« 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.