Twice Removed, York MFA Show
Through their projects that are jointly on exhibit at InterAccess, Zev Farber and Dustin Wenzel ask some very old questions - about the relationship between perceptions and facts, and about the perverse value of fictionalizing and mediating facts so as to better understand what they mean to us.
The first impact of Farber's installation is one of doubting the truth that might be found in his synthesis of the old and the new, because information is presented as historical but is composed of new materials. It becomes apparent over time spent in the installation that the motives of the artist for himself assuming the role of one of the key characters in his constructed fiction, the investigator, add to the of aura of doubt. Farber poses narrative questions without any answer, and this invokes a sense of unreachability that is very much like trying to penetrate an artist's urge to create.
Wenzel works from medical images of the body that are taken from anatomy tomes. Both historically and still today, such images are defined both by representational rules of their moment and by the limits of knowledge. The difference now is that in media culture these body images are pervasive. People graft upon them a "direct" experience of their own body, resulting in both a hybrid perception of interior physicality and an experience of deep ambivalence about what it is to live in a physical body. Wenzel's work captures and amplifies that ambivalence.
Each of these artists is enamored of the elusive source document; such documents might appear in the work ingeniously transformed, or might not appear at all. In effect that point of origin in each body of work is an infinite regress, a kind of mise en abime. If projections of light or sound allude to its resurfacing, a stronger force holds it back within a "back-end" space that the viewer can only sense as an abstraction of energy. Many facets of the projects represent this kind of inaccessible space: the hidden interior of Wenzel's Prototype for All Hearts, the charged layers of narrative in Farber's Investigator's Report document.
Yet each body of work resolutely acknowledges the compelling physical properties of the source document itself, and teases out for the viewer the problems inherent in interpreting and understanding such documents. Let me illustrate with a research project that is unrelated except in its core themes, which touch on essential elements of the work here: the archive, the illustration, and the highly charged moment of touch between the human hand and records of our collective past. The project is based on research into Grant's Atlas - specifically on its illustrators. Grant's is the first North American medical atlas, first published in 1943. The fragile original drawings are housed in the bowels of the University of Toronto medical school "in inappropriate, non-archival storage cabinets, all jumbled up, with bits of tape stuck to them... They are severely vulnerable to heat, light, dust, excessive handling - even the oils in human skin are potentially destructive."1
This evocation of accessing a tainted archive describes a poignant moment of contact, and demonstrates the necessity to disturb, distress, and even destroy for the purposes of gleaning knowledge about ourselves. The Twice Removed exhibition is haunted by such real encounters, and the viewer is invited to symbolically re-enact them in different ways for each body of work. Wenzel's sculptures are solid and weighty, but they nonetheless carry us back to perusing the collection of drawings they arose from, and from there to the dissections, abstractions and distancing that allowed for those drawings. In Farber's installation, touching fragile materials is invoked for the viewer through a whole array of deteriorated "evidence." The impression that this material is innately compromised is reinforced through the obsessive qualities in the imagery (scrawled writings, scribbles on puzzles) and parallels the impossibility of ever knowing the people it speaks about.
Ian Hacking's proposition that representation is inseparable from intervention is a propos to these two bodies of work: for both Farber and Wenzel, digging in ever more deeply toward the source is a faux piste, in the sense that one is still not "seeing" but only becoming more aware of representing. The artists have turned quite naturally to other senses, specifically to sound, as a potential mode of experiential directness that cuts through any distancing effect. Wenzel in particular has used sound as the premise for All Hearts; and the audio of Farber's video projection sets an emotional tone that has a touch of cinematic melodrama, but is mostly unsettling. Each project thereby conveys in an immediate way that the representational systems being examined are never static, and that they can respond to the very human need for direct connection. Farber and Wenzel's projects give us a way to emotionally apprehend the core problem of epistemology - how we know what we know.
1- The project is Illustrating Medicine. Principal investigator Kim Sawchuk (associate professor in Concordia University's Department of Communication Studies) is working with a team of people that includes Nina Czegledy, who has a longstanding interest in medical and biological imaging, and Nancy Marrelli, director of the Concordia Archives, who is quoted here from a Concordia Journal article. The unique illustrations of the Atlas bridge the divide between science and art, and in a curious twist of the historical norm, the majority of the illustrators were women.