The Canadian Art Database

Russell Keziere

A Travelogue: An Interview with Michael Markham

Vanguard, Vol. 9 #1, February 1980.
[ 2,810 words ]

Between 1976 and 1978 Michael Markham, a Vancouver artist, was employed as an animateur for the Extension Department of the Vancouver Art Gallery. In this position he was required to travel the length and breadth of the province with various touring exhibitions, an experience which gave rise to a series of objects, photographs, paintings and drawings on exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery until February 24, 1980. For Markham, the experience of travelling the highways gave rise to a meditation on its symbolic connotations, especially as they are expressed in its detritus: shreds of tires; dead animals; the centre dividing lines; marks made by cars; the experience of perspective; and the transformation of indigenous culture and wildlife. The following interview examines the motives and parameters to this series; it was conducted by Russell Keziere on December 12, 1979.

Did you have a documentary intention when you did the highway pieces, or was it something else?

I wasn't aware of a formal intention. In the beginning it was just an attraction to shreds of tires that were discarded by the side of the road. I started picking them up, because I liked them. The problem of what to do with them did not arise until they were in my possession. If I was to make art, what was I going to make and how were these things going to fit in?

The show in Vancouver is, in my mind, something of an installation. Of course, the individual pieces are separate, but there is a feeling of an installation behind it. The medium is mixed, there are paintings that represent the highway surfaces and there are photographs that document certain aspects of that surface. There are also tire shreds and debris. The main theme is one of representing physical things in my art. I am not sure what making a painting of a highway has to do with that, but I found that when I was doing the paintings I would encounter two surfaces, that of the canvas, and that of the highway. I became intrigued with how similar the energies were, whether painting on the canvas or making marks, splatters and streaks on a highway, the prints of the tires, impressions left in asphalt and so on.

Do the objects that you retrieved from the highway have status for you as found art objects? Or was your interest more of an archeological pursuit?

I think it was more like archeology. The objects brought a range of things to my mind; particularly notions of speed, decay, motion and death. Tire shreds represent decay. The highway is strongly associated with life and death.

In one work you have even collaged a photograph of a raccoon that had been run over by a car.

There are two death images. The animal cadavers are related to the tire shreds. I took a couple out of the Vancouver show because I thought that the references to death might be getting a bit too strong. Rather than taking the cadavers off the road and bringing them into the gallery, which is what I wanted to do, I represented them by way of photographs.

You wanted to bring a dead animal, one that had been hit by a car on a highway, into the gallery?

Yes, I did. But I balked finally, because there was the question of storage and I didn't know how long I would have to wait before I would have a chance to show it. I have had to content myself with documentation. In one case, however, I have incorporated the wing of a bird into the art and I consider it to be part of a reliquary.

Why does the highway mean death?

It doesn't necessarily mean death. But I went through a process in which the animal cadavers were equated with the tire shreds and I began to parallel this with the differences between the way animals are treated in the technological culture of the highway and the way they are treated in the indigenous Indian cultures. The animal is an integral part of Indian life; it becomes a totem to a particular cult or tribe, it has a sacred power. On the highway it is simply slaughtered.

But are you making an ecological statement about the damage that the highways have perpetrated? It doesn't seem that that kind of value judgement is really operative in your work.

There are no value judgements, just observations. I am simply noticing that it is present. I don't know that those kinds of value judgement have any real purpose anymore. That is all in the past now. But we can still stop the truck, get out, and check out some totem poles. We can still see Indians fishing by the river. Although the highways have done much to obliterate these traditions they have also made them more accessible. I imagine that if I was to spend another five years on the highway these cultural concerns would come out to a greater degree, but I am not making that kind of statement now. I am more concerned with patterns of decay and growth.

These works are not documentary in that sense. I am simply grabbing at snatches of highway here and there and attempting to transcribe some of it into a gallery situation. This could be all wrong; perhaps the ideal thing would be to take people and put them out on the road, or run a highway through the gallery space.

My earlier work was often about motion of one kind or another. But in this work I am the moving object. When I was rushing from one school or community centre to another it would be very quick and pressured. The works are about that tension and motion. When I would spend time on the weekends just walking in the woods or looking for totems I would not find anything that would feed my art directly. I was more attracted to the frictions, the debris, the surfaces of the highway, and the effects of motion.

Erosion and ultimately the death image come out; the work is more a statement about life and death than it is about the politics of ecology.

You mentioned that you think of the show as an installation; how do you figure that it works as an installation?

All of the works feed off of one another. It would be difficult to look at one work and get the full sense of it without looking at the other pieces. The ideal solution would be to take a very large section of highway and displace it, maybe like Smithson might have done. I would take a compass bearing on it, chop a big chunk out of it and realign it in a gallery space. It would be oriented to the north magnetic pole as a reference point, as I have done in a previous work. I would also maintain the white centre line as an indication of motion.

Has the highway idea finished itself out in this show or do you feel a need to go back on the road?

If I were to stay in British Columbia I would have to go back on the road. There's no doubt about it. When I first started this series I was engaged in a search, and I think I have to resolve this life-death thing that occurs in the work. It is not a normal artistic concern; it's not formal in that sense. It is more of a spiritual concern.

One of the things that came to me on the road, for example, was the image of the raven. He attracts me. In native mythology the raven is an adventurer, a scavenger, a charlatan and a bit of an artist. He's playful and humourous as well as foolish. He wanders around bumping into things and yet manages to pull off these miraculous feats, like putting the sun in the sky or releasing humanity on to the face of the earth. He's rather profound in a way. The idea of the raven hit me very solidly when I was out in the interior of B.C. The bird has evolved out of the highway and I would like also to integrate the symbol of the phoenix and the raven together.

This symbolic consideration is a current that runs behind the artwork. The image of the bird struck me with its shamanic aspects, it has all sorts of connotations, which I rather like.

I arrived at the phoenix, for example, through a highway drawing in which I represented the highway disappearing into a focal point on the horizon. In effect it was a triangle with the focal point providing the apex of the triangle and a series of dots down the centre. Above the triangle I had drawn a bird. It was like the highway disappearing into the distance with the bird flashing across the windshield of the car.

After making it, it suddenly occurred to me that the triangle was the alchemical symbol of fire. Fire has been of interest to me before. The juxtaposition of the fire symbol, the bird, raven or phoenix (the two were merged), made for quite a thematic thing.

Aren't you simply trying to appropriate the power of meaning in symbols in an attempt to resolve a content problem?

I am interested in symbols. Appropriated, I suppose, is a good word. You can't use a symbol arbitrarily. You must arrive at it, which is a very difficult thing to do. It sneaks up on your psyche; it reminds me of the young Indian going out into the wilderness during an initiation rite in order to find his companion animal spirit. He has to sit alone and wait for the first animal to impress itself upon him.

So are you a raven?

It's a bit more difficult for a white Caucasian to say something like that.

So why use symbols?

Symbology is not dead. It's not even as if God is dead. God is not really dead, you can rationalize God anyway you want to. The symbol to me is perhaps just a way of getting around the material, which is inherent in a lot of art and is especially relevant to my own. It's an attempt to bring things to a more human level once again. I don't know where that leads exactly, but I feel it is conducive to the age. We are seeing a revival of religious thinking at the moment. I don't want to put myself in a position of being an evangelist about symbols and run around threatening everybody with them. It's more a matter of coming in behind the symbols than it is simply hitting people over the head with them. Perhaps by making them more poetic, by bringing poetry into visual art, we can bring them to life again.

Does this relate to your recent tour of Europe during which you spent time at Mount Athos studying icons?

The symbol has an accumulated potency; it is not something that is just there. You don't paint a cross and call it a religious symbol. And if I am going to develop my symbols, then they have to contain an element of truth to them. You arrive at a symbol by a process of fermentation. If you are going to use them in art, you cannot be facile. And when you go to a place like Mount Athos you find that there are all sorts of different icons; there are fairly new icons which have very little history at all, they are just sort of there, and they conjure up a Resurrection, Crucifixion or Nativity or whatever. But then you have the older ones that may have been possessed by a saint or something and these have a particular form of sanctity to them. Other icons have caused miracles in the past; people have prayed to them and have been cured. I don't care whether the stories are true or not, what I am concerned with is the different aspects of power in the symbol.

It is an anthropological concern as well. I had planned to do a series on the Cross but it would be from an anthropological point of view rather than an overriding Christian ethic. But then Matisse always said he was an atheist and yet his liturgical copes in the Vatican Museum are extremely powerful.

But don't you find these to be retroactive concerns in terms of contemporary art history?

Symbols have to be reinvented. They are devoid of the pettiness of formal or historical art concerns. Art dialogue has become meaningless. It is like the Tower of Babel, a clatter of many tongues and frankly I'm bored with it. If we are in fact in a postmodern age where anything goes then let's have some fun and look for new things. I don't care about art history anymore. I am past wanting to do things in those terms.

I do believe in historical principles, however, like truth to materials, but I believe more firmly in poetic license. You may have to satisfy certain things, but you can bend the rules to a larger degree than is being done. An artist can do anything he damn well wants to so long as he can relate back to the whole.

In what way is the highway debris reinvented as a symbol?

It's all involved in the notion of travelling, passages, decay and rebirth. So far these symbols have worked, ultimately for myself. I have a whole range of possibilities and I can now go in any number of directions in my art making. The symbols intrigue me by their difficulty. And I think that in some way or other I am a religious person. We lack a contemporary and human spirituality; we are unsure of ourselves. Symbols are timeless and things that have history are relevant now.

Materially my symbols work themselves out in more immediate ways. I have thought, for example, of taking a bird off the highway, one that had been hit, cremating it and painting with its ashes, perhaps the image of the bird itself. I would very much like to do that. It would be reminiscent of what I have done in my Brand Series in which I burnt stencils through paper.

How would I know that the painting was done with burnt bird?

It would be there whether you knew it or not. I would attempt to make it obvious, like in the title or something, or writing it above the piece.

Is the ritual action important, like in a performance?

It's just another passage, it's like art that simply takes what is there and rehashes it, reshapes it and comes up with something new. There are elements of performance in it but not in a pretentious or contrived sense. Much performance that we see here in Vancouver, such as at the recent Living Art Performance Festival, is all rather noisy, chaotic, funny, ridiculous and you hardly get anything out of it, you're usually bored to death or angry or you don't want to look at it. The thing that survives, however, and the thing which has potency, are the images, photographs and documentation.

To some degree they lie since they present something as being entirely different than what it was.

The image survives, and what makes the image what it is is most often of little consequence. If one can make it of consequence, like in an icon, then perhaps it has its own importance.

You may see precious little of all this thinking in the Travelogue exhibition in Vancouver; there are simply visual reconstructions, a piece of the debris, the canvas painted to simulate the highway surface and so on. But the steps that lead to these decisions have always interested me. What does it mean to enshrine an object? What does it mean to take something out of its context and say that it is precious, not because all things are precious but because it is precious? We've been through all that; we've declared everything to be precious or junk, arte povera, etc. What happens if we reverse the process and declare something to be uniquely precious? It's like throwing a spanner into the works. Alchemy takes us from energy to matter to mind to intellect; if one thinks at al, one encounters the unknown. The process in art is somewhat similar.

Vanguard, Vol. 9 #1, February 1980.

Text: © Russell Keziere. All rights reserved.

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