Saturday, March 5, 2022

Acres of Time: Signifying Solace

Handmade sonic instrument used in Lance Austin Olsen’s sound environment.

Lost Foundry/Fukushima Rising: a collaborative site-specific installation curated by Sue Donaldson, featuring paintings/soundtracks by Lance Austin Olsen and a sculptural diorama by Jeremy Borsos, from February 4-March 6, in Victoria, British Columbia.   

“What art is, in reality, is this missing link, not the actual links which exist. It's not what you see that is art; art is the gap between the things you see.” – Marcel Duchamp

The obscure psychic explorer Edgar Cayce (1877-1945) once confidently asserted, “The medicine of the future will be music and sound,” a seemingly cryptic remark that comes more clearly into focus when one contemplates the power of sonics to alter everything from our perception of time and space to the condition of our own bodies. Especially subsequent to 1945, when the compositions of John Cage and Conlon Nancarrow called into question the entire landscape of silence we had previously overlooked, and then later on in the twentieth century, when ambient music created a whole other dimension to listening in a statue of suspended animation approaching rapture, Cayce may finally be coming into his own.

The physical environment itself, rather than merely being a receptacle within which music occurs, might itself be a form of music, perhaps even a kind of frozen music, approximating or evoking the passage of duration in a most seductive manner. This is especially the case when an installation artist who is also a composer of elegiac dreams collaborates with a composer who is also a painter, in order to explore the edges of our nature as temporal beings, creatures who experience history, our own personal history, as well as the shared collective history, in a wistful, melancholy, playful and poetic manner. Their collaboration might just be the kind of environmental medicine that Cayce was imagining. 


 Onsite / Lost Foundry (Borsos)

So it is with the alluring theatre of memory curated by Sue Donaldson, in which Lance Austin Olsen paintings and soundscapes engage in a meditation on impermanence and transcendence with the sculptural diorama and haunting psychic architecture of Jeremy Borsos. For their Fukushima Rising/Lost Foundry installation, a subtle and dreamlike reconstruction provides a stage set within which the Borsos diorama interacts with paintings and assemblages by Olsen and occupy a post-industrial space filled with both iron and brass ghosts as well as ghostly music. His minimalist music is maximal in its impact and effects on the subliminal listener.

In her curatorial essay on this shared project, Donaldson effectively evokes the troubled and tenuous times we’re passing through as an ideal mirror of the impetus for what she and the exhibiting artists are exploring in response: “Artists Jeremy Borsos and Lance Olsen respond with a re-creation of the 1864 Albion Iron Works foundry building in the temporary exhibition LOST FOUNDRY/FUKUSHIMA RISING at 655 Tyee Road in Victoria. Albion Iron Works and its successors produced most of the cast iron manhole covers, storm drains and utility plates throughout Greater Victoria streets, humble remnants of locally lost practices.”

There is something both memorial and poetic about this installation project, one that merges varied media formats (sculpture, music, assemblage and painting) into a small theatre of regret and loss, yes, but also one of anticipation and renewal. Music, a discipline which is also practiced by a visual artist such as Olsen in his Infrequency Editions releases, is obviously not only inherently about time; it is time itself, embodied, so to speak.  But painting and sculpture, even architectural design, which the German poet Goethe referred to as frozen music, is also about duration, but in its slowed-down-to-a-seeming-standstill variety. The compelling diorama by Borsos, in its industrial elegy ode mode, is in fact also an emotionally gripping theatre of regret writ large.

Donaldson further elaborates their agenda together: “Salvaged by Jeremy and Sus Borsos in 1997 during demolition of the wooden building, Lost Foundry is a 38-foot re-assembled section of the massive red foundry façade. The whole exhibition bathes in an underwater glow from the available light through the blue tinted windows, changing with shifts in the weather and time of day. Viewers walk the length of the space to approach the monumental façade. Olsen’s soundtrack to the exhibition, Fukushima Rising, envelops the room while they walk, absorb the three related works in the composition, and consider his accompanying suite of 10 large acrylic, collage and oil pastel paintings on paper from pandemic years 2020 and 2021 installed on the unfinished drywall.”

When visitors arrive at the refurbished foundry façade, a furtive peephole drilled in the door permits a voyeuristic glance within at a theatrical tableau that evokes our precarious times: a common grocery bag, plastic, of course, ripples in the fabricated breeze as it dangles from branches on an ominously dark and damp beach landscape. The most emphatic aspects of this site-specific collaboration, the result of shared environmental concerns between artists and curator, lies in the decision to operate outside the customary gallery or museum system. That choice brought them directly into the very industrial environment on which they were providing an incisive cultural and political commentary. The results were both dramatic and disconcerting, as well they should be.

As the trio of curator and artists intended, a combination of gritty site and subtle installation achieved an almost operatic impact on the viewer, who is enveloped in an immersive (and thus almost Neo-Baroque) experience at once monumental and yet intimate. The spacious abandoned commercial zone notwithstanding, a cavernous archaeological presentation was still ironically welcoming and managed to both critique and elegiacally embrace the Anthropocene era we are currently hoping to somehow survive.

There is actually a combination of elegies being presented on this dream-like stage set: the lament over a lost industrial culture, the lament over a disastrous climate shift and the perils of both scenarios in our precarious and fragile times. For me, the touching and slightly melancholy aura of the project speaks so well to the precariousness we are all witnessing, but it also seems to serve as a means of materializing hope. The works do memorialize memory to a certain extent, but they do not reify our fear sorrow. Yet they do offer a welcome gift: solace for loss, and even solace for what yet to be lost but soon will be.

And one other element is impossible not to register, at least on the part of Borsos in his splendid diorama: the very tangible and real honouring of Marcel Duchamp’s final voyeuristic architectural work, on which he laboured in secret for some twenty years or so. Etant Donnes (1946-1966) was Duchamp’s last major artwork, surprising an art world which believed he had more or less given up the practice of making art for the practice of studying and playing chess. The work is a tableau and diorama, visible only through peepholes in a wooden door.

Fukushima Rising, Lance Austin Olsen, one of ten paintings in the exhibition, 2022, acrylic and oil pastel on rag paper, 30 x 44 inches.

The hyper-secretive and hermetic Duchamp had laboured on this work in secret in his Greenwich Village studio, elaborately constructing from the door, nails, bricks, velvet leaves, twigs a female form made of parchment, hair, glass, plastic clothespins, oil paint, linoleum, an assortment of lights and a landscape composed of hand-painted and photographic elements and an electronic motor housed in a cookie tin which rotates a perforated disc. It was eventually donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it sits to this day, perplexing visitors who peer through the peephole.In the alluring case of Boros’ refurbished architectural foundry front, a similar surprise awaits the visitor who bends to inspect the imagined interior and finds a somewhat post-industrial feeling landscape (a seemingly twilight beach scene with crashing surf) featuring a dramatically filmed backdrop wind blowing a plastic-like textile bag attached to a branch among branches. I say dramatic because it almost suggests a flag of surrender, as if nature is giving up on us (or perhaps as if we have given up on it).

I was pleased to discover that my melancholy feeling was not a projection of my own elegiac fixations. As Borsos has explained, “My works encompass any media necessary to explore memory and the archive. I have a particular interest in what architecture and the photographic image, either moving or still, contribute as media. Both hold a dynamic, decaying echo of their inception. To encapsulate this personal responsibility (for teetering on global environmental disaster) a diorama with a back projection seemed to be an intimate conveyance for a scene one witnesses individually.”

We peer through the spy-hole on the front door onto a beach scene. First we see a plastic bag, a real one, haplessly caught flapping in the breeze, a real breeze. We may feel small gusts of air as we notice the ocean, a back projection of endless ocean in the distance. Just below our eye level is an intertidal pool of water rippling.
Etant Donnes, Marcel Duchamp (1946-66). (Wordpress)

There is, therefore, a shared ethos operating even below the surface of the two collaborating artists and their works: the beaches, one miniature and evocative, silently speaks of the encroachment of industrial plastics and man-made disaster; while the other is a reality scaled beach flooded in the disastrous rising tide of a tsunami initially caused by an earthquake, which then was recursively disastrous as a Daiichi nuclear power plant reactor meltdown destroyed three cores.

Thus an underlying narrative, the human damage done to, through and with nature, is being mutually embodied by images, objects, and sounds. “This building fragment,” Borsos continues,

at a hundred and thirty-three years old, was, like many parts of the built world, quotidian. Established at the address for so long it was not on the radar of historic value beyond its enterprise, purveying cast metal infrastructure elements in an industrial arc of the city of Victoria. Twenty- three years after its demolition and rebuilding, I was interested in how it might represent this subconscious position. This foundry, built from first growth forest, originally manufacturing metal objects for over a century, has some resonance with where we find ourselves environmentally.

That is a powerful indictment right there, of a society where it is possible for not just a certain neighbourhood, and its somewhat antiquated industry, but of a whole planetary predicament being not on our historic radar.

This was a tale of two tales that needed telling, industrial environmental loss to history and environmental loss to climate, and for the project was both propitious and maybe prophetic in its unfolding. For me, perhaps even more elegaically, yet impossible not to imagine, still further across the nearby water in the other extremity distance, stretches the still forlorn waterfront site of Fukushima.

Binding these two geographical zones together, in a geography of the imagination, and through the insightful collaborative work of Olsen and Borsos with curator Donaldson, is a subtle but tangible gesture: signifying solace. And maybe that’s also the actual meaning of Duchamp’s charmingly consoling adage in the end: that it’s not what you see that is art . . . art is the gap between the things you see.

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020. His latest work in progress is a new book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, due out in early 2022.

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