The Canadian Art Database

Russell Keziere

Rodney Graham: Illuminated Ravine and Camera Obscura
Burnaby and Abbotsford, August and September

Vanguard, Vol. 8 #9, November 1979.
[ 1,029 words ]

In the two recent works Illuminated Ravine and Camera Obscura, Rodney Graham's intention is to make pictures without getting mired in the intransigence of what pictures mean. The works are a mixture of overt conceptual rigour and covert personal style; the former is found in his use of site location and choice of materials and the latter is expressed in the pictures that result. The works are therefore neither anonymous and impersonal nor personal signatures.

In Illuminated Ravine the artist installed a large portable generator on the banks of a ravine in a park on Burnaby Mountain. It was connected to two powerful mercury lamps, which were turned on for three consecutive summer evenings, (August 1, 2 and 3, 1979) between 9:30 and 11:00 pm. The lamps extended about 15 feet up into the trees and faced away from the path of access and toward the ravine. The ravine and environs were consequently illuminated with a pulsing, artificial light. Because of its location, very little other artificial light permeated the site. Visitors would variously sit on the banks and meditate on the effects of the light, or wander around in the ravine. The throbbing noise of the generator deterred most conversation and the two and a half hour duration of the piece tended to isolate individuals.

The first thing that struck me during my stint in the ravine was the conceptual context of the piece. At first it seemed to be simply about being there, the idea of it, and the existential experience of time. The generator can be seen as a 'found object'; it is the type of industrial equipment that one can find in any logging camp in the province. There was nothing extraordinary about it or its light. But the initial interpretation, i.e. there is nothing extraordinary here, does not completely suffice.

In fact, the artist has created a picture in Illuminated Ravine: in my opinion the overall visual effect was as integral to the piece as its conceptual context. The necessity of staying for the two and a half hours has a surface effect; one's focus of attention discovers different aspects. As the sun set, for example, and the darkness encroached, a proscenium arch of light extended inch by inch, increasing exponentially, like a crescendo. It articulated a panoply of foliage and created a mise en scène. This umbrella of light could have been at Fontainebleau.

While it would seem that the raw, industrial and unfiltered quality of the installation would deter an acceptance of the surface qualities, the style if you will, these figure much larger than expected. The final effect is closer to cinema and music (Mike Snow and Steve Reich) than painting, but the picture is there. In this piece the audience / viewer is not a necessary coefficient; the effect of a gradually intensifying, slightly pulsing (a characteristic of the generator which was not foreseen), artificial light within a dark forest is sufficient and largely definitive.

Camera Obscura is a walk-in pinhole camera located on a farm in Abbotsford. The structure is large enough to accommodate three or four people at one time. It is made of pre-fabricated materials and constructed with a minimum of expense. There are no seats and no doors. The entrance is jigged to prevent light leaking into the box and a white wooden bar is left in the entrance way to prevent the insurgence of local cattle to whom the work appears as another feeding shed. The walls on the inside are painted black, except for the one facing the 'pin-hole' (about three-quarters of an inch in diameter) which, to act as a screen, is completely white. The 'pin-hole' aperture faces down a hill and encompasses the rural scene, featuring a spreading tree in the foreground. On a clear day the image can be seen: upside down, of course, slightly out of focus (there are no mechanical f-stops or lenses), in surprising colour, in constant motion (the wind in the branches of the tree, passing cattle, etc.) and about eight feet high.

There is nothing extraordinary about the camera obscura phenomenon. Da Vinci used it, as have artists throughout the centuries. If it is the phenomenon of natural optics which Graham is relying on as this work's informing principle, then the work must be written off along with the Aeolian harp, Gothic follies, the magic lantern and Victorian prism shows.

But this is not the point; there is no novelty here, and the process should be seen as merely isolating and amplifying a natural phenomenon. My interpretation is supported by the artist's decision to forget about developing a photographic print from 'the world's largest pin-hole camera'. It would have been a disastrous waste of time and shifted the conceptual priority of the work entirely. The structure would have then become a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

Given, then, the unextraordinary process of generating a camera obscura image, and the unextraordinary structure (sufficiently indistinct from other buildings on the farm to confuse the cows), we are left with the ordinary implications of the work. The experience of entering the structure (after the prolonged if pleasant inconvenience of driving all the way to Abbotsford to find it) is similar to that of Illuminated Ravine. One must, for example, spend a minimum of five minutes in the box because it takes that long for the pupils to dilate. The piece is about the process of perceiving a selected image. The pastoral scene emerges with a slightly corny and magical inevitability. The image itself does not shy away from references to landscape painting. It retains its effect of style, in an almost mannerist sense. Graham is as close to nineteenth century landscape painting as he is to Maria Nordmann's work in natural light and perception.

Together, these works constitute a mature and satisfying exploration of the tensions between concept and style, ideas and manners. How the artist evolves these considerations in the future will be of great interest

Vanguard, Vol. 8 #9, November 1979.

Text: © Russell Keziere. All rights reserved.

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