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Not quite what it seems

« Se faire avoir comme un bleu / Hook, Line and Sinker »
Sasha Phipps’ exhibition at La Galerie du Nouvel-Ontario, October 2016
An accompanying text by Normand Renaud

The camouflage, the lure and the catch: in this exhibition, three realities familiar to fishers and hunters are both expressed and transformed.

My first comments are on the component of the exhibition that gave me a true jolt of excitement. In a corner of the gallery near the entrance is a square, stainless steel basin, filled with dark tinted water, standing on four metal legs which raise the small pool of water to waist level. Perfectly still in the middle of this little square pool rests a conical orange-white-blue floater, like those that fishers use to know when a fish is taking the bait. A soundtrack of drops of water completes the scene’s peaceful ambiance. Like a close-up photo in a metallic frame, this pretty picture captures the essence of the art of still fishing. The image is zen, pure, stripped down to the bare minimum. You contemplate it, drawn into the same peaceful absent-mindedness that you feel when you’re out fishing. Then, all of a sudden…

For a brief moment, the still image comes alive. Something is biting! The floater trembles, producing a little circular wave that expands centrifugally, simultaneously producing in the viewer a surprisingly intense shock wave. The moment delivers with stunning accuracy the sensation felt by a fisher whose reverie is brusquely interrupted by the sign of an imminent catch. Even though you have no rod, bait, boat, lake or stream, you feel as if you’re right there, at the crucial moment of capture. But the moment is so brief that you instantly doubt your senses. Did I just imagine that? Now, the scene is nothing but pure stillness. The faux fisher is confused, having no rod in hand to tease the prey. The only thing you can do is examine the installation more closely.

The secret of the illusion is not immediately obvious, but it isn’t hidden. A length of fishing line emerges discretely from the back side of the basin. As you follow where it leads, you see that it extends downward behind the basin to a small electric motor attached to the floor, which activates a little arm. Sasha tells us later that it’s a small programmable motor like you might find in a printer or a scanner. So, there is no fish in these few centimetres of water. However, there is a catch: the spectator, excited by an insignificant stimulus, is just as much a victim of their neural programming as a cat that behaves like a hunter because of a bit of dangling yarn.

Another theme of this exhibition is camouflage. The gallery’s two side walls display creations that appear at first glance to be straightforward hunter’s camouflage, yet they are somehow different. The purpose of camouflage is to hide the fact that you’re hiding. But here, it becomes a way to reveal a landscape or to express awareness of our surroundings.

Hanging from the wall and rolling onto the floor, there is a wide length of canvas with a camouflage pattern extending several metres. There are metal grommets, so it might be used as a tarp. But it’s rather as if this rolling fabric is inviting us to drape the whole gallery space and superimpose nature over structure. You notice brown oak leaves, pine cones, branches of red pine, trunks of young birch, and blueberries. It’s a pattern designed by Sasha Phipps, which he calls ‘Rocky Oak and Blueberries’, a name he chose because it sounds a bit like ‘Mossy Oak’, a well-known commercially available camouflage pattern.

The other length of canvas is draped over a square structure on the floor near the facing wall and tied to rocks as if to keep the wind from blowing it away. The title of this pattern is ‘Slag and Cattails’. It features cattails, green oak leaves, wild grasses that resemble wheat, and bits of dark rock that Sudburians instantly recognize as smelter residue, or slag. All these visual elements are extracted from photos that Sasha Phipps took in the Sudbury area.

If you’re not a hunter, you might not know that you can find in stores a number of ‘classic’ camouflage patterns with names like Mossy Oak, Real Tree, God’s Country, etc. The artist used them as inspiration to create something similar. However, because he’s using images extracted from the natural environment of Sudbury, his camouflage pattern serves to express a sense of local identity, or simply to design a popular style, like the camouflage patterns that are sometimes used in everyday clothing. Here, camouflage acquires a new function, somewhat removed from its original function of creating an illusion of absence in the midst of a landscape. Now, it serves to make the landscape appear present in a new way, by expressing our recognition of the landscape in an esthetically pleasing assemblage of emblematic elements of our mixed boreal forest. Sudbury can now boast having its very own camouflage patterns, unique and representative of the region.

Nearby, hanging on wooden pegs attached to the wall, there are three baseball caps that also have camouflage patterns. One of them is intended for fishers. A novel thought: who would have thought that they might need to try and hide from the fish? It’s an amusing idea with a dash of humour thrown in for good measure: on the underside of one of the brims, there’s the infamous ‘blue pickerel’ that is part of the next component of the exhibition. The fisher simply has to glance upward to spot it. “Well in sight, well in mind.”

Sasha Phipps explains that the idea of exploring the possibilities of camouflage came to him during his mini-residency in Sudbury as part of the GNO’s ‘Allez-retour’ program. At first, he didn’t know of a company that could manufacture a small number of caps with a custom-made camouflage pattern. He discovered one in England. (But be warned: judging from these caps, Britons have small heads!) As for the camouflage tarps, they were printed at the University of Ottawa, where the artist works: they have a large printer that can print on wide fabrics.

The final component of the exhibition brings us back to the ‘Hook, Line and Sinker’ theme of the exhibition’s title. One again, there’s a catch, but you’re left wondering what it could possibly be.

Attached to the end wall of the gallery is a life-sized fish with two oversized triple hooks. (Sasha says they’re the kind used for shark fishing!) This perfectly reproduced plastic fish looks exactly like a pickerel, and its belly is a golden color (perhaps not too surprising for a fish whose name in French is doré – golden). But its back is blue. So, there you have un doré bleu, a blue-gold pickerel: it’s a rare catch, a worthy trophy. However, it’s only the prelude to an even more impressive catch; because of its triple hooks, this is obviously not a fish, but a lure designed to capture something much bigger.

The blue pickerel is attached to the wall very firmly, because from its mouth extends a white rope that crosses the gallery space to reach a fishing rod attached to the other perpendicular wall. The rod is bent into a curve due to the tautness of the rope. A few cattails, all white, trying to blend in with the white walls of the gallery, complete the scene. So, here nature is using camouflage, as if striving to remain unseen against white walls, while attached to the nearby wall, a lure-fish ― of a kind which nobody has ever seen in the wild ― seems to be telling us to expect the unexpected.

You try to imagine the predator that would strike at that prey. Proportionally, it would have to be about as big as an adult human being, at least. Did a clumsy cast snag that lure in the shoreline vegetation? Or was the intended catch in fact the gallery wall, as if to capture the gallery space and all its visitors? In any case, the scene is dynamic, rich with tension and energy, like a quest whose source and goal are wrapped in mystery or… camouflaged.

There you have a glimpse of an exhibition that displaces the vernacular of hunting and fishing to bring a new perception to familiar realities. The object or the situation undergoes a slight dislocation which doesn’t seem to alter its purpose or function profoundly, but which nonetheless rejuvenates quite profoundly the way we perceive it. Drawing from the common and the everyday, the artist crafts intriguing new realities in a realm of concrete imagination. These objects would not seem out of place in an everyday context, in the landscape, away from the gallery space, and this speaks to the respectful consideration given to these borrowed and transformed realities. There’s the glint of a smile in these playful hoaxes. You don’t mind getting caught “hook, line and sinker”, like a mythical blue pickerel. In fact, it’s good fun.


Subterranean Paper and Light

An accompanying text by Maty Ralph

Stories of the secret underground have always intrigued us. From Indiana Jones to BBC’s Planet Earth, our hunger for sub-surface mystery is constantly being reflected in art and entertainment. In Nouveaux Troglodytes, Philippe Blanchard manages to take us a step further by providing us with a narrative-free setting in which we are encouraged to play out our own fantasies of darkness and depth.

It starts with the shapes. Stalactites and stalagmites are commonplace for any spelunker, but for your average urbanites these forms are a gateway into a world that beckons forth our primal urge to explore. Blanchard knows how to play with this urge; he gives us form, light and sound in just the right dose. If he were to offer too much detail, the world he created might have become too vivid and, by consequence, too small. Instead, he uses the principles of minimalism to gift his audience with the tools they need to create their own story.

Mysteries in the modern world are getting harder and harder to find. With satellites, we discovered a way to map out the topography of Jupiter’s third moon and suddenly the surface of our own world seemed rather bush-league in comparison. And so we find ourselves venturing beneath the surface where the ancient unknown can still hide, unthreatened, for now, by the prying eyes of the digital age.

And it is in the relationship between the arcane and digital where Blanchard uses contrast most brilliantly. He has built a world of stone and moss and darkness out of pixels and paper and light. As the animated conical forms blink and buzz and the electronic soundscapes resonate and reverberate, the space becomes shrouded in the delightful haze of contradiction. A future-history hybrid is formed where nothing is what it seems and the only certainty is that this place is definitely far beneath the surface.

And that’s where we secretly want to be: where mysteries still have power because they remain unsolved.

The cave, after all, is where we think art was born. In subterranean earth lay the first ever galleries, where the images on the walls strove to understand the world above, a world where the mechanics of virtually every phenomenon were still awesomely enigmatic.

Now, in the age of information, the gallery must play host to the cave. Nouveaux Troglodytes is an enthusiastic return to a space where we may once again explore the last great, untold secrets of the modern world.

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Maty Ralph loves talking to you about art and is always on the lookout for new adventures that challenge the heights of imagination.


Church of the Selfie

Reflections on Geneviève Thauvette’s LA FUGUE
An accompanying text by Lara Bradley

A tomb. A tunnel. A womb.

A blond-haired boy running hard slides through it on his socked feet. Squealing. Giggling. Whipping past the grown-ups, past the memorabilia outside the white oblong structure –framed school photo, fake flowers, crutch, cross, candle, bear mask, disco ball, stuffed animal, and trophy—back into its shimmery walls, lit by strands of lights traveling in one direction and then the other. He is fast and unafraid of this art.

Grown-ups, we hesitate at the opening of the installation. Fixated on that feeling of being a kid late for church (but, oh, what a church!), not wanting to leave the darkness of the vestibule before going in. We’re unsure about walking on its mirrored surface –being at the centre of all that light and attention.

For a split second, I’m back in high school chemistry class, playing with toxic beads of mercury on the black wooden desk, pushing them together into bigger blobs, then poking it and watching it skitter apart. Wondering about the ones that slide into the cracks. Could this be a pool of all that escaped mercury? No, it’s the mylar walls of a grow operation visited in my 20s. Feeling the heat from the lights reflected back on its silvery walls, inhaling the skunk of the pot plants, and listening to my friend’s grandiose plans before it all ends badly.

There is a smell to this installation – not of pot but the similar musky dankness of tomato leaves, mixed in with beetroot, pollen, honeysuckle, mushroom, incense, and that churchy wood smell. It’s a scent that the artist, Geneviève Thauvette, sprays into the air throughout the night. It’s her own Tom Robbins inspired Jitterbug Perfume — one trying to pin down that feeling of decay and decadence, mortality and transcendence.

The blond-haired boy makes another pass.

Adults, we go slower. First ducking our heads through the entrance (if we are tall) –below the skull affixed amid the flowers—and then reluctantly dropping to our knees, crawling forward. Awkward in our adult skin.

At the opening, it’s too loud to hear the recorded laughter and applause tinkling through the tunnel. But a low thrum can be felt in our bones and Mozart’s “Amen Fugue” is rising and falling, playing forwards and backwards. Some of us lie back and look-up at our fragmented image, lost among the flashes of coloured light. Leaving the tunnel, we catch a glimpse of ourselves –just barely a piece of you, yourself in motion– a delayed projection on the wall framed by a game show worthy curtain of tinsel.

Hey, you. You are the centre of it all in Thauvette’s Church of the Self; a joyous takedown of our selfie-absorbed modern souls. (There are Greek myths in the mix too, which I’ll get into later, like Narcissus and Echo.) It’s a “pop-rocks for the pineal gland” kind of experience– electrifying, sugary, and fleeting. The same secret thrill that comes from Googling your own name, catching sight of yourself in the grocery store TV, or getting all the “likes” after posting a new profile pic.

Me. Here I am having fun. (Even though we fought on the way here and didn’t say anything to each other at dinner, so busy on our phones.) But look at us eating our Instagram meal. See. Me. You. Happy! Not only happy, happy-face happy!

At the opening, Thauvette flits from person to person, camera around her neck. She is striking and beautiful, an embodiment of her creation.

Her legs look like those on a Rococo chair – slender and shapely in white stockings that end in the same coloured shoes –hooves, really– elegant and ornate. (I later learn that she’s all about the Rococo.)

I don’t notice the blue tips of her hair until the next day when we are outside in the sun looking for coffee. She orders three shots of espresso with steamed chocolate milk. Three shots. This scares me, as already she appears to be vibrating on a higher plane of energy, words and ideas circling her head like bees, her hands snatching them fearlessly from the air.

Although young, teetering on 30, she is not new to art or its worlds. Creating installations is part of her art but photography came first. Her photographs have been shown around the world including at Japan’s Media Arts Festival, the Perth International Arts Festival in Australia, and the Vie Jeux de la Francophonie in Beirut where she won the gold medal for Canada. You can also find Thauvette’s series, Les quintuplées Dionne, at the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

Past installations by Thauvette have been featured at Ottawa’s Nuit Blanche. Similar to La Fugue, they have also played with ideas of death, pop-culture, celebrity, and self.

There was the white blimp anchored to a building with billowing smoke below it and the words “The World is Yours” which was inspired by the movie Scarface. In it, there’s a scene where Al Pacino watches a black zeppelin with those words float by and then everything goes to shit.

Technical Difficulties: On Air and Other Disasters was an installation set up to look like the inside of an airplane. With that one, you had the dichotomy of movie plane crashes being screened silently, while real black box recordings of the last minutes of pilots played out loud.

Then there was the time in Cake is Freedom when Thauvette dressed-up as a blindfolded Marie Antoinette in full Rococo splendour and stood in a birthday cake while singing the French National Anthem. That one played with a bunch of themes, including conquering a fear of public singing. The performance piece also became the subject of a Radio-Canada documentary.

“My friend laughs at me and says I’m Rococo. … It’s my favourite period of time. The painting of the girl on a swing and someone looking up her skirt. I like detail and I like symbolic meaning.”

The idea for La Fugue began with Thauvette’s love of churches and memorial sites – those found on roadsides after accidents and outside famous people’s mansions after overdoses.

“I like that spontaneous expression of sympathy and empathy that is displayed in public so openly. That is something very deep and primal and subconscious,” she explained. “Sometimes it’s for a person that they do not know, like a celebrity … They are saying to the world that they hurt. That they feel something. It’s not about the person dying.”

Right now we are living in a time that is all about the self and “the cult of self,” she said. The oxygen fanning these flames of self-promotion has come from social media. At the same time, for many, religion has become obsolete. With God declared “dead,” we are rushing to fill this emptiness with … ourselves?

“The self and the cult of the self that we are currently experiencing, is a very interesting time in society. How do we relate and what is community? Man cannot exist without religion but with the state of religion we are currently experiencing, where is our outlet? We have turned inwards to, I guess, find meaning,” she said.

We as a society are both channelling our vanity and mixing it with our need for something greater. So a new religion is being born and we are at the centre of it, she said.

“All that deep energy to the divine to the unknown is being poured into selfies and hashtags,” Thauvette said. “I see the importance of it but there is no depth to it.”

La Fugue is a tunnel yes, but it can also be a pathway to an altar. The entrance is shaped kind of like a gothic knave, she said. But there also is a tomb like quality to it, as well. The tunnel “shrinks,” bigger at one end and gradually becoming smaller at the other, forcing people to get down on their knees to leave.

“There is that forced piousness. They are looking at themselves like Narcissus — falling in love with himself,” she said.

Echo also comes into play through Mozart’s “Amen Fugue.” While there are many variations of the myth, in one, the nymph Echo falls for a young man named Narcissus, who loves no one but himself (he eventually ends up pining away, staring at his own reflection in a pool). Besides loving Narcissus, her other fatal flaw was her love of hearing her own voice and talking. So after crossing the God Juno, Echo is cursed, only able to repeat what others say.

“A fugue is musical composition where voices are repeated, which relates to the myth of Echo. She’s punished to never have a voice, just to repeat. So it’s vacuous and empty. It’s essentially the retweet of mythology,” Thauvette added.

Mozart considered the Fugue to be his funeral song and had a feeling that it would be the last thing he would create, she said. In the installation, it plays to the end and then plays backwards. So that the audio is mirrored to reflect the visual aspects of the piece as well.

Besides the fugue, there is the sound of laughter and applause heard in the tunnel, which speaks to our craving for praise and being liked, and a heavy bass reverb, “an audio presence” weighing down the entire room. Thauvette wanted people to feel the vibrations at a “deeper level,” in their knees and hands, as they crawl to the exit.

The final element is her perfume, fashioned to evoke feelings of decay and decadence, as well as memories of church.

“We’ve replaced God with this foolish self-obsession. I see the irony in talking to you about it right now. It’s all about myself and this piece. Just being an artist alone … it’s a very self-involved thing to do,” Thauvette said. “My mom has given her professional life to children who can’t thank her. I’m here making fanciful tunnels that speak to this nebulous idea … She’s trying to make society better in a tangible way.”

For her, the sense of the tangible comes from seeing people interact with her art and take something away. The little blond haired boy’s reaction made all the difference.

“I blew his little mind. That’s why you make art. You can make art to be serious and sober but that is not where my heart is. I want something that is a bit of a feast,” Thauvette said.

I come back later without the crowds. People have left more memorabilia and written on the tomb with markers. It now looks a little like a giant arm cast.

Rémi has been here. So has Kanye West. Cool.

Lying down inside the light show, I think about finding the cross from my stepfather’s funeral in a box at my mother’s house. How we wondered what to do with it. Where should such crosses go, other than in boxes that must-be-kept-forever, when you no longer feel right about hanging them on walls? Should it be tucked alongside this tomb with all the other pieces of memory and belongings?

As I hear the sound of recorded applause, I also think about how easy it is to force people to clap. Most of the time we clap out of a combination of peer pressure and politeness.

I feel a pressure weighing down my chest. It started this morning and hasn’t eased up; imagining the worst, I think of having a heart attack right here, right now. How wonderfully poetic would that be. And how narcissistic of me to imagine dying in this mini-pop cathedral, this disco-decked-out church of the self.

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This accompanying text is sponsored by Laurentian University.

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