Issue 20: Ecologies (Spring 2014)
Red Sky at Night, curated by Sarah Robayo Sheridan. Mercer Union, Toronto. 15 June 2012 to 29 July 2012.
There is nothing like city air in the summer to remind one of how complex and heterogeneous our lived atmosphere truly is. Any inward breath can carry a smorgasbord of varied associations: car exhaust, sweat, park grass, hot garbage, pastries at a nearby café, or a cool breeze. The very air we breathe seems at once vastly unchanging–connected to an atmospheric system so large it eschews comprehension–and strangely immediate, peppered with the uncontrollable inconsistencies that constitute daily life. Taking up the “atmospheric” as a central theme, curator Sarah Robayo Sheridan’s summer 2012 exhibition at Mercer Union in Toronto titled Red Sky at Night is one that thrives on this dualism, engaging in a deliberate play between the stable and the unruly.
Israeli-born Absalon’s video Proposition d’habitation (1990) exemplifies Robayo Sheridan’s curatorial vision: the inconsistencies of the atmospheric are made manifest through the artist’s bodily engagement with lived space. A man dressed in white moves through a tiny white room; his own perfectly sterile ecosystem. The structures that surround him are built to meet the curves and bends of his body exactly, acting as hybrid furniture. Absalon’s habitat is one of utility, clarity, and order; yet as his body interacts with surrounding structures, the spatial incongruities left behind become amplified and more intriguing. Found within the crook of an elbow or the bend in a knee, Proposition d’habitation is littered with gaps and openings where Absalon’s built environment cannot fully account for the specificity of his body. His atmosphere, while highly controlled and static, is both constituted through and subverted by the small, corporeal inconsistencies that shape his lived body in motion.
Flipping through the pages of Bruce Nauman’s book project LAAIR (1970), I found myself submitting to a similar impulse: as I sought out the inconsistencies between Absalon’s built environment and his body, I became drawn to the slight shifts in tone that teasingly implied a sense of depth in Nauman’s otherwise flat, hazy images of the Los Angeles sky. Each page is a lurid block of colour–blue-black, smoggy yellow, violent red–city skylines robbed of skyscrapers and other distinctive signs of urban life. Yet at the same time, these skies are teeming with the evidence of city life: they are clogged with smog, refuse, and pollution. The delicate shifts in tone and colour return physical lived immediacy to the otherwise abstracted pages. In other words, Nauman’s images aren’t neutral blocks of colour; instead LAAIR is–quite literally–the very air we breathe.
In a way, both Absalon and Nauman attempt to control the (perhaps threatening) inconsistencies that their atmospheres put forth. Absalon specifically designs an environment to minimize the incongruities between his body and surrounding space, while Nauman breaks the vast, chemically hostile LA skyline down into a manageable, book-sized format. Indeed, an anxious desire to maintain control in the face of an unforgiving atmosphere pervades Red Sky at Night. Cao Guimarães and Rivane Neuenschwander’s video Inventory of small deaths (blow) (2000) fully realizes a need for stability in the face of the menacing. Converted from super-8 film to digital video, this grainy, silent work depicts a large bubble undulating through the air. The interior of a bubble is perhaps the most delicate of atmospheres: the thin membrane that separates inside from outside is doomed to break down, and we’re conditioned to expect the eventual burst/death. Yet as it rolls across the black-and-white sky, Guimarães and Neuenschwander’s bubble never bursts, for the video is edited to extend its life indefinitely. At times its wobbly skin seems to dissolve into the graininess of the image, and it strikes me how apt the choice in super-8 film is for Guimarães and Neuenschwander’s interests. Like their bubble, super-8 film is highly fragile. Over time the material degrades and it is subject to the dangerous vicissitudes of the surrounding atmosphere. Yet just as their bubble has been edited into a pseudo-immortal state, the film has been transferred to digital video, providing it with stability and prolonged life.
Throughout Red Sky at Night, though, fissures also begin to form within this desire to control and preserve. In what is perhaps the exhibition’s most widely publicized image, Berndnaut Smilde’s Nimbus D’Aspremont (2012) depicts the photographic evidence of an experiment wherein the artist manufactured an artificial cloud within an interior space. Smilde’s endeavour is a clear attempt to harness the uncontrollable matter that constitutes the atmospheric, yet the nature of his project is resolutely ephemeral. After a few seconds, his cloud would dissolve into the air, leaving behind only the photograph as evidence of his work. However, standing before his image–which, like Guimarães and Neuenschwander’s video, takes an unruly object and renders it stable–I can’t help but long for the real thing. Of course my desire to see Smilde’s cloud in person would never be realized, and its appeal is in part constituted through this fleeting nature. Yet somehow this static, fixed photograph pales in comparison to the impermanent experience it implies. In an effort to fix his cloud for future viewing, Smilde exposed the problematic consequences that emerge from the desire to stabilize the uncontrollable.
Standing in Mercer Union, I found myself imagining how the effort to control an unruly atmosphere extends past each artists’ work. After all, the gallery is blissfully air-conditioned; an oasis of cool air in Toronto’s oppressive summer heat. However, every time the front door opens, hot city air spills in at the seams and ushers in its dangerous specificities along with it. Suddenly, Mercer Union’s gallery visitors are reminded of the scarily heterogeneous world that we all try to keep at bay, even if for a short while. The attempt to control an atmosphere ultimately exposes the limits of that control and creates space for tiny inconsistencies that constitute lived experience to rush in. Red Sky at Night toys with these limits by presenting a varied group of artists who each articulate their own visions of the “atmospheric.”