Critical Distance

Exhalt Fax and Other Techno Sirens: Aurora Landin
January 16 – February 21, 1998

a response to the exhibition by Susan Turner

Even the title of Aurora Landin’s exhibition is arresting: “exalt”, implying wonder, religiosity, awe, and praise; “fax”, possibly a Latin word from the past and, therefore, distanced from us, but no – it’s “fax”, the abbreviation for “facsimile”, an exact replica of an original, but of lesser quality – not as valuable or durable; not as precious. Machine-made, accessible, dispensable. FAX. Something quick, technological; but then equally as quickly, from the digitally altered, computer generated print at the entrance to the exhibition, I infer that a joke is also implied. A toy store with the name EXALT and which offers FAX services is on the route that Landin takes to the University of Manitoba where she teaches printmaking; window signage has placed the two words in humourously inappropriate syntactical contiguity.

My puzzling over the title extends initially to Landin’s work as well. This exhibition is completely visual, sparkling – a strange thing to say, of course, because there are, as in most exhibitions, objects at which to look. Here there are beautifully sensitive, closely observed, and spatially believable drawings of bodies (I’m immediately drawn into the exhibition space so I can get a closer look at them, and I know from reading comments in the guest book that many visitors to the exhibition have expressed gratitude for these exquisite drawings as if that kind of aesthetic had long been missing from their lives), there are gestural and tough depictions of hands, and finally, an intricate, obsessive and very decorative maze of silver tape on the floor, laid down to replicate the patterns of 80 circuit boards. So much hand labour; so mechanical, so untechnological. But what is puzzling to me is how these three elements in the exhibition, visually so disparate, fit together and make some conceptual sense. In an exhibition where the hand of the artist is so tangibly evident both literally and figuratively, in an exhibition which in itself is not technological in the least but only makes use of printing technology long in existence or makes oblique references to technology vis-a-vis the imagery of the circuit boards or the time-based aspect of the video camera and computer image-capturing, what exactly is being exalted?

Just above eye level, down each of the long side walls of the gallery (one of them over 40 feet, the other one 60 feet) runs a string of hazy-blue/purple images, repeating themselves over and over again, with seemingly no beginning or end. From a distance and at first glance, the subject matter seems almost classical – Renaissance and Baroque nymphs and gods in flirtatious, yearning pursuit – in some vain and always futile attempt at capture; a seduction ritual endlessly playing itself out. Their arms and hands outstretched, no-one touching, a handkerchief modestly cloaks the barest interstices of air between these cavorting, rollicking bodies. We’ve all seen these kinds of gestures before where, in the abandonment of religious ecstasy, or in the whirlwind of the dance, flesh may be offered almost in total save for a bit of restraining cloth: they appear in many of the paintings familiar to us throughout the long history of art – in Raphael’s Galatea, a wall fresco decorating the Sala Galatea in the Villa Farnesina in Rome, in Titian’s “Bacchanalian” paintings and in his Rape of Europa and in Rubens’ Dance of the Peasants, a painting to which Landin alluded in one of our conversations.

But Landin’s figures, and certainly their faces, are self-portraits – or, in one case, based on the image of a friend. These are not the heroic gods and goddesses of myth but real people; classless people. For her, in addition, these wall Diazo prints recall Mexican mural painting – the art of a living culture to which she has family ties. In real life, also, this distancing cloth and/or the gesturing arm often make an appearance in eastern-European and Mediterranean folk-dances: in the wedding dances of Hassidic Jews, in the veil of the fundamentally observant Muslim woman – in these cases the cloth is used as a means of ensuring modesty, of keeping man from woman, but also becomes a device which both hides as well as offers tantalizing hints of what might lie beyond.

Sculpturally solid, Landin’s ample, full-bodied figures twist in sensuous contrapposto, belying the impermanence of the Diazo blue-print paper upon which they ephemerally exist. They began as drawings done on six separate sheets of mylar which were then reproduced in multiples so that she could create a seamless flow of figures along the walls. No beginning, no end. During the few short weeks of the exhibition, under the harshness of the gallery light, these lusty forms have already begun their inevitable gradual transformation from the original mechanized grey-blue to purple and then, potentially, to nothingness.

But from the awareness of dissolution, of delicateness and fragility, we’re caught up short at the end wall of the gallery. There is a break: all across that 45 foot wall, in harsh contrast to the lightness of the cavorting figures is a repeating series of clapping hands, emerging as ghostly white images out of the black, silk-screened background of dulled aluminum plates butted up one to another like the images in a filmstrip. Clapping, hands opening, closing, hands together and then apart. Again there is another very strong reference to a familiar historical image, a 16th century type of blueprint, Duerer’s Hands of an Apostle (referred to as “The Praying Hands”), a grey-and-white brush drawing on blue-grounded paper, the image of which is often appropriated for use in sentimental religious artifacts, sometimes accompanied by Biblical quotations or by maudlin homilies. But these hands are Landin’s, first videotaped, then captured as computer images, and then, in their final transformation for this exhibition, printed out as screened images. Are they applauding the dancers of the Diazo prints, keeping time for them as in Flamenco, or are they imperiously commanding our attention with their sharp, silenced claps? Perhaps the applause is for our own performance as viewers or for that of the artist herself – or can we interpret this applause as the exaltation of the fax, of the technology that is only subtly present and only hinted at in this exhibition?

Delicate blue/purple drawings, black and silver screen prints, and now the silver adhesive tape on the floor. All those hours of labour spent kneeling, bent over as if in obeisance, measuring, cutting – then, visitors to the exhibition just walk right over it! Landin said that she thinks of this tape as a type of chapel, that she wanted to create a shrine that would lead viewers into the space, and yet over the course of the exhibition this tape has become dulled, dirtied and scuffed by footsteps; to some visitors, almost unseen.

Again in conversation, Landin said that so often technology is touted as a way to make our lives easier, faster, simpler, but usually that is not the case; or that technology offers a way to connect people but in fact helps us do our chores without direct human contact. To her, technology distances us from one another, and as metaphorical illustrations, her dancers are kept apart, the Diazo prints are fugitive, the hands are disembodied and we are unsure of their relationship to the dancers, and the silver tape models of circuit boards remain self-contained and separate from the other two elements in the exhibition. In an “artist’s statement”, Landin talks of her “troubled relationship” with technology, and through the work and in conversation with her, I sense that. There is an urge to acknowledge technology, acquiescing to its omnipresence and its far-reaching social ramifications; and this acknowledgment can be gleaned through our awareness of the technology used in producing the work. The work, however, returns us again and again, like the refrain of a familiar melody, to the presence of the human hand of the artist.

For me, Landin’s ambivalence towards, and the stated or unstated allusions to technology are not in themselves what make this exhibition so compelling and so visually rich, but also her graphic skill and, what for me seems to lie closest to the core of the work, her understated references to time, her introspection, and her interest in transformation and mutability.

Susan Turner is a multi-media artist doing video and photo/ language-based work. She is currently working on a video installation project dealing with human consciousness, the brain, and self-awareness. Her videos have been screened internationally. In the spring of 1997 she exhibited Not What We Are: An Archive of Identities at Ace Art.