threading water, treading words

Essay by Jonathan Shaughnessy

“A contemporary painting or sculpture is a species of centaur—half art materials, half words.”
—Harold Rosenberg, “Art and Words” (1969)

Artist, actor, and, in this case, swimmer Lisa Birke has her work cut out for her in Lois Andison’s 2014 video threading water. She navigates the deep blue of an unnamed Canadian lake with an unexpected item in hand: an oversized black comb. Though the object may not be heavy, it is evidently cumbersome in the clutches of the nude swimmer who nonetheless moves gracefully through the waves, raking and piercing the aquatic surface with her outsized grooming device. Fastidious audio of the currents, froth, and bubbles that ebb and flow in reaction to the object splicing their wake accompany the video that Andison describes as portraying “an absurdist act in the Canadian landscape.” She harps on the “futile pursuit/ activity of threading water” that her subjects—swimmer and comb—are engaged in: “we know that anything that passes through will redistribute itself.”1

The comb—that common, essentially masculine object—has come up several times over the past century when absurdity was called for in art. After his Bicycle Wheel (1913) and Bottle Rack (1914), and before devising his most famous Fountain (1917), Marcel Duchamp offered a steel dog-grooming Comb (1916) as artwork, with a cryptic message along its thin upper edge: “3 ou 4 gouttes de hauteur n’ont rien a faire avec la sauvagerie” (“3 or 4 drops of height [or haughtiness] have nothing to do with savagery”). The Surrealists had a penchant for the instrument as well. Man Ray adorned numerous early photograms with them, as did the German photographer Franz Roh in an Untitled photograph made sometime between 1922 and 1928, in which a number of everyday objects were laid onto sensitive paper, including a comb that appears to be embedded in an incandescent light bulb. In his renowned 1952 painting Les valeurs personnelles (Personal Values), René Magritte placed a mis-scaled tortoiseshell comb towering vertically atop a bed, about which he stated: “In my picture, the comb (and the other objects as well) has specifically lost its ‘social character,’ it has become an object of useless luxury, which may, as you say, leave the spectator feeling helpless or even make him ill.”2

The large comb that cuts through and across the lake’s meniscus in threading water recalls all these precedents, or at least the movements of which they were a part: namely Dada and Surrealism. To make the connection more explicit, Andison exhibited her video at Rodman Hall Art Centre alongside her large acrylic sculpture comb (2014), which was mounted above the fireplace of the gallery. Within the confines of this formerly domestic space, the work had a notable presence, reading as a kind of archetype to all things Comb; it was perhaps just slightly smaller than the painted tortoiseshell version of the object sitting on Magritte’s bed. And, like all the combs mentioned here, Andison’s has certainly lost its “social character,” if indeed it hasn’t taken a departure from rationality altogether. It is this latter, more consequential and primordial situation that no doubt inspired the exploits of both Dada and Surrealism when they toyed with and represented objects readymade or otherwise. In the wake of the modern world and all its war and destruction, the rational is the absurd, their work suggested, and it is the latter that must be prodded. Savagery must be combed and caressed, if not ever fully understood. To this we will return in a bit. But first, a trip back to the water, and then on to words.

The comb in threading water has been taken outside. Out past the forest, and into a lake. It is being manoeuvred by a naked woman—a nude female. In Nature. Here a thesis might be written on Andison’s video in relation to the tradition of women in the landscape, especially the modern Canadian one, as represented and evoked by the work of female artists from the Beaver Hall Group in particular. Prudence Heward’s Girl on a Hill (1931) comes readily to mind, as does Seated Nude by Pegi Nicol MacLeod (1904–1949). Andison brings up essentializing histories for the feminine in the context of the natural environment in her description of threading water, where “at times the comb is a type of rake—inscribing patterns in the water—other times it is acting like a weir channeling the water. Questions arise, is the water analogous to hair? Is she trying to tame the wilderness?”3 If so, she may have succeeded. Here and there. For between the swimmer’s exertions in threading water— at moments she’s trying hard to simply keep afloat against and within the current—there are many instances of unfettered calm. The mood of the piece—enhanced by the soothing yet capricious natural soundtrack accompanying the moving image—is serene and balmy. Yes, balmy: an adjective invoking a soothing manner. Add a mere couple of letters, however, and balmy becomes balmily, an adverb speaking to more eccentric and foolish behaviour. The actions of the female nude in threading water seemingly cover both: in her attempts to tame the wilderness—if indeed this is what she is doing—Andison’s protagonist alternates between threading the balmy waters with grace and treading within them, simply trying to keep afloat.

Now if it seems as though I am making too much of letters and words just now—the pithy results of an i here and an h there (as thread becomes tread)—I am placing the responsibility on Andison herself. For threading water follows poetically in suit with a number of mechanized sculptures created by the artist in recent years that use the rules and structures of language to slip between words and their worldly consequences. heartbreaking 91 (2009) is perhaps the most complex from this body of work, and need (2012) the most succinct. In heartbreaking 91, a shelf-mounted low rectangular metal box structure containing hidden motors turns a row of small white acrylic squares, each bearing a black letter from the word heartbreaking. Over the course of the work’s movement, this heartbreaking word “kinetically deconstructs and reassembles to form 90 other words found within ‘heartbreaking,’” Andison explains, “before returning to the original source ‘heartbreaking’ again, the 91st word.”4

need is described by the artist as “a text based kinetic work that succinctly describes the cycle of life from birth to death through a series of commands.” The modestly scaled piece hangs just above waist-height on a wall and is made from a slab of cylindrically milled granite. On the surface of the sculpture the letters EED ME are etched to the right side, which remains stationary, while N, F, S, and W are set into slow constant rotation to the left, driven by a motor and timing belt. As these individual characters match up with their static counterparts, the textual element in need shifts from NEED ME and FEED ME to SEED ME and WEED ME. As with heartbreaking 91, which takes the viewer through a range of words that span both emotional and mundane (always returning to the emotional), need places the entirety of a life’s experiential and finite parts into a repeatable linguistic structure involving four small but ever-consequential changing consonants. Andison writes that heartbreaking 91 is “self-reflexive,” and that the sculpture’s “performance is as a self-fulfilling prophecy.” With need, the prophetic hold that language maintains on the rest of life is one that it would appear we cannot outrun, save in death, when words reach their corporeal limits and are replaced by flowers on a grave. Well, that is, if you can keep the weeds on one’s plot at bay.

As with the bulk of Andison’s artistic inventory, a veil of humour and the absurd cloaks the contours of need, a sculpture that can be read as delivering a rather fundamental message about the structure and limits of language. On the one hand—and here need and heartbreaking 91 line up with other text-based works by the artist, from the ever-spinning top dog (2005) to the double-orbed kinetic sculpture moon follower (2014)—the piece makes a more or less semiotic statement about the space between words and things. In a word, there are only words, and the meaning derived from them is not by recourse to things in the world, but is ultimately and always the result of the play of differences between changing letters that change words. Needing someone is not the same as feeding someone, but to know this has nothing to do with there being an essential and absolute concept of “need,” “feed,” or “someone” out there to make such statements either meaningful or true. The relationship between words and the world is an arbitrary one, as Saussure most consequentially posited in the early days of the twentieth century. That said, words do create worlds, and stand in for all sorts of emotions, experiences, and the observations that make up the bric-a-brac of everyday reality. From the cradle to the grave, we are surrounded by stimuli, the most “sensible” parts of which are words. EED is nonsense before Need.

Apart from being a lesson in rudimentary structuralism, the other hand of need is one that becomes a concrete—or, more specifically, granite—poem about the shape of words and their relationship to life, death, and, by implication, an Other to the work’s perennially selfish “ME.” The sculpture is “open-ended” to the extent that viewers must provide their own subjective reference points when approaching and “reading” the piece, but aside from that, Andison’s words in need and elsewhere are never truly “free-floating.” Quite the opposite, in fact, for the artist’s propensity in giving motion to words and objects—a pair of ceramic hands, for example, in the wave (2001)—is to prime her kinetic sculptures with rudimentary mechanical systems that allow for variations of a decidedly finite sort. In other words, within a contemporary context in which theory has run with language’s apparent “arbitrariness” into a sea of untethered conceptual undecidability and ambiguity, Andison’s work proposes a limit to both the movement and the meaning of things. Which is not to say that there is no room to move, nor that words will always mean what they say. This point the artist made eloquently and elegantly in a three-channel video installation from 2009 whose title played on the age-old adage “the sky’s the limit” to force creativity onto the floor, and a concrete floor at that.

the floor’s the limit (2009) provides an excellent example of the poetry that can come from manoeuvres made within and against unrelenting parameters. In the summer of 2008, Andison invited three roller skaters to “map” the austere, formerly industrial, parameters of Toronto’s Olga Korper Gallery, asking each to circulate with the floor to herself, but also on the limited range of square footage dictated by the space itself. “The three videos . . . document the skaters’ exploration of, and interaction with, the gallery floor and walls,” explains the artist. “Each skater addressed the request to map the space differently. Kerry is animated and confident, Alyson is shy and evasive of the camera, while Caitlin is mischievous and dissects the space while ‘bouncing off the walls.’ The paths the skaters weave parallel the art-making process as they morph from lyrical and deliberate, to competitive, then back to contemplative.”5 If the paths Kerry, Alyson, and Caitlin rhythmically carved paralleled the art-making process, they are also, it seems, analogous to the use of language. Here it is not a limitless sky but words grounded in the concrete that carry the weight of life, after and all the while dexterously accounting for the rest of the everyday.

For Dada and the Surrealists, the burden of words became too much—it was all they could do to escape them. Duchamp, singular and conceptual trickster that he was, plotted his exit by making words both everything and nothing, and art—a concept of which he was always suspect—a game of smoke and mirrors toiling in the indeterminacies of language. Artists have been wading through the rubble and wake of art’s conceptual turn ever since. Lois Andison is one of these artists, and her work examines with intelligence, wit—and a healthy dose of absurdity—the moment at which words entered the “universal problematic.” There is indeed a wilderness to be tamed there, and it is one for which the image of water threading its way through the bristles of a comb, only to redistribute itself, brings both pause and the promise of meaningful opportunity.