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Marcus Miller

Out of the Ordinary

[Marcus Miller profiles the Canadian artist whose work is currently the subject of a major show at Toronto‘s Power Plant]

contemporary London, UK., October 2002


    It is important to appear tragic. Be sure to dress heroically (this can include being completely naked).
    You must invite a conflict of some kind—preferably with your father, and it must have a moral dimension
    so that your position is one of (avenging) Truth.
    —Ian Carr-Harris, Dare to be Daniel, posted 31 /12/97 on www. mouchette.org

The preceding naughty morsel, posted on the web in response to the question ‘What is the best way to kill yourself when you’re under 13?’ provides a key to Ian Carr-Harris’s own artistic posture over his career. Of course, he would probably refuse the whole notion of ‘key’ if it had anything to do with unlocking doors and revealing the mysteries of creative intention. Still, the classical terms of his parody—the evocation of ‘Truth’ (monumentalized with the uppercase T) and the linkage he establishes between it and ‘father’—closely coincide with some of the most important strategies and themes in his practice.

Naked avenger of Truth, librarian, teacher, writer as well as artist, Carr-Harris is the nexus of a medley of interests, occupations and attitudes, the most incommensurate of which combine to drive his artistic production. Consider the first line of an article on artist Tonle Begg recently penned by him [contemporary, summer 2002], “She was English.” That’s the first line of a novel, not a critical text. This from an artist whose sculptural installations incessantly short-circuit any attempt to transport oneself through the depths and nuances of storytelling. Two mutually antagonistic muses inspire Carr-Harris. A blatant bibliophile, his loving use of narrative innuendo is invariably pitted against a minimal disposition to flatten: an anti-theatrical, what-you-see-is-what-you-get sculptural sensibility.

An elegant installation from 1981 is typical of his work throughout the eighties. A Demonstration combines institutional furniture and theatrical lights on tripods with words. Over a hastily erased blackboard is written: “My aunt used to say that where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” and underneath, “Personally, however, I never believed her.” The classroom-like tableau evokes the possibility that something has happened: a post-performance installation, and yet simultaneously, there is a competing sense of self-sufficiency in the ensemble. The narrative suggestion (along with the aunt’s axiom) dissipates as so much smoke, and the supports themselves assume centre stage. The blackboard ceases to be a base (or a frame) for the words it carries. Rather, the text becomes a ruse for the blackboard, which is actually a prop. Carefully crafted to appear mass-produced and slightly archaic (even for 1981), these furniture/props carry no residue of use.

The awareness of artifice in what one assumes to be found objects comes slowly. Often you can’t tell. The furniture and machines look like they were picked up at an auction of school equipment from 1966: they’re so familiar. And yet, it’s in the details that a sense of uncanny takes hold. Gradually, you realize that the styling is peculiar, the proportions are odd, and in fact, these things are not familiar at all. This insistence on designing and fabricating things that look like found objects is important. Because after the reality factor of what is initially experienced as a bit of not-art is supplanted by the knowledge that the thing was fabricated, its materiality reconfigures as language. It is itself like a word, a floating carrier of relations.

In 1999, I had the privilege of dismantling and crating one of Carr-Harris’s works. A debased discard from the improvised office of a failed business, 1-(900)999-6969 took the form of a trashed counter unit. Like several related works (including Jan.–Mar.), it was configured as the base for a small pile of rumpled magazines, firmly but roughly secured to the top surface with clear packing tape. Only the cover of the top magazine could be seen, in this case: soft porn. The title of the piece was taken from the commercial phone number for live encounters printed on the cover. A sly rumor floating around at the time had local street people wandering into the off-site show—housed in self-storage facilities— and using it as a urinal (or worse—a privacy booth). Although unfounded, the rumor was apt. “Don’t you smell it?” I didn’t, but could well imagine the clandestine scenes of relief and satisfaction.

In fact, the base/sculpture relation between counter unit and magazine pile was, more precisely, a photo/caption relation. The magazine with the come-on lady and telephone number punctuated and reinforced the abject character of the base, evoking the kinds of scenes invoked by the rumor. The magazines were dirty and the fictitious people defiling the piece were dirty. The interesting thing about it was that the disgusting aura of waste and dirt surrounding the piece was almost entirely fabricated. So nauseatingly convincing was the evocation of the real that some viewers actually covered their noses.

No essential residue of unthinkable use here, this abject work conjured its meanings symbolically. Perplexed by the slimness of the crate I would pack the work into, I soon realised that the entire cabinet had been carefully crafted with interlocking pieces (and a hidden support for the magazine pile) to make something that, in the end, looked like a used-up discard: a found object.

This subtle oscillation between prop and artifact, theatre and life, reaches a strangely disquieting peak in a series of projection machines sometimes referred to as dream catchers. In these works, a very convincing projection of sunlight streaming through windowpanes follows a barely perceptible trajectory across the room, mimicking the movement of the sun across the sky. 137 Tecumseth (1994) takes its name from the gallery address where it was first mounted. Once an industrial garage, the original installation functioned like a cinematic flashback, and traced the effect sunlight must have had on the space before the windows gave way to the white cube. Installed elsewhere, the (apparently) material relation to the site becomes more tenuous, leaving the title as the sole clue to its origins.

But what were its origins? No artifact snatched from the dig, 137 Tecumseth was a piece of theatre from the start. The projection unit operated on 20-minute cycles with two-minute intervals in between. Not only was this much faster than nature, the machine itself was mounted in full view. Even with the means of production revealed so flagrantly. the effect elicited the following response from Gordon Lebredt: At first sight—nothing. Perhaps we’ve come at a bad time, timed our arrival all wrong. Initially, viewers can be forgiven for scanning the signs too quickly, and resolving them as a natural phenomenon. But even after the trick has been figured out, the piece leaves you with a creeping feeling that even so, this could/should be real.

Carr-Harris distinguishes between tracing and writing. “To trace is to re-experience the feminine ... to write is to re-experience the masculine”. While both gestures are embedded in one another and not really separable, tracing, he claims, is founded on the touch (unmediated, ‘naked’), while writing depends on separation: the plethora of the world reconstructed (by the father) as coherence. Using this template, the trace of sunlight across the room and the apparently palpable residue of his pseudo ready-mades are foils for invention. After the demise of authors, the last new picture and the prevalent veneration for reproduction (mechanical, digital or otherwise), Ian Carr-Harris covers his tracks like a criminal. What did he do? He created something original.

Curated by Philip Monk, an exhibition of the work of Ian Carr-Harris since 1989 is at the Power Plant, Toronto, 21 September – 17 November 2002. His work is also showing at the Susan Hobbs Gallery, Toronto, until 5 October. Ian Carr-Harris is a regular contributor to contemporary.

Marcus Miller is an artist and writer, and until recently was Director of the SAW Gallery in Ottawa.

contemporary London, UK., October 2002

Text: © Marcus Miller. All rights reserved.


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