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Terrence Heath

Drawing a Line: The Art of Michael Olito (1986)

BorderCrossings, Volume 5 Number 3, May 1986.
[ 1,578 words ]


There is something about survey work that I find incredibly beautiful (Dec. 6, 1983). This statement is from an entry in one of the journals of Michael Olito, a Winnipeg artist whose performance pieces of the past two years culminated February 13,1986 in Earth Dialogue, Earth Sound. The performance accompanied his exhibition of the same name at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

Many of Olito's earlier pieces involved 'pointing', 'drawing a line', or 'siting', all activities involved in surveying. In a piece called Section Link, he constructed two towers on sections of land owned by relatives. The basic idea was to establish contact along both a visual and a marked line from one section to the other. In effect, the contact not only represented the family connection (the experienced made visual), but also overcame the earth's curvature in the same way that a map does, albeit in a more abstracted way. The visual line not only 'sites' the land connection, but 'points' to the human connection. In Lining Up on the Richardson Building a series of stations were marked by stakes to site from outside the city directly to the building standing at Portage and Main, the desig-nated centre of the city. Here the connection is one way; movement is from the rural to the urban. Again, as in Section Link, the line points not only to a specific, physical building, but to the demographic changes of the prairies as more and more rural residents move into the cities. The surveying motif, almost parody, is basic to the process of creating this piece. In surveying, Olito ignores the established rules of land surveying but affirms the human mind's imposition of its own order and meaning on the land. The building itself in its verticality, its connotations of commercial domination and its aggressive presence in the landscape is a partner to the surveyor. The 'lining up' is done, however, by one artist unsupported by any of the infrastructures of domination that underpin the commercial world. The art act is an ironic assertion of freedom through an imperialistic form. In Colonization, Olito staked out sites in the city that he declared henceforth to be the domain of art. These sites, with their connections with artists, art making or art exhibiting, he declared as sanctuaries for art where artists would be exempted from the rules and laws of society. The parallel, of course, is the proud chauvinism of the explorer or conqueror placing his nation's flag on the promontories of the newly found land or defeated territory. For the time being, Olito's Colonization is no less realistic in political terms than the planting of the American flag on the moon.

These art pieces are radically different one from the other, in concept and process, but they have a common concern with communication and they are related to the act of surveying the land, which has been of such momentous historical importance in the history of the prairies. Both communication and surveying are basic to the questions which have distinguished the activities of homo sapiens since the beginning of mankind — the creation of order and meaning and the awareness of the significance of those activities. Our sense of community and alienation, of being at home and a stranger, of feeling captive and free, all arise from the drive to discover, impose and communicate order. The classic definitions of art assume this activity and, in that way, Olito's art-making, for all its apparent radicality, has its roots deep in the traditional forms.

Initially, there would seem to be little or no connection between surveying and the mythic semi-religious performance pieces which have more recently occupied Olito's art-making. Beneath the apparent differences, however, there is a connection which helps to explicate the artists intention in his performance pieces. Earth Dialogue, Earth Sound is the last of a series of four performances: Dance of the Gigantic (January 29 and April 1, 1984), Phoenix (October 28, 1984), Rites of Passage (May 13, 1985), Earth Dialogue, Earth Sound (February 13, 1986). Each of these pieces is related to the others through materials (willow stick construction, feathers), colouring of objects (red and white bands, body paint), and the accompanying music, produced on instruments made of tree trunks, bent willows and binder twine. The pieces all have to do with the artist's concern about communication in art and through art.

The four pieces are also a set in a thematic sense. Each develops the theme of the role (and plight) of the individual artist. In Gigantic a huge figure of the artist, constructed from willow sticks, is danced by Olito to the sound of the music until he drops from exhaustion. In Phoenix the magnificent head, again constructed of willow sticks with painted eyes and nostrils, is destroyed by an assailant as the artist holds it like a huge mask. Subsequently Olito raises eighteen foot wings to signify the resurrection, not of the horse (artist), but of the spirit. In Rites the artist dresses in body paint and, defending himself with a harp-like shield of willow branches, holds off the attacks of a hooded assailant. In Earth Dialogue those who attend the event beat stones and sticks together. At the same time in Iceland, Saskatchewan, Australia and Bangladesh, lone artists beat the same kind of stones and sticks (which Olito has sent to them).

The artist's own reflections on these pieces as they developed and were enacted indicate clearly both the intensely personal and wide-ranging mythological implications of the performances.

     I now see the correctness, the timeliness of Dance of the Gigantic and Phoenix —      First, the powerful depiction of suffering — existing — energetic man — (still hopeful —      perhaps not aware of original sin — still innocent — with some vague hope that      something would come of it) — in the dance and then the coming of awareness —      The full realization — the shattering reality of the smashed horse and the triumph of      the spirit on the wings — submission to the process — but the resurrection of the      process — life and death — we cannot conquer death — but it gives power to life —      (Friday, January 25,1985).

     It is slowly dawning on me what the piece was all about — Phoenix spoke of the      beauty of art that can grow out of the suffering of life — Rites speaks of the possibility      of human endurance despite the aggression of friends... a much more somber theme      — no marvellous solution but the powerful growth from underneath...
     (Monday, May 13,1985).

We are used to thinking of the real world as being made up of physical objects and material connections. Perhaps, as Octavio Paz pointed out many years ago, this attitude is particularly characteristic of North Americans with their obiesance to the 'real'. Even though the revolution in our thinking about the physical world through the thought of early twentieth-century physicists and mathematicians is now seventy years behind us, we still hold to the seventeenth-century view of a mechanistic universe. In this reality, surveying, siting, drawing physical connections are basic, understandable human activities. But what are the basic activities of the 'real' world of energy / matter or the 'real' world of the spiritual / psychological? How would the explorer and conqueror, much less the settler, map out and survey these realities? Obviously, by mathematical formulas and words, but also by symbols and allegories.

Approaching Olito's performance art as a surveying of the real world of spiritual terrain allows us to get beyond the superficial similarities they may have to Greek mythology or South American Indian rituals. Such considerations are much like the interminable discussions of influence in art historical works. Olito is 'drawing lines' on a terrain to give it order and to discover meaning. He is, in a word, being an artist in the most basic and broadest sense. It is an act of surveying that is characterized not only by physical hardship but also by emotional and mental suffering.

A final word needs to be said about the relationship of surveying and map-making. As many commentators have pointed out, map-making is an essential and bedevilling theme of the Canadian experience of living in this northern land. (I am thinking of Margaret Atwood's discussion in Survival and more recently the comments by Gaile McGregor in The Wacousta Syndrome.) Surveying is different from map-making in that it actually applies the map to the land. It is, in other words, the obverse activity; it is the practical application of the abstraction of map-making. It makes the abstract concrete.

McGregor in The Wacousta Syndrome points out the very close connection between the activity of map-making and allegorizing in literature. There is also a strong element of allegory in Olito's latest work. It is important, however, to stress that the allegorizing is not the key activity anymore than map-making is the key activity in surveying. As in Section Link, Lining Up on the Richardson Building and Colonization, he used surveying to give aesthetic meaning and human significance to the material world; so in Gigantic, Phoenix, Rites and Earth Dialogue, he uses rituals (the lining up of significant acts) to give aesthetic meaning and human significance to the spiritual world. Olito is laying down the lines of a world that has been abstracted into myths and allegories so that we may live there in the only way we know how to live: through the imposition of order and the assurance of meaning.

BorderCrossings, Volume 5, Number 3, May 1986.


Text: © Terrence Heath. All rights reserved.


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