Friday, May 9, 2008

Small leaves room for things to grow*

A single carbon nano tube, embedded in a sheath of the thinnest silicon wafer, rests on a solitary plinth inside of the gallery entrance. Confronting each viewer in all its breadth — a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter or 1/80000 of the diameter of a strand of human hair — gallery viewers circle about the glass encasement to stare and speculate into the darkness of the silicon, where anything nano-sized remains undetectable to the human eye. A leap of faith is required to believe that anything at all exists on this scale, let alone revolutionary breakthroughs in technology; but standing alone as an introduction to the small exhibition, the presence and reality of something so minute and complex immediately challenges our notions of size and scale beyond a relative experience.

Curated by AGA’s Assistant Curator Marcus Miller, small as a whole presents a multimedia inquiry into the obtuse notion of scale. In a contemporary era where most artists are seemingly working in limitless scale, the challenge to go small has produced a number of existential approaches to the idea of art in scale.

Recent U of A graduate Bonnie Fan’s miniature copper prints and Craig Le Blanc’s scaled down monuments present the most accessible and literal measurements of what it means to be small. Fan’s penchant for creating small works continues in “smallish prints for bookish lovers,” a series of doll-like birdhouses. Each ornamented birdhouse encases a set of Red Bird matchbooks that contain Thumbelina-sized etchings. Twenty-three unique prints are on full display and available to be perused by passing viewers. Unfortunately each print does not go beyond the novelty of its size. Craig Le Blanc’s floor models of a reduced amphitheater and factory building offer a similar interpretation. Brightly white and highly saturated with urethane, the buildings are more a testament to Le Blanc’s craftsmanship than to his response to the theme.

There are slightly more thoughtful approaches to the task of investigating small. Relative to the output of work produced inside on each of its pages, Harold Pearse’s tower of his personal hardcover sketchbooks barely reaches a meter high. Accumulated, the stack of notebooks communicate nothing; but showing the progress from 1 January 1988 – 1 January 2008, Pearse’s daily dutiful sketches reveal a steady stretch of both eye and hand. A small gesture in scope relative to the space and time each page consumes, its compendium exceeds quantification.

Recording the oddest of quantities in “Settings,” Shane Krepekavich (who grew up in Edmonton, but recently relocated to Montreal) documents his most personal details as logical scales and measurements. In one of five diagrams, he provides a precise rendering of his body mass converted into cubic meter volume in direct comparison to his apartment’s cubic meter volume. In another, Krepekavich approximates the location of his first kiss relative to the geographic distribution of the North Saskatchewan River. The seemingly arbitrary connections between his meticulous calculations, subtly suggest an inverted and solipsistic notion of small. His cartographic understanding of the world exists only in relation to his own self. The intrinsic dualism in his comparative measurements is rooted in the significant and sentimental milestones of his life. At first estranging in proximity, the world is made small as its reality is humbled into the scope of memory.

Going even further into exploring both the visible and invisible traces of memory and monument in public space is Allen Ball and Kimberly Mair’s project “The German Autumn in Minor Spaces.” As a looping photo slide show based on images taken from a regular digital camera shared between Ball and Mair, the project’s investment does not fall on the craft of photography. Ball, an acclaimed painter and Mair, a sociology researcher, plainly documented a series of public spaces in Berlin, Kassel and Stuggart in June of 2007. Last year marked the 30th anniversary of state crisis known as the Autumn of Terror in the former Federal Republic of Germany, a period fraught with protests and violence following the rise and fall of the Red Army Faction (RAF). Ball and Mair’s choice to use a household dimension of 5 X 7 for photographs maintains the banality of their cartographic rendering of RAF’s subversive activities. There is a vagueness in the experience of looking at these photographs; the history of their locations are lost without the knowledge and presence that imbues them with significance. These minor urban locations have been photographed numerous times before as the site of crime scenes, protests, and glory. Those same sites, as captured in Ball and Mair’s vacant snapshots, do not re-create the moment between then and now, but trigger the unfolding of time as history lived and relived.

One photograph, “Acoustic Isolation,” depicts a beautiful pastoral garden. Capturing lush fauna in an undisturbed setting, the title could easily refer to the tranquility of the scene. Only slightly off centre in the image, however, rests the grave marker of one of RAF’s central figures, Ulrike Meinhof. Beneath the umbrella of an idyllic ficus tree, there lies the remains of the prominent young journalist who helped break out rebel Andreas Baader, who would be forced to go underground before serving jail time for attempted murder, and eventually be induced into alienation that ended in a highly investigated suicide. It would be during her prison time in Ossendorf prison that prisoners were kept in a cell with 24-hour fluorescent lighting and isolated from any sound from the outside world — known as acoustic isolation. Known within Ossendorf as the “Dead Section,” later reports included descriptions of the experience as being buried alive, separated from the living and unable to speak and form thoughts. The non-monumentalness of the photograph shrinks the magnitude of Meinhof’s history into its present state as a minor space. Vastly different from the glorified era and radical implication of most RAF artwork, Ball and Mair take off from Deleuze and Guattari’s frame of minor language as an entry point into investigating the political and historical reverberations of these condensed public spaces. The work deals directly with the present rather than the past, and examines how we confront meanings and matter that have seemingly exceeded their root significance.

Although the series of 18 photographs run on a continuous loop, the unofficial last image is a present day photograph of Stammheim prison — the security prison where the three core members of RAF all mysteriously and independently committed suicide on the night of October 18, 1977. In the image, the building and sky are saturated with an institutional grey. Taken from the prison’s surrounding open fields, the photograph captures in the foreground three tiny red poppies emerging against the overcast concrete. As a haunting testament to presence, those three serendipitous wild flowers remain a sign to the history and reverberation of Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe, living specters that permeated The German Autumn of 1977.

Embracing the complexity of the most ordinary places, the documents of “The German Autumn in Minor Spaces” consciously fail at articulating memory and experience. Only there is a beautiful failure in its attempt to perform those attachments within their photographic cartography; and it is the difficulty and desire of articulating lived experience that perpetuates the motivation to create and to deal with something too big from our selves.

Curated through an open call to Alberta-based artists, "small" remains a lightweight exhibition in terms of relevance and transparency outside of its theme. As stand alone works of art, only Ball + Mair and LeBlanc's projects are ready to exhibit elsewhere. Limiting works to fit a theme rather than finding the thread that ties a body of work together, the end result produced inklings for a larger idea. Yet to reach their full potential, the works in "small" remain small in artistic scope.

*Originally published in FUSE magazine Spring 2008

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