Author: Ganis, William V
Date published: March 1, 2012
The Canadian Museum of Nature, St. Brigid's Centre for the Arts, and Patrick Mikhail Gallery
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
December 9, 2011-February 12, 2012
The exhibition "Preternatural" dealt with a liminal conceptual space, between objectivity and the metaphysical, and made palpable in several contemporary art forms. Though not organized as such, several themes permeated the exhibition: science invoked to show the extraordinary; the spiritual made manifest and sensual; and subtleties that delivered surprising multivalance. Curator Celina Jeffery tested epistemological limits and even offered compelling counterexamples to James Elkins's observed disconnection between spirituality and contemporary art. It was fitting to frame a show about unconventional perceptions in three idiosyncratic spaces: a deconsecrated Catholic basilica, a whitebox gallery in a strip mall, and a natural history museum.
The former St. Brigid's Cathedral, now St. Brigid's Centre for the Arts, is the most obvious space to evoke the spiritual. In a site-specific performative intervention in the basilica, Anne Katrine Senstad transformed the structure's east and west ends with a light-and-sound installation, "The Kinesthesia of Saint Brigid" (2011). The references to light organs were unmistakable as Senstad projected colors near the church's architecturally scaled pipe organ, comprised of shifting luminous fields that caused retinal apparitions. At this size, the saturated projections were an attempt to impress upon viewers something of the numinous grandeur evoked in color-field paintings - the ineffable claimed by Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, among many others. The accompanying music by J.G. Thirlwell added cinematic majesty through its modulated, meditative monotones.
Bringing to mind spirit photography, Adrian Göllner conjured spectral emanations in his "Handel's Cloud" (20 11), performanceinstallations of white fog shooting in syncopated rushes from the arts center's wooden, ribbed vaulting. The performance of fog machines played as musical instruments was fleeting, much like seeing a ghost, but the impression lasting. In the once-sacred space, the reference to transubstantiation, turning the spiritual into the palpable, was unmistakable. Given the exhibition's run during the holiday season, "Handel's Cloud" seemed to be a nod to the season's religious spectacles, especially as live crèches, midnight masses, and the like all reference deific manifestation.
Equally elusive, the Patrick Mikhail Gallery's white-box space was interrupted only by the pressed lines of Shin Il Kim's Invisible Masterpiece (2004). Kim's drawings are embossings that result from tracing images; these impressions, marks without ink or graphite, defy a figure-ground relationship and were edited together like a flipbook in a rotoscoped, three-channel video. Barely perceptible traces of human figures observing art in a museum became even more ghostly as immaterial projections.
At the Canadian Museum of Nature, the artists foregrounded the sense of wonder and sensuality in science (frequently missing from sterile, professional peer-reviewed journals and data sets). Sarah Walko's installation, "It is very least what one ever sees" (2011), was an intersection of scientific organization with devotional practice, poetry, and romance. Wall-mounted test tubes became reliquaries for colorful found-object collections; among these bones, feathers, and texts, arranged according to Walko's personal taxonomy. Live fish and plants in a central biosphere countered the collected dead objects. Above this tank, Walko situated a column of delicate plastic pods, evocative of seeds, jellyfish, and microscopic sea creatures. Her fanciful arrangements offered a marked contrast to (and parody of) the "objective" displays (especially those about classification) in the institution's other galleries.
Mariele Neudecker offered a metaphor for looking in 4. 7 km - ~- 3 Miles or ~ 2.5 Nautical Miles (2009), in which she suspended one upside-down miniature lighthouse in each of two large laboratory-glass orbs evocative of eyeballs. Within the spheres, a seminal cloud dispersed from the bottom over several days to create an occluding fog throughout the vessel. The inverted sculptures evoked precognitive "innocent" or "natural" vision "righted" by each viewer's brain. The piece invited intimate looking - viewers bowed to peer into each vessel and discover the refractive and occluding optics. Another play on looking, Much Was Decided Before You Were Born (2001) is a large-scale photograph of a blurred, inverted evergreen - an image made from a vessel similar to that described above.
Through Nox Borealis (2011), Andrew Wright freely rewrites the notion of the natural history diorama in four photographic prints. In two pairs of stacked panels, most of the image field is black and the landscape is confined to the top of the panels. Wright calls the prints "l:l-scale" - a spatial paradox for an illusionistic landscape with an "infinite" black sky. He mounts the prints on shallow parabolic panels that give them overt physical presence, confronting viewers with photography's materiality as well as the representational image. Wright's inverted arctic photographs purposefully disorient viewers, who aren't exactly sure if they are looking at minimal sculpture, ambient reflections, snow, a heavenly cloudscape, or the lunar surface. In this calculated ambivalence, he evokes the terror and sublime of the arctic - an environment without landmarks and with greatly distorted time references.
Senstad's The Sugarcane Labyrinth (2011) didn't fit the "preternatural" theme as well as other works, although it did recast ecologies of Louisiana sugarcane farms and wetlands into 1.4 acres of aesthetic space. The split-screen video presentation was part documentary about the labyrinth's construction and growth, and part point-of-view travels through the space.
Marie Jeanne-Musiol, a believer in ecumenical spirituality, best manifested the exhibition's theme of extraordinary vision. She displayed electrophotographic light images of foliage in The Radiant Forest (Energy Herbarium) (2011). Radiant points describe maple, fern, and other eastern North American forest leaves and are objective evidence of auratic energies important to many religions. A video, Mirrors of the Cosmos (2006), revealed details of the electro-light formations seen in the leaves as images of star clusters and nebulae, demonstrating the phi (or golden ratio) concept, that similar structures can be found within tiny and vast orders. The artist also presented small transparencies (many viewers mistook them for iPads) on shelf-mounted displays of many different botanical specimens. All were backlit by a mysterious, dim bioluminescence that "develops" on viewers' retinas - a metaphorical and demonstrative energy transference.
WILLIAM V. GANIS is a critic, associate professor of Art History, and gallery director at Wells College in Aurora, New York.