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Lorne Falk

Noel Harding: Characterization of Movement
The Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff, Alberta, June 13 — July 1 1980

from the catalogue for Enclosure for Conventional Habit
[ 3,155 words ]


I

Consciously or unconsciously the creative artist transforms his deeply felt emotional tensions into an expressible tangible counterpart; when he has arranged these symbolic elements into an appropriate dynamic relationship, he has found the creative problem. (1) 

Noel Harding denies himself the comfort of fixing on a concept and then carrying it out using conventional, already known solutions. Instead he discovers problems, interrelated and complex, which he explores in their every aspect. The discovered problems articulate a vision originally stirred by his imagination. This vision is the source of his work; the discovered problems provide the framework to bring it into being.

Harding's investigation of these problems is characterized by a stubborn persistence and a penetrating intuition. He refuses to accept familiar or first-found solutions to express the problems. He believes that there are crucial elements that he has not yet uncovered or learned. The originality of his work is based on this ability to reach out to achieve a new equilibrium or a transformation of existing elements. The finished work is unique: a concrete statement of the creative problem.


II

Enclosure for Conventional Habit is a movement sculpture that incorporates aspects of installation art and performing sculpture from Harding's previous work. The sculpture was built to the specifications of the Walter Phillips Gallery, which measures fifty by seventy feet of clear space. A simple description of the sculpture can provide an impression of the research and technology that was required to build it:

Enclosure for Conventional Habit consists of a Chicken component, a Tree component, and a third component, which maintains the function of the sculpture. These three components run the length of the gallery, parallel to one another. On entering the gallery, the Chicken component is located to the left, the Tree component is in the middle, and the maintenance component is to the right.

The Chicken component consists of a sixty foot treadmill, which is contained by clear plexiglas sheets along its frontal plane and by mirrored plexiglas sheets along its rear plane. Maplewood tressles provide the support structure for the plexiglas sheets and the bed of the conveyor belt. Adjustable guide rollers at each end of the treadmill keep the conveyor belt running true. At the far end of the treadmill is a feeding station that supplies food and water. Below and just behind this station is the drive unit for the treadmill. A speaker, which plays a punk drum sound track recorded specifically for this component, is suspended from the ceiling above the feeding station. At the other end of the treadmill are two roosts, with catch trays for feces, which allow the chickens to step off the treadmill as they wish. Below the treadmill at this end is a white plexiglass box which catches debris from the belt as it turns under the bed of the treadmill. The belt then passes into a smoked plexiglass box, which is a cleaning unit that washes and dries the belt: two nozzles spray the belt automatically and a pump removes the dirty water to a drain located outside the gallery. The speed of the treadmill can be controlled but is kept at a constant rate comfortable for the chickens. The treadmill can accommodate four to six chickens.

The Tree component consists of a motorized cart and a suspended light track. The maplewood cart has a shallow box, which is filled with earth and covered by sod. The root ball of the tree sits in this box, two-thirds of the ball protruding above the grass. The tree, which is approximately sixteen feet tall, sits at a forty-five degree angle above the cart, facing the treadmill. On the grass beside the root ball is a speaker, which plays a cello sound track recorded for this component. Also on the cart are the drive unit, an automatic root feeder, which is inserted into the root ball, and a bank of ballasts, which power the grow lights. A solid cable of wire joins the ballasts to the light fixture above. The light fixture sits directly above the tree's foliage and consists of a bank of twenty, ten-foot grow tubes. Attached to the light fixture are three automatic misters, which spray the tree intermittently. The light fixture moves on a metal track that is suspended from the ceiling and that runs the length of the gallery. A pulley system connects the light fixture to the cart via the end walls of the gallery, so that the lights travel in tandem with the cart. The cart rides on a sixty-foot track, which has a switching unit near each end. The cart moves along the track to one end, a wheel trips the switch, the cart pauses and then returns along the track to the other end, where this stop-start action is repeated. The switches also control the operation and timing of the tree misters.

The third component is identified by a wall comprised of two clear plastic sheets that run the length of the gallery. The sheets are sixteen feet high, hung from guy wires, and spaced two feet apart. Between and behind the plastic sheets are the electronics, wires and hoses that are used to drive and to maintain the sculpture. The electrical control box for the treadmill's drive unit, the control box for the tree's drive unit, the control box which monitors the misting device, root feeder and water pump, and the amplifier and tape recorders for the sound element are all attached to the gallery wall along its length behind the clear plastic wall. A water line runs between the two plastic sheets to the centre of the wall, where it joins to a bank of distribution faucets. The water lines are bound with the appropriate electrical wires for their passage to different parts of the sculpture. An umbilicus of hose and wire, which services the tree cart, is draped from two pulleys that ride on guy wires so that this line can swing to follow the movement of the cart. This umbilicus is located centrally along the wall, while other lines leave for their destinations from either end. All of the lines are suspended from the ceiling around the perimeter of the entire sculpture. Finally, above the plastic wall are four speakers positioned at intervals along its length. A saxophone sound track moves from one speaker to the next in a repeating pattern that is not continuous.


III

While a factual description of the sculpture could be anticipated from the beginning of the project, it was not so easy to grasp the concepts and ideas that the sculpture was to incorporate. Enclosure for Conventional Habit is a sculpture which unites the ideas of 'sustaining free life in altering conditions' and 'establishing a comprehension of time and movement'. But such a perception of the sculpture remained ambiguous for many months.

A unique insight and comprehension of the evolving sculpture was afforded by the January, 1980 issue of Life Magazine. In a photographic essay, which examined what the new decade would bring as commonplace in our world, were photographs of a sixteen-storey, floating pulp paper mill, that crossed the Pacific Ocean from Japan to process the forests of the Amazon basin; vegetable crops that flourish without earth; a plexiglas wall that was gridded into box-shaped environments, each one breeding a lobster destined for a restaurant table or supermarket. Here was the idea of 'system' that Harding was reaching for, plainly illustrated through technological metaphors. Enclosure for Conventional Habit is a self-sustaining system and it has direct social and cultural references. There is an attitude in the work that is reminiscent of the attitude evident in the symmetrical rows of trees in the gardens of Versailles, France.

As a self-sustaining system, the sculpture also operates on another level. It is indifferent to its purpose and function as a movement sculpture, and therefore indifferent to your involvement or response. It is a system which maintains itself with continued growth and vitality irrespective of its function as a sculpture. And yet, it is just this utter indifference — amplified particularly by the chickens and the tree, which are alive — that draws you into the work as surely as if the sculpture could speak to you. Harding's work has always examined individual involvement and response. In Enclosure for Conventional Habit, the parameters for involvement and response, because of its indifference, are remarkably extended. Harding's control over response is given back to the individual; there is less manipulation but the seduction for involvement is greater.

While Enclosure for Conventional Habit is a visual feast and a technological wonder as a self-sustaining system, it is primarily a movement sculpture that is controlled to move in a precise, determined manner. The constant movements of the chickens, the tree, and the support system elements are the integrative factor and the aesthetic base for the entire work. It is important to understand that the sculpture is not about chickens and a tree, even though they are integral as aesthetic elements. Rather, it is the characterization of movement that is Harding's raison d'etre. In Enclosure for Conventional Habit, Harding is casting content as movement. The principals of this composition are the chickens and their treadmill, the tree and its cart and light bank, the lines of hose and wire, the sounds, and the viewer.

On first viewing the treadmill, the group of chickens is perceived as CHICKEN — that is, they are stereotyped to the viewer's notions and feelings of what chickens are. They go about their business of eating, sleeping, walking, cleaning themselves...the way all chickens do. But their environment — the treadmill — is not usual and it focuses the viewer's attention. The chickens must respond to the movement of the treadmill: stepping off the conveyor belt onto the roosts if they wish, overcoming the rate of the belt if they want food or drink at the feeding station, resting on the belt until they butt up against the end of the treadmill. What is striking as one watches more closely is that individual personalities become apparent. One chicken likes to run full charge the length of the treadmill, only to walk in perfect time to the rate of the conveyor belt as it feeds. Another is more aggressive than the others. One appears to be more quiet and reposed. The chickens are individuals with individual habits, wants, and needs and their individual personalities are evidenced through the characteristics of their movements. Another level of response — humour — is brought to light when the chicken's jerky, high-step strut is delightfully mimicked by the chicken-step beat of the punk drum. This is first experienced when the viewer is in close proximity to the feeding station, where the speaker for the drums is located. However, one finds that this association of sound and movement may carry when one is still looking at the chickens but can no longer hear the sound of the drums. The mirrored plexiglas along the length of the treadmill not only doubles the attitudes and movements of the chickens, but it, too, elicits humour — chickens are fascinated and hypnotized by their own image. While Harding has decidedly controlled the parameters of movement for the chickens, the variation of their movements and the levels of appreciation possible are extended by the personalities of the chickens themselves. The nature of movement of the treadmill itself is characterized by the chickens, because they are the dominant movement element of the treadmill component.

The movement of the tree, which is parallel to the treadmill, is less chaotic. The tree moves more sedately, with more grace. The pace matches the plaintive notes of the cello that is played to it. It seems to glide along its linear course. Watching the tree's movement for a time, an elongated rhythm is perceived — the pause at one end, the dignified traverse of the gallery's length, the pause, and the return...this rhythm lulls the viewer into a feeling almost antithetical to the chickens' movement. The details of the tree's movement are breathtaking, almost sublime. At close range, the viewer perceives the quiver of the tree's leaves, seemingly shivering to the cello notes and the experience of its own motion. When the misting units come on, delicate swirls of water mist the tree and vapours spin off into the air. One may notice the reflection of the tree in the treadmill's mirrored surface just as the chickens strut by, and sometimes, one is convinced that the chickens are matching the pace of the tree perfectly. The entire support apparatus — light bank, pulley system, cart — are, like the treadmill, transposed to the character of the tree. The tree, like the chickens, is the dominant movement element of its component.

The support system is as carefully composed for its movement as the Chicken and Tree components. This is most apparent when the viewer encounters the large umbilicus of hose and wire that connects the plastic wall and the tree cart. To do its job, the umbilicus must move with the tree along its course. Draped from two pulleys for this purpose, half of the cord swings through the air, while the other half slithers over the floor, not unlike how a large, overfed snake might. The umbilicus may draw the viewer to the space above and around the sculpture. The movement of the lines of hose and wire around the perimeter is subtle and intermittent. Some lines, like the run of hose which transports dirty water from the treadmill's cleaning unit, literally pulse as an electric switch activates water flow. Like a drawing, these life-lines appear controlled and complete in line and colour, but they are never completely static.

The plastic wall identifies the component which maintains the function of the sculpture. To perform its function, it must necessarily send out tendrils to various parts of the sculpture. If this wall seems to lack the movement qualities of the other components, it is because of its disassociative function. Its movement is external (pulse of lines, sway of umbilicus) and internal (electrical impulses, switching). Here the characterization of movement is outside itself, yet implicit in its function, like clouds which provide moisture for the earth below.

Already from this description of the movement that has been orchestrated, it can be seen that it is impossible to encounter the symphony of movement all at once. The organized sound that Harding has employed draws attention to this fact. The cello can only be heard when the viewer is in close proximity to the tree, or when the tree passes by. The punk drum can only be heard when the viewer is beside the feeding station, located in one corner of the sculpture. The saxophone sound, however, ripples along four speakers above the plastic wall. Here the sound is more ephemeral, since the sound also fades in and out as it travels, or is not heard at all for minutes at a time. The hum of the drive units, the hiss of the tree misters, the rubber scrape of the conveyor belt passing into and out of the cleaning unit are all localized sounds of the support system for the sculpture. But as the viewer moves, all of the sounds grow or fade in intensity. A perception or illusion of the movement of sound (reinforced by the movement of other elements) is experienced. It is through this organization of sound that a convergence of movement — that is, a convergence of live elements and technological elements — can be perceived. This is the convergence of aesthetics and architecture: the sculpture as a performance work. Finally, it is important to restate that it is the viewer's encounter — the viewer's own movement — with the various movement elements of the sculpture that creates the symphony of movement that is possible in Enclosure for Conventional Habit. The symphony, in fact, can only be experienced in the mind of the viewer, and as such, it is unique to each individual.


IV

Enclosure for Conventional Habit functions in the context of immediate reality. Colin Wilson has written, 'Art is an equation in which there are two terms: the artist and his material. The 'material' is a complex matter of the world he lives in, the tradition he works in, the social forces that enter his daily life.' (2)  Enclosure for Conventional Habit is just this. It is readily identified with the present ('right now'). As contemporary art, it seeks new contexts to describe our world and to express the artist's experience of his world. It is a relationship of systems that exist in our daily lives that Harding has arranged into a new expressive system that is his own.

Enclosure for Conventional Habit is a work of our time that offers no solutions. It is not a statement of social optimism, nor does it have a nihilistic viewpoint. It seems to waver somewhere 'between', as a commentary on the landscape of civilized man. William Barrett said, 'In a society that requires of man only that he perform competently his own particular function, man becomes identified with this function, and the rest of his being is allowed to subsist as best it can — usually to be dropped below the surface of consciousness and forgotten.' (3) 

What Harding does so well is to make us conscious of what we have forgotten by offering an experience of what we have accepted in its place. Enclosure for Conventional Habit makes very clear the experience of 'the everyday self-sustaining systems we have around us all the time.' (4) 

Social context aside, Enclosure for Conventional Habit is about the composition of movement and as such, it is a masterful achievement. Harding has created an 'environment within': an atmosphere that can be personally and poetically experienced.

When you see the tree sliding along its predetermined course to the plaintive notes of a cello; match stride for stride the strut of the indifferent chickens, in time to the chicken-walk punk drum; hear the ephemeral rifts of saxophone that ripple along the plastic wall; see the pulse of the water lines and the hesitant sway and drape of the umbilicus...you come to realize that Enclosure for Conventional Habit is not least a sculpture of remarkable beauty.

Banff, July 1980


from the catalogue for Enclosure for Conventional Habit


Text: © Lorne Falk. All rights reserved.

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