Viewing "The Secret of the Midnight Shadow" is like being inside a life-size pop-up book, waiting for the next page to turn, or like visiting a stage frozen in time. The large dioramic installation of a forest at night time is inhabited by young, life-size cut-out boys playing in the wilderness. They are free from the gaze of their supervisors to play games exploring their budding sexuality, but they are immobile and anchored to the walls with thick metal pipes.
Image credit: Daryl Vocat "Three boys; see, hear, and speak." Close-up view. Acrylic on MDF. 2006.
The other section of the main gallery holds a series of small prints of the boys, performing similar actions over a pixelated landscape backdrop. This time, they are trapped inside virtual-space rather than a construction paper, paint, and plywood world. The prints inform the reading of the installation by highlighting the importance of Vocat's fascination with printings' roots as a visual tool for the reproduction of information and the importance of the relationship between the boys and the environment in which they are presented. They also represent Vocat's larger printmaking practice in which, like the installation, he adopts and manipulates the illustrative language of the 1918 publication of The Canadian Scout Handbook. Using the diagrammatic and didactic aesthetic, but altering the actions performed by the boys, he comments on the construction of gender and the regimentation of young boys' sexuality by an organization such as The Scouts.
The link between the prints and the installation, apart from the subject matter, is the concept of artifice. Artifice is expressed in the chosen medium by Vocat’s careful staging of the environment. In the prints, the computer screen pixilation has a strong relationship to the scale of the figures presented. In the installation, the flatness of a print is echoed in almost all the formal aspects: the silkscreened black and white drawing of the figures, the paper leaves, the flat midnight-blue paint on the walls, and even the paper bats flying overhead, but the materials that fill the space around them are are immediate and transparent. The boys are in a sense brought to life, occupying space, yet they retain an overwhelming sense of two-dimensionality and artifice. This staging maintains the divide between the viewer and scene depicted and the sense that the figures are also disconnected from their surroundings.
If the illustrative aesthetic used to depict the boys represent the structuralist concept of gender, it is transcended by Vocat’s manipulation of the boys’ actions. Removing the boys from their book-bound surroundings, they are transformed in an act of art and brought into a realm in which they are, in a sense, more real. Instead of posing as the instructions for a guide book, they act as individuals. Their role is reversed from being instructive to telling a personal narrative, but Vocat chooses to only take this transformation so far, creating a sense of disconnection between the boys and their surroundings. By breaking this sense of continuity in the prints and in the audience-to-art relationship of the installation, Vocat creates a tragic flaw in the scenario: while the boys of 1918 are mass produced in reality, this more recent generation’s lives exist only though art as magic. The art of this show lies in the separation between the boys and their surroundings, which imitates our own distance from art.
- J.O.A. Edmonton