The Canadian Art Database

Charlotte Townsend-Gault

Michael Fernandes
The Centre for Art Tapes, Halifax, December 1 - 20, 1986

Vanguard, Vol. 16 #2, April/May 1987.
[ 875 words ]

The late winter afternoon sun transformed the strip of architectural tedium that is Dartmouth, seen across the harbour from Halifax, into a resplendent golden kingdom, a strong golden horizontal dividing the intense blue of the harbour waters from the intense blue of the sky. This transformation was to be seen from the gallery windows. Through them the same sun gave the same golden glow to other strong horizontals within the gallery. A pile of ten-foot wooden dowelling lay heaped in the centre of the otherwise empty white room. The parallel was striking, an extension of the experience on offer in the gallery. But was it permissible? I asked Fernandes, fearing that such a leap beyond the confines of the work might be irresponsible or aesthetic pleasure gratuitous. Fernandes has earned his reputation for work in which opacity disguises rigour. 'Oh, sure. It's all part of it,' was his reply, at once laconic and tolerant. So it was all right, not just to make that connection but also to take it as a cue for the kinds of connections the work did allow. In fact, the theme of No Other turns out to be 'Only connect'.

Like a giant parody of a domestic scene the 'logs' lie in a grate. Around both ends of each pole is a plastic strip bearing one word. Each pole is 10 feet long, their poles cannot be reconciled, cannot be touched with a 10-foot pole, and the words are poles apart. To read the word at the other end, you have to go round and look from the other end or else get someone else to co-operate with you. Of course when you get there it is 'No Other' but is merely itself. This is the consequence of the great, unreadable distance between the words. The fact that they appear to be irreconcilable is merely a function of the (artificial) distance that has been constructed between them.

The words form pairs of a sort. Some are obvious contraries: pleasure / pain, problem / solution, exhale / inhale; other pairs represent separations or distinctions of all kinds: love / irresponsibility, two birds / one bird, somebody / everybody, pot / water, boredom / life . . . . Fernandes seems to want to teach about the indivisibility of experience, the inconvenience, the madness, of setting it between two poles. The consequence is life constituted as a series of choices between them. Inconvenient, because, as is made manifest here, one can never get them together, mad because having them apart shows up what false dichotomies they are.

One sees the poles and words, and something like this might be divined from the sight. But there is also sound. On a nine-minute tape Fernandes's voice, caressing, carefully modulated, takes us through a prototypical lifetime, from babyhood until death at a ripe old age. The protagonist is you. You are in your cradle surrounded by soft things . . . you are laughing and crying, crying and laughing . . . you are learning about the opposite sex . . . you are raising a family . . . you are changing partners in mid-life . . .your joints are getting stiffer . . . you are watching your grandchildren grow up in a different world . . . you are flowing with it . . . on and on and on . . . .

The text attempts to establish an impartial distance, not by means of an all-knowing narrator, but by the self-awareness, sometimes surprise, of the protagonist, as 'you' realise that you are leading a certain kind of life and not another. The subtext is the choices that 'you' have made, and in some curious way they echo the pairs of words on the poles. There are other subtexts: the quizzical observer's indulgence of 'your' programmed urgencies, for what appear to be choices are shown to be not choices at all, but merely a series of checks and balances; the indulgence is tempered with an implied satirizing of the vanity of human wishes that recalls Alexander Pope.

Fernandes's works tend to deal with that wrinkled interface between the individual and society. In No Other, he suggests a few of the many ways in which it can be smoothed, mediated: we might find a transcendental message of acceptance and wholeness; we might locate ultimate meaning in language, language games and word plays; we might try rational understanding of a text with several sub-texts; we might focus on an invisible web of interconnections among all these components. Such a confusion of receptivities could be attributed to many (too many?) multi-media installations. There are plenty of names for this — ambiguity, pluralism, multiple readings — but the question must still be, do they work?

In No Other Fernandes has cut through the apparent confusion with the personal approach / avoidance that ensnares the listener and the reader of those poles. He makes 'you' his subject and his object. This is the fundamental frame of reference that No Other provides for the location of self and others. Not that its protagonist gives much sign of searching for any such thing. 'You' appear trapped in one inevitable way of looking at the world, a puppet of destiny without free will.

Vanguard, Vol. 16 #2, April/May 1987.

Text: © Charlotte Townsend-Gault. All rights reserved.

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