The Canadian Art Database

John K. Grande:

Bill Vazan: Cosmological Shadows

[ 3,392 words ]

Physically imprinted on the land surfaces of the five continents: North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia over the past 30 years, Bill Vazan's land art projects originated out of the conceptual and minimalist art tendencies of the 1960s. Many of Vazan's land art projects from the 1960s and 1970s were ephemeral and only survive through documentation: photographs, books, catalogues, films and videos. Among the early works were the Worldline Project and Canada in Parentheses. The latter work was created simultaneously on both coasts of Canada in collaboration with Ian Wallace in August 1969. Each artist created a crescent shaped form - Wallace on the West Coast at Spanish Banks in Vancouver, British Columbia and Bill Vazan on the east coast at Paul's Bluff on Prince Edward Island. The parallels between land art's ephemeral yet conceptual approach to the land surface and the conceptual gridding and labeling of geo-forms found in mapping became evident in the photo sequences brought together from this land art initiative. Vazan's Worldline event (1971) established imaginary lines that criss-crossed the globe. They were actually set down simultaneously as taped lines at 25 locations in 18 countries around the world joining the respective latitudinal and longitudinal positions of each site to the others as imaginary lines. As a performance/event Worldline made evident how disconnected from real life, "objective" standards of measurement really are. They rationalize and segregate human culture from nature, quantifying the global environment.

Bill Vazan's most controversial projects include Pressure/Presence (1979) installed on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City, a site that decided the future of Canadian history, the large scale land art drawings created on the Nazca plains in Peru (1984-86), Mag Wheel #3 (1993) in Utah and Nevada and Socle Circulaire (1997) in Gotland, Sweden. He has undertaken recent land art projects which he calls Stands for a Parallel World amid the limestone monoliths of the Mingan Archipelago on the lower Saint Lawrence River (2000) and in the mountains of Thebes in Egypt (2001). A major travelling exhibition of Bill Vazan's land art based photoworks will be on view at the Canadian Centre for Contemporary Photography in the summer of 2003. Recent commissions include Raven's Nest, at Kamloops, British Columbia in June 2002 and Mirage at the Jardin de Métis in August 2002.

One of Bill Vazan's main interests is with cosmological models, and the way all cultures adhere to systems that enable them to rationalize the universe we live in. The physical aspect of each site, its geology, (and the human history that has taken place there) play a role in Vazan's land art. By circumscribing each place and siting it in our imagination, recreating quasi-mythological landforms and engraved stone sculptures (whose engraved markings look Aztec, Mayan or Celtic but are actually self creations), Bill Vazan makes us all the more aware of the geo-specificity of a site and in so doing helps us recognize aspects of the universal and cosmological. Born in Toronto in 1933, Bill Vazan now lives in Montreal, and is one of Canada's best known and most consistent sculptors. His works are in many prominent Canadian collections including the National Gallery of Canada, the McMichael Collection, the Art Gallery of Peterborough, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal.

JG: As early as 1963 you were involved in Earth art projects. Was making art outdoors a move to get art out of the galleries, as was the case for Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer and others?

BV: No. I had never had any gallery experience so it was not a reaction to anything, just what interested me. I was not in an art milieu and came back to it from another view point. My system, my guts, my intestines were telling me I had to work as an artist. I had come down with ulcerated colitis and started to make art again while recovering in hospital. I had two lives. Doing my art and a regular life. It allowed to me to be much more open to many things. To go up north to the cottage country and arrange stones, to play around with tide levels or try making a mix of concrete and stone into a mass was not a big aberration. It was fun!

JG: By 1968 you were doing low-tide sandforms on Prince Edward Island and then the in Montreal (1973-74), followed by chalk line drawings in Toronto and Quebec City. These works were ephemeral. Do you feel a contradiction between these ephemeral works and your more recent stone landscape assemblage pieces?

BV: It depends how you look at it. I now find it kind of absurd for me to have done this sort of work. To find I have done something that has a permanence of thousands of years is another thing. Artists are contrary. Contradictions on contradictions. Whether the work lasts minutes or many years, it is all ephemeral. Time, by definition, is ephemeral. If you want to do a land piece when you don't have access to the land, which is often the case, you have to think of an interior thing. One way for me to make a land piece is to make maquettes via engravings on small stone surfaces. So these become like sketches for possible large scale land pieces.

JG: The engraving on your stones sometimes have cosmological references, constellations, Celtic interlacing motifs, aboriginal song lines... sometimes they fuse forms from completely different sources. Do you feel any contradiction between the ancient and the contemporary? Are these forms you create and engrave on the stones an appropriation, an adaptation, a recreation ?

BV: I enjoy seeing it and I would like to celebrate it, even propagandize this artform. It doesn't get much exposure and when it does it's always put down to a secondary or tertiary level. So I am quite happy when I see this. So I develop it into my own kind of work. It's a way of expressing that underlines our basic reality, which is that we are not permanent. On a recent PBS show, Jonathan Franzen, the author of The Corrections, was criticized for not dealing with reality and he replied, "Yes. I deal with reality, but it's hard to deal with reality because if you do, you don't want to be around." It comes down to that. The reality is our non-permanence and that is something I want to put into my art.

JG: Shibagau Shard (1989), now re-sited at the McMichael Collection in Ontario, Canada, references the proto-history of the natives of North America. Native history mythology is generally something we know little about.

BV: I was intrigued by the Peterborough petroglyphs at Stoney Lake and the Lake Mazinaw pictographs in southern Ontario. We don't know what tribe created them. The images I engraved reference these and other petroglyphs I witnessed along the Columbia river in Oregon as well as the Australian aboriginal dream time. Shibagau is probably a French term used to originally describe the native tribe there. For me this piece is like a fragment of the Canadian Shield rather like a shard of pottery, but a natural, geological, contextual one.

JG: Outlikan Meskina is a land art recreation in rock form of the cracks in a caribou shoulder plate bone, the traditional way native shamans read the best places to hunt caribou up north. In music you have the Celtic revival or one may think of Australian aboriginal or Haitian voodoo art. Their art originally had a spiritual or ritualistic function in their society and now they make it for exhibition in museums. Is there such a thing as indigenous culture in its original context anymore? Are we largely re-creating religious, archaic, or even modern motifs in art?

BV: When you have been around long enough you eventually come to see that everything is pretty well the same thing. It just comes in a different package. I guess what makes it of value is the way it is restructured and reformed in a contemporary way. When I get a stone from the land, it's like bringing the land to me in a reduced form. I keep the patina - to keep its natural history - and create a miniature land piece on it.

JG: Are the drawings preparations for larger works? Can you tell me something of the relation between your drawings and land art pieces? I don't want to call it land art. Let's call it earth investigation.

BV: What is a drawing? It is a two-dimensional rendering. Where do I work? On the surface of the earth. Its a two dimensional rendering. Usually I don't go high, and I don't go deep. I may go down a foot. I may go up a foot. In the end it has a basic kind of physical form like a drawing but on a bigger scale.

JG: Like the Uffington Horse, or the Cerne Abbas Giant, two examples of land art from the Roman times in England...

BV: Yes. These Iron Age people were making these drawings on their land. What that entailed was digging into their turf exposing the white chalk rock mass. So what you had was a white on green. You can see that in the Ghostings (1979) piece I made next to the waterfront, at the site of the former baseball stadium in Toronto. It was a white on green two-dimensional linework. The chalk outlines were of Native long houses, and the circular palisades around these tribal villages, those of the Neutral tribe, in southern Ontario. I included straight lines that suggested the direction of glacial scrapings during the last Ice age. Those lines were based on actual scrape lines found in the bedrock during the original subway excavations in Toronto. These actual scrapes were under a foot long, — I exploded it to hundreds of feet long in chalk, the kind sports stadiums use.

JG: So there were linkages between native and geological history, the nature/culture dichotomy. Was the process for making Pressure-Presence (1979) in Quebec City the same? The markings reflect the geological history of the St. Lawrence Valley while the actual place is of great historical significance being the site of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, where the English defeated the French in 1763.

BV: It was done by the very same process and was inscribed with a non-toxic, chalk based paint on the grass. It even showed up the following spring after the snow had gone. I liked the idea of the white taking out the white. When the white went, which was the snow melting, the white came back in very pale green tones. When the grass grew it disappeared. I incorporated the concentric circles seismologists use to indicate such things as earth movement for the St. Lawrence valley is on a major fault line. I interspersed the concentric circles with spiral lines. The spiral lines were like giant fingerprint whorls, and evidence of the human or cultural presence of the artist — identity marks. It was very massive, and measured 1500 feet in diameter. The configuration is also a bull's-eye, a target, that references history. The problems that instigated the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1763 are still with us today. You still have this sort of ongoing cultural tension between the English and the French. The "presence" is of the artist, the "pressure" is the release because of this land movement, and thirdly, this bull's eye, a pointer towards our cultural history, which is actually a bi-cultural history — English and French.

JG: At the L'Ilot Fleurie in St. Roch, Bas Ville in Quebec in 1996, a place reclaimed by the local community and now a site for ongoing sculpture projects, you engraved a sculpture that attracted a lot of attention. Why the title Predateur?

BV: The image looks very much like an extra-terrestrial, something you would not readily recognize. The lines I engraved on it flow here and there, bulging, then collapsing like the limbic system of the brain and there's these two deep holes at one end like eyes. There was talk of microscopic traces of life found on a meteorite from Mars in the news so it became a kind of joke. Could this piece have fallen down to earth from Mars? This kind of stone is glacial debris from the Laurentian field and has a frosted surface with glances or slag marks all over from rolling about in the last ice age. You don't see the true colours on them until they're worked on.

JG: Landscape has been a subject throughout art history. It recorded property, established geographic contexts, provided the viewer with an image of unbridled wealth of nature in the case of the early colonial painters. Do you envision land art interventions as a way of getting away from representation, or the sculpture as object, a way of integrating your work in the landscape...

BV: I think I get into deeper issues rather than talking about wealth and representing landscape. I titled a recent show at the Musée du Quebec Cosmological Shadows (2001) because from prehistoric times right up to now, despite trying to understand what's about us we've never come to the end. We only see the surface of things and its constantly changing. When I try to do something on the land dealing with what has been on that part of land, whether it's cultural or natural history, I use today's language, which is as a two-dimensional plane, to interpret it. I am an avid reader of Scientific American and other such magazines. What fascinates me is how science with all its beautiful constructions that deal with essential reality is hypothetical. Contemporary science and theory never come up with a final one. They keep changing it around. I like to deal with these scientific models when making art forms on the land and in these engraved stones.

JG: Writers like Rosalind Krauss have referred to land art as de-centred in that it is less object-based or formal as sculpture. It may be de-centred as formal art, but it's also integrated and with a strong sense of place. It's integrated into life. Isn't that more centred?

BV: It's more centred when it represents a group thinking or identity and it is de-centred when it is not one individual doing the work, because it takes other people to wander in and think of it. This is the kind of art many primitive or early societies created. They invited their shaman or their artist to recreate a common identity with nature about them.

JG: Your photoworks stretch and expand our sense of time and space, and have developed over the years to become an entirely independent artform from your land art projects...

BV: My photoworks are a direct outcome of my need to document my land pieces. Working in the field, whether its making lines in the sand on a beach or in the snow, using a machine to dig trenches, or assembling a rock configuration, involves a context so far from the art context that you want to bring it back into a sort of framing or box. The artist needs and wants to show. The scale and concept can be so vast that you can't capture it in a single photo, so I investigate the manipulation of space and time through my photoworks in a panoramic grid-sequential fashion.

JG: Ancient civilizations like the Nasca and First Nations sought to communicate with the Gods by way of land art. El Dios de los Aires (The God of the Winds), a work you made in Peru, communicates this sensibility.

BV Yes. I hired crews to shovel and sweep clear lines to create configurations in an area adjacent to the actual archaeological sites where these earth markings existed - the cultural history of the area. We created two abstract god or wind forms derived from images on ancient Nasca pottery. It's a kind of engraving which the early Nasca did 1500-2000 years ago. Researching the Nasca landmarks, I found the theory that holds the most water is the idea of getting water. The Peruvian coast there is mostly desert. Only in the valley run-offs from the Andes do you have these green belts of streams coming into the Pacific. So the Nasca went to these dry desert areas and made configurations mainly directed to the summits of the Andes where the Gods were supposed to dwell. The supposition was that ritual, walking on these lines, would get the Gods to bring more water down the mountain sides to their coastal irrigation systems.

JG: The serpent-like piece you created in Sri Lanka in 1997 uses brick as a principal element but creates a kind of ontological drawn form. You were effectively drawing with bricks.

BV: That was fortunate. When I got to Colombo the man who took me to all the sites was living in a brick yard. Some of the images I saw on the Hindu Temples had a three headed, hooded Cobra, so I decided I would focus on that kind of an imagery when I got to making some land pieces there. Time is very short on these trips, but fortunately my guide had enough people in his brickyard to give me a hand to do this. That is why it is quite a wide spread.

JG: In his book Sensitive Chaos Theodore Schwenk examines the whorl lines, rhythmic forms and patterns we find in ourselves, in nature, on both a microcosmic and macrocosmic level. Water is one element Schwenk identifies as being so important in determining solid and liquid shapes and forms in nature.

BV: I am actually working on a piece called Soundings from the Water Planet, part of what I call my ongoing World Works. One series is The Antipodes, and then there's The Stands, and the third one is Soundings. Soundings is going to be a major visual thing, because it involves material I have picked up from the earth's surface over the past forty years or so from Africa, Australia, Europe, North and South America.

JG: Will it be a configuration based on these materials?

BV: No. It's not going to be one figure. Exhibition arrangements will vary and evolve. Actually it incorporates the material I picked up usually earth or sand — and suspends it in an acrylic medium. I just pour it on to bring out its colour and an expansive texture. The visual emphasizes liquidity — the essential of our existence. Sometimes there's a bit of scatter. I am putting earth and various elements like shells into it. There will be many of them. I'm up to 151 now.

JG: ... and the Antipodes project?

BV: To show how we have collapsed our range on this planet to be almost like a grain if sand. Whenever I go to a site, I ask the question 'What is on the other side of the world from where I am?'. What I then do is represent what is on the opposite side of the world in reversed form. When I was at the pyramids of Geza, for instance, I made zig-zag forms, engraving by scooping the sand with hands and feet, a representation of the Pacific Ocean on the other side — as well as alluding to mirage refractions of the nearby pyramid silhouettes.

JG: You're an endless explorer, innovator, and seeker. Do you ever feel you are trying to communicate with or express some greater transcendent force through your art?

BV: I'm fascinated with how people, no matter where, have tried to make this communication with something other than themselves — the other. I guess my way of making contact with the other is by taking a parallel position with what these people have done. Of course I'm only in one time and place. Is there a connection with God? We all want to connect with God, whether or not we deny his or her existence. We eventually realize, one way or another, that we did not bring ourselves here, and we have no control of how we're going to get out of here.

Text: © John K. Grande. All rights reserved.

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