem of sustainability, understanding that the word 'environment' itself has morphed over the last century over modernism to not only describe the natural world that surrounds us with its own models, patterns and imperatives, but to include culture and technology's models, patterns and imperatives as well. The three artists included in this small exhibition un-entwine the subtle partnership of media and technology to capitalism and consumption, hinting at and even declaiming on the viral and perhaps malignant trajectory we seem to be following.
Starting with what looks like a cartoonish clipart illustration of a dump truck sourced from the high-Modernist 1950's or 1960's when naive notions of commercial and industrial progress reached some kind of apex, Twyla Exner and Griffith Baker's wall installation depicts the disgorging of post-consumer waste --
here made from discarded water bottle caps -- into an apparently endless hole. Moving from wall to floor, this flood of caps assembles into a 3D sculpture resembling a colourful flower -- here mired in a pool of black sludge -- which is, instead, a sculptural rendition of the molecular structure of a specific plastic, which
will of course eventually leach back into the waterways. From the transformation of impure water to pure, our consumption, in the end, leads from purity back to impurity.
And speaking of naive, Griffith's himself exhibits a monumental replica of a plastic Evian water bottle executed not only bigger than human scale but made of -- you guessed it -- plastic Evian water bottle caps. This ironic inversion -- using the thing to critique itself -- is effectively developed as a strategy throughout all of his
work, especially here, where we recognize the word 'naive' is Evian spelled backwards. Indeed, rather than eschew plastic as one would expect an environmentally concerned citizen to do, plastic, in various incarnations,
takes up a lot of space in his work perhaps mimicking its ubiquity in our environment.
Tricia Middleton's strange mountainous mounds of debris speak to our delirium of consumption. recycling not only her own earlier work but materials sourced from post-consumer waste, her simultaneously amusing but purposefully unappealing garden folly -- consisting of a bench, a classical column, a bird bath,. numerous
garden gnomes and so on -- is virtually unrecognizable under a vomit of dripped and slathered paint she disguises and deforms them with. Resembling a drug induced dream of mindless overindulgence, her work also speaks to debates the hand made object over those mass produced, finding in them more than simply
some aesthetic high-mindedness but a deeper concern with the problems of local versus global, minimal versus maximal, and autonomy versus dependence.
And with the delicate hand and eye, Exner knits and binds technological debris such as coloured electrical wire together into some kind of technological macramé which climbs the wall like electronic ivy. Her biomorphic wall works remind us of the nature versus culture debate. Beyond that though, in another piece we find a computer terminal overgrown with the same kind of technological 'growths' -- a miasma which remind us that at a certain point, technology will (or has already become) 'natural' to us.
This energetic show reveals that, despite environmental urgencies demanding immediate action on both personal and social levels, there is much more for all of us to discuss regarding these complex issues. But, as an exhibition, it is guilty of a different kind of excess itself: we are overwhelmed by the amount of work
in this small gallery. This might have been an interesting thematic gambit had the gallery literally been overflowing with 'stuff.' But I am sure this is not the case here. With some tighter editing and less repetition of both forms and ideas, what is an interesting show could have been a fascinating one.
Abnormal Growth, Artists Riff on Technology, Disposability and Indestructible Waste
Newspaper Article, Journalist: Gregory Beatty
The Prairie Dog, Regina, SK
December 6, 2007 - December 16, 2007
"I just want to say one word to you. Just one word... Plastics. There's a great future in plastics."
- The Graduate, 1967.
Upon attending the opening of Abnormal Growth at the Sherwood Village Branch Gallery on November 24, an exhibition of sculptural works by Griffith Aaron Baker, Twyla Exner, and Tricia Middleton curated by the Dunlop's Amanda Cachia, I couldn't help but think of the above quote from the classic counter-culture flick
about a disaffected college graduate named Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) who, while trying to decide what he wants to do with his life, is seduced by and embarks on a short affair with the wife (Anne Bancroft) of his father's business partner.
In the movie, the advice Benjamin receives from another of his father's business associates to consider a career in plastics is rife with metaphorical significance. Initially regarded as a miracle substance that by virtue of its relative abundance and versatility on comparison with natural materials like wood, stone, brass
silk, and rubber would usher in an era of unprecedented prosperity, plastic, by 1967, had come to be seen as a symbol of all that was wrong with America -- sleek, colourful, and infinitely malleable, sure, but lacking substance, tactility, and soul.
Ironically, while the scene in The Graduate was intended as a slag against plastic, it actually had the opposite effect, boosting the stock of companies in the industry and legitimizing the sector as a viable career path for budding business executives and scientific researchers alike.
Thanks to The Graduate (and ignorance, and unsustainable consumption, and a dysfunctional economy), in 2001 the average American used an estimated 223 pounds of plastic, with that figure expected to rise to 326 pounds by 2010. A recent Los Angeles Times article (from which I cribbed those stats) discussed the growing problem of plastic as a pollutant in the worlds oceans.
Before I go any further, I'd like to emphasise that plastic isn't the sole subject matter of Abnormal Growth. Yes, there is a lot of the material on display in the various sculptures and installations. But that's simply one facet of a broader issue that Cachia and the three artists are intent on exploring here -- namely, how our growing dependence on technology is impacting on environmental sustainability.
"Issues of environmental damage have always interested me as a curator," said Cachia at the opening. "All three artists are obviously very different. But there's strong links between them. They work with recycled material. They're very passionate about consumer waste, and what happens to an object after we buy it."
For Baker, who obtained his BFA at the University of Regina in 2004 and is now studying for his MFA at Concordia University in Montreal, bottled water is a particular bugaboo. For several years now, he's been collecting discarded plastic bottle caps and using them to construct giant versions of popular brands of
bottled water and, more recently, soft drinks. So what is it about the industry that bothers him?
To begin with, most urban residents -- in the developed world anyway -- already have access to a safe supply of drinking water. But through skilful marketing preying on consumer worries about the purity if tap water and extolling the virtues of their product as a status symbol, companies like Evian, Aquafina and Perrier have carved a significant -- and growing --- niche for themselves.
In Evian Bottle, Baker tackles the challenge this consumer trend presents to the environment. Three meters tall and composed of over 13,000 bottle caps, the sculpture is an exact replica of an Evian bottle save for one small detail: the company name is spelled backwards, and thus reads "naive".
To Baker, who spoke at the opening, consumers are naive to pay a premium price for bottled water which scientific studies reveal is virtually indistinguishable from ordinary tap water. Indeed, concern has recently been expressed about phthalates, a chemical that is added to plastic to make it supple, leeching into the bottled water. In laboratory tests, phthalates have been linked to birth defect and liver cancer.
Also problematic for Baker is the amount of waste that the industry generates. While the bottles themselves are made of type one plastic and are recyclable, the caps are made of type five plastic and aren't. Sure, they're tiny. But when you consider that millions of bottled drinks are sold each day, it quickly adds up.
Once discarded, these caps, as the Times article tragically revealed, are often washed out to sea where, along with tons of other waste plastic ranging from cigarette lighters and toothbrushes to toy soldiers and all manner of cargo lost from ships at sea, they are pushed by ocean currents, called gyres, into massive patches of floating debris that create dead zones and poison marine animals on the periphery who mistake the plastic its for food.
Even is they're disposed of properly, the caps become another stream of non biodegradable waste clogging our landfills. It's that reality that Baker, in collaboration with Exner, addresses in Consumed -- a wall mounted bottle cap mural which depicts a truck dumping tons of bottle caps in a landfill, where they morph into a model of the molecular structure for type 5 plastic. Beneath the mural is the pseudo corporate slogan / admonishment: materials that last, objects that fail.
The irony of this industrial practice, in which goods that are intended to be used once and then thrown away are made of a material that, once disposed of, will endure for millennia, is explored more fully by Exner in her solo work. Like Baker, she's a University of Regina grad who's also currently enrolled in Concordia's MFA
program. Living in Montreal, where garbage pick-up is done largely from the street, she's reminded constantly of how wasteful we, as a society are.
Particularity troubling for Exner is the amount of electronic trash we produce. While not disposable per se, relentless innovation in terms of improved performance and tweaks in style quickly render computers, monitors,
MP3 players and other digital devices functionally obsolete. When she spots something in the garbage she grabs it and cannibalizes it for her art. Internal wires, for instance are employed as weaving material in place of the
grasses, roots and tree bark that weavers traditionally use.
In System, she explores logistical and aesthetic similarities between the nervous and circulatory systems of plants and animals and non-organic electrical systems in computers. Similarly, in Invasion, she presents a desktop computer and printer seemingly gone to seed, with woven wire growths sprouting fungus and
pod-like forms from various cracks and crevices.
Like Baker and Exner, Middleton also makes use of recycled materials in her sculptures. A 2005 graduate of Concordia's MFA program, she presents two works here: Help! Final Home and Ether Frolics that critique the sustainability of domestic living arrangements in North American society, where our largely non-communal mindset requires a heavy expenditure of resources to build, furnish and maintain the dwellings which we inhabit.
In Ether Frolics, she showcases a line of garden furniture like a fountain, bird bath and bench that, consistent with their hand made origin , are somewhat rudimentary looking, but nonetheless possess a frothy ornateness suggestive of self-indulgent excess. Help! Final Home, meanwhile, consists of a hand-built structure with wooden floorboards which contains a steep staircase. At the top, Middleton's installed a small LCD panel which displays video of her in her Montreal apartment calling plaintively for help.
Can you hear her?