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Ian Carr-Harris

Selected Statements

From So, To Speak, J-P. Gilbert, Sylvie Gilbert and Lesley Johnston eds.,
Artextes Editions, Montréal, 1999.
[ 1,291 words ]


Throughout all my activities there is an interest in analyzing ordinary structures into basic elements, and in my work especially, an interest in the implications of this within the context of art. Or more simply, an interest in details and the assumptions underlying concepts; details that allow us to see things not intended or not 'significant'. Insignificant things offer room for manoeuvre and definition beyond the limits of their original context, and it is within the analytical and expressive power of art to objectify these elements into persuasive conceptual and sensual language, using in the process simply the ordinary elements of normal reality.

 — Parachute # 1 (1975), 30.


a demonstration continues a long interest I have had in simple moral values and questions of expectation and desire, particularly as they are institutionalized in vernacular language and objects. Any entity that exists in the physical world creates an inevitably intimate dialectic with its audience, which is both structural and entertaining. And the more overtly intimate the dialectic, the more acute these characteristics become. I have always felt that what we understand by the term 'art', and more than that, by the term 'civilized', concerns an interest in and understanding of this dialectic.

 — Notes for a demonstration, 1981, in Ian Carr-Harris: Recent Works (Halifax: Dalhousie Art Gallery, 1982).


I have a number of concerns about what artworks can accomplish, and they fall roughly into two intersecting categories. These have to do on the one hand with their suggestiveness, and the meanings they can construct dialectically in the imagination of the viewer by virtue of their permissiveness; and on the other hand with the intentions of the artist — who at least holds responsibility for the existence of the work — in directing meaning and presenting to the social consciousness of the viewer particular codes of value. When taken together — and all artworks exhibit both these categories — they act to define and to counter our own individual productions of meaning. They both produce and define those productions; this is what they accomplish.

For artworks to produce meaning, they must be specific. That is, we must have a point of departure from which, as viewer, we can move. For artworks to deny meaning, the references denied must be not only specific, but their identity must be clarified, whether through representations of language or through mimetic constructs.

On TV constructs through its imagery an implied location for the viewer, an attachment. That location carries ambiguities, which the work's audio text proceeds to ground in a set of intentions, intentions that become at once a demonstration and a reminder of the work's status, and the viewer's position. The text is a lecture on two paintings by Manet, and through it an investigation of the act of seeing. As with all my work, On TV derives from my conviction that we understand things for ourselves out of specific encounters that embody their particular penetration of social value.

 — Notes for On TV, 1986.


To a considerable degree, then, Carr-Harris's work states categorically that 'reality' can be usefully considered a construct — a fiction if you like — for the specific purpose of constructing a coherent reality, and that this 'coherent reality' is multi-dimensional and continuous, a contingency of socialized but individual memory. A work of art, and in particular a work of sculpture, performs not as a moral definition for a singular persuasion (though it will inevitably reflect the artist's perception of the issues), but as a reflector for the viewer's 'systolic' act of reconstituting identity through every moment of existence. The implications of this position set Carr-Harris in sympathy, but apart from, current post-structuralist interest in discovering the nature of structural relations (an extension of Levi-Strauss's ambitious failure) and connects him with the great majority of ordinary people for whom structures are a contingent question of survival rather than of theoretical debate.

 — Notes by the artist from Fiction: An Exhibition of Recent Work by Ian Carr-Harris, General Idea, Mary Janitch, and Shirley Wiitasalo. Curated by Elke Town, (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1982).


For us, each in our own anticipation, it is not the particularity of the space that we experience; what we do experience is what we project into that space — the passage of days across the spaces of our pasts. We enter, that is, into time, and in this revisitation we 'play ourselves backwards' to find ourselves unexpectedly, to know what we never thought we knew. It is not the diorama, but the camera obscura that we experience.

Finally, then, 137 Tecumseth is paradigmatic for the elliptical nature of knowledge. The axis of site-specificity recorded in its title crosses with the axis represented by the viewer's engagement with memory to situate the work paradoxically — which is to say beside itself, like starlight.

 — Notes for an installation at the Susan Hobbs Gallery, Toronto, 1994.


My work situates itself in that space we reserve for our recognition that the histories and structures we use to give definition to identity are themselves contingent and fluid, no less elusive than the identities we seek to secure. Through shifts of emphasis, the work seeks to disturb our field of knowledge while leaving it also apparently intact. Nothing has been factually changed, nothing has been invented or promoted; it is simply that some insertion — perhaps a footnote or a repetition, maybe an archaism, or just an object in a room — has complicated the linear flow of anticipated narrative, and we realize, with an atavistic pleasure, that we never are where we thought we were.

 — Notes for an installation at Optica, Montréal, 1993. Published in Mouvance. (Montréal: Optica. 1995).


I am interested in objects, in their surrogate relationship to ourselves. The several series of installations to which this project in L'Aquarium belongs employ objects within a given space to demonstrate the paradox of objects: that their very concreteness, their illusion of stability, is dependent on their fluidity and transformation over time from one status to another. Objects are markers for events; they cannot remain intact without betraying their claim to natural order and falling into cultural artifact, into the memento mori of the museum.

By its very nature, its name and structure, the aquarium — L'Aquarium — with its completely glazed façade opening up the entire space to observation from an external viewing point, embodies our desire for complete disclosure, our Enlightenment principles of clarity, science, and ultimate knowledge. This project is both fundamental to us, as inheritors of the scientific worldview, and now also only possible for us as ironic: we are, after all, also inheritors of the historical critique of that view; events have overtaken the project of modernity.

My project, then, uses the space of the galerie d'école as a sort of storage room for objects, an 'accidental' aquarium for a collection of disused or leftover furnishings that, in one way or another, bear the trace of our desire to enlighten the world.

 — Notes for an installation at L'Aquarium, Valenciennes, France, 1995.


I remain committed to acts of re-tracing, re-presenting, re-writing — they could be called 'retouchings' — which have, for some time, characterized my convictions concerning art as a public address. I remain, that is, fascinated by our relations with definition and history — with 'story-telling' — and the dimensions of light and space that we employ to negotiate these linguistic relations.

While the particularities of specific works can — and should — be tracked with exacting care, the general condition of my work is relatively simple: to look at something that we already 'know', and in that looking to discover — not quickly, nor entirely grasped — something we took for granted.

 — Notes on work, 1997.


From So, To Speak, J-P. Gilbert, Sylvie Gilbert and Lesley Johnston eds.,
Artextes Editions, Montréal, 1999.

Text: © Ian Carr-Harris. All rights reserved.

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