I move, therefore I am: doug melnyk at ace art, spring 2001

moving: Doug Melnyk
March 23 – April 21, 2001

a response to the exhibition by Shawna Dempsey

It is a laughable irony that we struggle so hard to create images and shapes which move and provoke our audiences, when we all know that nothing is more beautiful or challenging than the myriad of forms found in nature, not the least of which are our own narcissistically fascinating, endlessly varied and magnificently finely-wrought bodies. The fantastic artwork of evolution leaves us all in the dust, imitators at best. Nothing we can build, paint or perform comes close to skin against skin, an animal’s gait, a hand, a paw, a smile, yet we cannot resist echoing the process that brought us here. Each artist struggles to make something new; make something better. Within us explode big bangs of creation, ideas demanding to be built, painted and performed, evolutions which we ink onto paper. We refine these generations of thought and image, make them relevant to our time and place. The resulting ideas change and move continuously, moving us (as people and artists) forward.

In the spring of 2001, Ace Art’s gallery was filled, materially and conceptually, with one such evolution; a fruition! Doug Melnyk’s Moving takes his now-signature naked men and places them in the ultimate context: our individual and collective paths of change and co-existence. This onward march runs like a frieze at eye level along five lengths of opaque cloth, and portrays many (naked) animals, each of which is individually cut from paper and meticulously glued onto the chiffon. The procession of hordes, well beyond the two-by-two of the ark, is a societal, and biological and personal symbol. In Melnyk’s world, all creatures are progressing forward. Despite the innumerable setbacks we know all too well (environmental devastation, Regina’s “Heterosexual Family Pride Day”, personal fears, self-doubt, etc.), the artist nonetheless asserts onward movement: towards joy, self-acceptance and interconnectedness. Melnyk’s installation embodies change, not of the sort imposed by technological or political revolution, but the inevitability and grace of one step leading to the next.

The gallery is divided by five diaphanous curtains, hanging at two-metre intervals. Each sheet depicts the movement and migration of organisms and orgasms. This is a stampede of wild horses! A charging herd of elephants! A soaring swoop of pigeons! And a pride of tiny, naked men.

They all run, walk, and fly in an orderly fashion, but where are they going? The watering hole? Greener pastures? Warmer climes? The men are off to the sauna, perhaps! Penises limp and erect, they strut, lope and amble like a series by Muybridge, each embodying a part of the fluid, miraculous sequence of movements that make up walking. These buff boys, big and small, are unconcerned about their flapping members and hairy nudity. They form a procession unselfconsciously, with no sense of hurry or haste. These fellows simply have somewhere to go and are on their way.

The image of man in his so-called natural state evokes a biology textbook, a graphic representation of our evolution from chimp, to ape, to Neanderthal, to – BINGO! – the upright homo sapien. Certainly in Melnyk’s schema (and in the visual language of our culture), these little fellows are as homo as sapiens can get. If there was any doubt, the artist gleefully elucidates the point in the fourth frieze.

Having moved from racing horseflesh to naked men to elephant trains, Melnyk returns us to the human form, this time coupling wildly in every variation of male/male congress imaginable. It is a pause in the otherwise linear movement of the herds; a pit stop of pleasure. Yet these cumming masses are undoubtedly moving (and being moved), outward and inward, over and over, to a release not unlike the flight of birds depicted on the fifth and final panel. For is not cumming as close to flight as humans can imagine?

In these elegant and simply-drafted “nature” panoramas (the Serengeti plain? the unfenced frontier? blue skies forever?), wildlife is not separated from human nature. The scrims upon which the series are mounted create an overlay of images. The horses cannot be viewed in isolation; behind them we see the little human men, then elephants, then ghosts of more humans, and, finally, the tiniest hint of birds. Our movement through the gallery changes these relationships, sharpening them or causing them to recede. This collage, formed in part by space and light, is as playful as it is intelligent. The act of viewing the work and its subsequently- changing dynamic engages the spectator in the very meaning of the piece. Incorporated into the layered pictures are gallery-goers: big men and women looking, talking and moving with the absurdity and grace of all animals and their wacky, evolving ways. We, too, are here. Drawings, symbols, and audience all move forward – man and beast together; noble, peculiar, and perfect.

The animal kingdom has evolved greatly over the millenia. Our perception of life, however, has undergone a much more radical and rapid transformation. In the West, the history of the highly subjective practice of scientific classification began with Aristotle, who categorized 520 animals into a hierarchy by genus in the third century B.C.. This grandfather of biology characterized the females of all species together as cowardly, jealous and shameless, evidenced by the behaviour of female squid. By the Middle Ages, a more comprehensive and oppressive categorization had evolved, in which all life forms were divided into the Great Chain of Being. Humans held the central position, with seraphs, cherubs and God above and animals, plants and minerals below. Each grouping was further delineated according to a hierarchy, so that the oak tree had dominion over all other “vegetable souls”, and noblemen were accepted as biologically superior to tradesmen and serfs. It was not until 1758 that the Latinized system of naming according to family and species was developed by Swedish botanist Karl Von Linné. Although this system persists today, some adjustments have been made to Linné’s original plan. For instance, his perception of American man, European man, Asiatic man, and African man as separate species , each with features reflecting a Eurocentric sense of primacy, has been abandoned. Modern-day science has expanded Linné’s nomenclature and has rearranged the placement of various species to better reflect contemporary knowledge.

In the light of the history of such categorization, one cannot help but perceive all such divisions as somewhat subjective and expedient. As any biologist knows, the animal kingdom (humanity within it) is not fixed or static. Like Melnyk’s creatures, drawn on recycled paper and mounted on a barely-there canvas of gossamer, life is temporal, variable and idiosyncratic. All is ever-changing. This biological fact happily storms over rigid categories of form and behaviour that have been artificially constructed solely for the convenience of reductive science, and a social agenda which priorizes humans over other species. In fact, all life exists on a continuum; there are tremendous similarities between some unrelated species and vast differences within seemingly homogenous ones. In nature, exception is the rule. This deviance essential to the ongoing adaptation of living beings.

In Melnyk’s installation, the tiny fucking men accept their natural place in this evolutionary process. They are not proudly jubilant, nor are they tortured. They are simply their natural selves. It is a utopian vision – some would say naïve, but fortunately, millions of years of natural history support Melnyk’s thesis. Life goes on in all its variance. We each follow our nature for the benefit of the larger community/ecosystem. As homosexuals and deviants of all stripes, we are an integral part of the plan. Or perhaps it is a lack of plan, this rambling, fluid, happy accident of life.

Shawna Dempsey creates performance, film, video, text and media-based work with her long-time collaborator, Lorri Millan. Dempsey and Millan articulate their feminist and queer culture politics through their art.