The Canadian Art Database

Allyson Clay

Constant Longing (Work and Travel): Journal Excerpt with Dreams

From So, To Speak, J-P. Gilbert, Sylvie Gilbert and Lesley Johnston eds.,
Artextes Editions, Montréal, 1999.
[ 1,867 words ]

An old school friend of mine is showing me her scar: it goes across her stomach and she has embroidery decorating her skin.

I'm jogging around the cemetery. There's a wide expanse of unsettled weather over this gentle green grass hill of graves, and the city to the north is grey like the mountains behind it. I look into the sky in large glassy puddles that rest in the undulating cracked pavement I'm running on. The place is quiet, as if something loud and busy has stopped.

My oldest son E. is leaving today. Everyone in my family's been by to say farewell and eat breakfast with us. E. will be studying at the University of Florence. We have said goodbye to each other at airports often. There's something different about his leaving this time, though. It feels like a turning point.

I run for about half an hour, and go home to get ready to take E. to the airport. We all go: my younger son, K., E. and his girlfriend, E. (perfect match), and me.

I'm in Venice. We're going from place to place, from one friend's apartment to another. At one point the water swells up and we are in it — it's cool and comforting — up to my neck. The wave is brown and powerful with no whitecap. It suspends me high above where my feet used to be.

Today is critique day in my painting class. My students' assignment was to take an old painting, something they got in a junk store or in their basement, and make a change to it. I had introduced this project with a short talk and slides about the Situationists, détournement, and the Modifications of Asger Jorn. They weren't intrigued. I'm more interested in the results of their work on this project than they are.

Their mimicking of détournement has produced some works that deal with colonization, tourist travel, and the city. We all agree that détournement is like an act of colonization. Later I'm thinking how tourist travel is also a détournement. It is the act of placing new value on a place where something original has been lost.

One of the students' paintings is an urban night scene. Strangely, this student assembled her painting against a window. The daylight coming through the window looks like neon glow from the streets in her assemblage. We talked about the city as a permeable container, how transience, flow, and rhythm are qualities of a city. I think how painting or any work of art is permeable, something out of which meaning leaks, needs repletions. The act of détournement, like appropriation, is a gesture that acknowledges this. But it is also somewhat futile, in that such a gesture cannot stop the devolution of meaning.

After class I work at the computer formatting an image for a new piece I'm working on, tentatively titled Constant Longing. This image is of me, walking through a parking lot in Laguna Beach. I seem oblivious to the camera. People don't walk much in southern California. I am acting out something I was nostalgically thinking I did a lot of in Vancouver. Truth is I don't. Looks as if I do a lot of running and driving. I am longing for something that doesn't happen. This image has been computer-altered: stretched about 100 percent longer than the original. Space is exaggerated through longing.

While kissing and loving kissing, I was thinking how I would prefer to be further into him. I rip apart the red satin lining of his silk smoking jacket.

This morning I am awakened by a throbbing migraine, my third in three weeks. I feel dizzy and slightly nauseous, but make it to the Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery at UBC on time to meet my painting class for a tour of the New Vancouver Modern exhibition. There are things about the show that interest me: the works' general acute sense of style, and their cynical regard for history, the avant-garde, and humour. I speak to my students about some of these things, but also about technique, installation, and the predominant signifiers, painting and TV. I like the video shots of breaking glass tumbling down the gallery stairs and Geoffrey Farmer skateboarding through Roy Arden's show.

We drive to Catriona Jeffries Gallery to look at Gary Pearson paintings and then to the Contemporary Art Gallery to see paintings by Wanda Koop. What my students like best of all is the exhibition by Phillip McCrum at the Or. Phillip is showing small still lifes of real dead things like cicadas and flies and flowers and carrots. Three of these nasty bouquets are glued onto the bottoms of cocktail glasses sitting on top of colour-washed slim podiums. These are surrounded by dramatic abstract paintings of spilled paint with cracked shellacked surfaces. In the back room are more paintings, belligerent collages of city views. Then two walls randomly tiled with numbered small portraits of people-as-other-people, a titles list irreverently glued on the opposite wall.

I drive out to the Burnaby campus to teach the afternoon class. Headache persists. I teach. When I get back home, I find K. worried about his home-work. He needs to type up his report in French on Cassius Clay. The computer crashes and refuses to boot. D. comes over and works on it for a couple of hours. What a relief, it gets fixed. K. asks me to type his report for him as he's too slow. I start typing while he works on his other homework. He finishes his homework and goes to bed. Eventually I finish his paper, print it out. I do a few more things, write a list for the next day, go to bed.

My fingers are being bitten off. Blood. Can't escape easily. Have to wake up.

I take the day after the migraine day off. Pain is at the edges of my brain. All day I pace, do some laundry, pace some more. K. doesn't come home after school: he's at a friend's for the night. I fax off a text to a printer, I work on some writing. I sleep.

We're in an unfamiliar European country. We walk north. The ocean is to our right. There is war here, but it's not visible. The earth is all long, long, rustling dry yellow and white olive green grasses changing colour as the wind blows across them, growing between the road and the sea and between the road and the top of the steep very high slope on our left, at the top of which are houses. The people who live in these houses climb up to them with ropes.

Today I rush off to campus for a meeting. It's windy outside and dark. Rain spitting sideways. I gather all of the models for my new project to take back to E.M., who's helping me design and build it, for our meeting later today. I put those in the car. I take out the garbage and quickly sort the recycling and put it out. For some reason I feel like I should have two coffees this morning, the second one in the car. I spill it all over my knapsack. I throw my sneakers in the car, which also have coffee on them, and my gym bag — don't know if I'm going to go to the Y or not today and if I do, whether I'll swim or do aerobics. After the meeting and some office work, I decide to skip the Y and go home and run around the cemetery again. I've been looking out the window at the sky all through the meeting and I want to run in the wind to scatter the stress.

The cemetery is dark. I run against the wind, it bellows into my lungs. I have no energy today, my arms are heavy burdens. A couple of guys are gardening in the cemetery. I'm curious about them. They pause in their work and look my way. I am a fleeting interrupter of their landscape. The clouds are thick above me, fast flowing northwards, sinister. Today there are no reflections in the puddles in the asphalt. They are dark sepia.

Afterwards I go to E.M.'s and discuss the construction of my new piece, Constant Longing, with him. We refer to his models, which I've brought in from the car. We have an abbreviated time line. In four weeks I'm getting on the plane for Paris with the new work finished.

Constant Longing will be a four-and-a-half by twelve-and-a-half inch transparent Plexiglas lightbox, with red Plexi sides, four inches deep. The colour is my idea of some kind of homage to painting: I think of red as the synecdoche for all colours. Two eight-watt fluorescent fixtures will be visible inside. Light will leak out from all sides of the box and gently illuminate the black-and-white image on the front.

That evening I go to a lecture by Eleanor Bond. She speaks with a small voice into a badly positioned microphone and I can hardly hear a word she says. I think about an exhibition we were in together, how she was painting into her already installed landscape the day of the opening. The smell of oil paint for me is intoxicating. Some people go out for drinks after the lecture. There is a big group. I don't get to speak with Eleanor.

Their house is furnished beautifully with teak — bare decor, emphasizing open spaces. We talk of skiing. She is slim, elegant, has a dainty foot dangling a Gucci loafer pointing and turning the tip of her foot as she speaks, talks of a trip so far up the mountain that there's a 'snow line' above which it's too high for snow to fall, right above her lodgings. I imagine how that must look and picture the place: white cruel snow and then dark, rocky, black space above the snow line.

All week I've imagined I'll have at least one day on the weekend to write. I have to prepare for the week ahead however, and most of the weekend is spent doing that. I shop, I make lasagne and lentil soup and do laundry. I pick up K., we hang out together. I do paperwork all day Sunday, a little writing.

I run to and around the cemetery again.

I am clumsy from lack of sleep and keep falling down, bumping into furniture. The phone rings.

The day before I leave for Paris the plastic company that built my lightbox has to rebuild it. The photo-transparency is inserted for the first time. The finished work seems compact, succinct.

In Paris my dealer takes me out for a few meals. He tells me he thinks art serves a didactic purpose mostly for wealthy people. And that he reads ten pages of Lacan every day.

When I return from Paris, I no longer remember my dreams of the night before.

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

Text: © Allyson Clay. All rights reserved.

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