In his 2004 book Bedlam, Greg Hollingshead describes a fantastic "air-loom" machine that inhabits the imagination of James Tilly Matthews, a figure whose status as victim of insanity or political prisoner is the central tension that fuels the book's narrative. The "air-loom" that James believes is manipulating the reality that surrounds him offers intriguing parallels with aspects of Clint Wilson's work of the past ten years. In both, there is a consistent tension between the ephemeral and the material; technology - whether the palpable effects of electricity or an imagined machine - animates the dead; and science, that most empirical of disciplines, is presented as fiction. For the last decade, Wilson has been exploring the liminal spaces between the physical and the imaginary, asking viewers to question the assumptions with which they observe the world around them and the truths they inevitably seek. Although it is tempting in writing an overview such as this to find a central idea that would link the whole of Wilson's artistic practice, the complexity of the work produces a broad set of questions that differ with each encounter. What is our relationship to the natural world? How does science frame our understanding of what and how we see? How can technology transform the world around us?
Nature figures largely in Wilson's art, but like the "air-loom" which recreates figures into ciphers of their real selves, the birds, butterflies and plants that populate many of Wilson's works have been recast by the artist into simulacra of their former selves. In works such as Gravity and Grace: Exercises in Perpetual Motion (2000) and Generelle Morphologie (2002), small taxidermied birds are suspended over small fans whose flow of air enable the animals to gently "fly" in the gallery space. Each bird has a paper tag attached to its foot, identifying its species and certifying that the animals were ethically sourced by the artist.i In addition to identifying and certifying the individual specimen however, the tag produces a gentle rustling as the bird circles the air, replacing the lost sound of the live animal's wings.
Presented in this way, the birds enact a doubled presence: reinforcing their status as taxidermied creatures by virtue of the specimen tag attached to their legs while simultaneously performing a "liveness" with the aid of the individual fansii. There is a long history of this doubled presence in the displays of preserved animals in natural history and science museums as creatures are arranged in poses that mimic how they might once have appeared in the wild. Similarly, animal trophies have long been regular features of many private homes as testimony to the homeowner's prowess as hunter or collector. Due to their small size and the beauty of their distinctive markings, butterflies in particular are collected by individuals who seek to possess the exotic through the acquisition of specimens from around the world. The conventional display method of the butterfly - pinned to a flat surface and identified with species and genus names - attests to the ease with which these delicate creatures can be contained by systems of scientific knowledge and material possession. In ...theory of everything (2004-5), Wilson fixes butterflies to a television antenna whose gentle electrification by the attached pager motors enables the butterflies to move. Here, the mechanisms - both scientific and technological - which had initially been the impetus for killing the butterflies provide the means to reanimate them, albeit in a considerably constrained form. At one level, the butterflies are trapped, both through their attachment to the metal, and in their reliance on electricity for any kind of movement; but like the birds in Generelle Morphologie, their simulated movement within the space of the art gallery seduces and enthrals the viewer as these creatures that would normally be far from reach are encountered in a parody of liveness.
The Stories of Science
The ordered collection of butterflies and the taxidermied bodies of birds both speak to Wilson's continued engagement with science as one of the fundamental discourses of the modern age. Science - as distinct from technology - is the overarching system that organizes how we think about the world around us, how we make sense of the objects, experiences and creatures that populate that world. Wilson's interest in science is most evident in the 1998 installations Science Stories: Atmospheric Exchangers and Science Stories: Eight Stations of Aural Phylogeny. These works mark Wilson's interest in the spaces between the apparatuses of scientific enquiry - those objects (test tubes, magnifying glasses, etc.) that conventionally signify objective investigation and a modernist ideal of progress - and the knowledge that is produced. By describing these installations as stories, Wilson points to the often ignored similarity between assumed scientific fact and fictional narrative, a theme to which he will return for the next eight years.
The analysis of narrative has been a central facet of poststructuralist and postmodern academic writing for some time. The recognition that the writing of history was as much governed by narrative conventions as any fictional text was a revelation in terms of unpacking the relationship between what we know and how that knowledge is transmitted. Science Stories aims to accomplish just such a questioning. Consisting of eight long glass tubes or pipettes suspended horizontally from the ceiling at roughly a foot's interval from each other, Science Stories: Atmospheric Exchangers at its most literal level sought to imagine the transfer of air contained in the pipettes from the artist's studio to the gallery. As these tubes were corked and shipped from venue to venue, the air was transformed into miniscule deposits of water enacting one of the most basic of scientific experiments. In addition to the tubes, however, the installation incorporated eight metal rings, attached to the gallery's walls with a metal pole, each ring encircling a slightly magnified and illuminated image of a child's ear. In both components, Wilson's focus is on the connection between the production of knowledge that is the purview of scientific investigation and the stories that need to be told for that knowledge to be disseminated. Here the ear is isolated from the body - and arguably from the mind since the head is nowhere to be seen - emphasizing the often passive way that scientific findings are processed. That the image is of a child's ear, and the "experiment" the grade-school lesson of condensation, further emphasizes the authoritative character of scientific knowledge (and those that produce it) and the common acceptance of science as "fact" rather than as a discourse with narrative structures and assumptions.
The subtitle of the second installation in the Science Stories series - Eight Stations of Aural Phylogeny - points to a more specific preoccupation in Clint Wilson's work: that of evolution and the interconnectedness of organisms. We see this in the second part of 2002's Generelle Morphologie where the suspended bird installation is accompanied by painstakingly reproduced graphs by the late nineteenth century biologist Ernst Haeckel. Haeckel's "recapitulation theory" - the belief that the development of an organism exactly mirrors the evolutionary development of the species - was widely accepted into the early twentieth century before being set aside by contemporary biological thought as too simplistic and reductionist. The maps of evolutionary development that Haeckel produced, however, are equally seductive as the mapping of the story of life and as graphs that resemble the flowing pattern of plant matter.iii In either case, the "story" told by Haeckel's chart of a desired belief in the interconnectedness of all things is ultimately the narrative of science, conveying as it does a sense of totality and of certainty that ultimately escapes our grasp. That these charts accompany a series of stuffed birds "reanimated" through the means of electric fans only further underscores the contingent character of life, as nature only appears in this space through technological mediation.
In the field of contemporary art writing, the appeal to "technology" is often misused as a way to signal the cutting edge character of an artist's output. In Wilson's case, however, technology is an integral although subtle aspect of much of his work of the past ten years. At a very basic level, technology in the shape of electric fans, wired television antennas, and speakers are deployed to activate the inanimate. In Generelle Morphologie, Chromaplay, and Logos, birds fly, butterflies flutter and barley and poppies seem to sway in the wind, all through the assistance of various electrical apparatuses. But while the technological aids to liveness do not dominate the installations, their presence is always evident in the tangle of wires, in many ways paralleling the presence of technology in contemporary society. There is nothing that can be accomplished without some form of technological assistance, but the mechanisms that we take for granted are nonetheless artificial supports for our everyday activities. In Generelle Morphologie in particular, the birds whose beautiful plumage and graceful flight attract our attention, are accompanied by the constant whir of miniature fans and the low throb of the ever-present soundtrack.iv Similarly, the vibrating pager motors attached to the television antenna that produce the gentle flutter of butterflies in ... theory of everything underscore the disjuncture between the fast pace of modern life and what might be viewed as the slower speed of either nature itself or of the collector's pastime.
Another, perhaps more obvious way that technology comes into play in Wilson's work is through the medium of its production. Some of the more recent work in the series Chromaplay uses a digital scanner to magnify objects to gigantic proportions in order to question our perceptions of the world around us. In Chromaplay (Logos) of 2005, Wilson returns to butterfly specimens, this time scanning them to ten times their size. The manipulation is first and foremost one of scale as the reality-effect of the digital manipulation tricks us into believing that what we are seeing is a giant specimen that has been carefully placed - along with its giant specimen bag - under glass in the conventional manner of the entomologist. In addition to this transformation in scale, however, Wilson has scanned the logo of one of several well-known corporations onto the wings of each specimen. The juxtaposition of moth-wing and the electricity conglomerate Hydro-Quebec's logo, for example, or pulp and paper giant Weyerhauser speaks volumes about the literal mark of technology on nature, but further emphasizes the ubiquitous presence of these corporations, a ubiquity that is often forgotten as their products become seamlessly integrated into the daily life of contemporary society.
Even more intriguing, however, is Wilson's most recent series Particle Theory (2006) where dust particles are placed on the scanner and are magnified to the size of golf balls. Once again a tension is invoked between our familiarity with these often forgotten or ignored elements of everyday life, and the gigantic stature they have been given through digital manipulation. Here, technology is used to imbue the detritus of the everyday with a fragility and a beauty they would not normally be associated with. Barely visible on a stark white background, these "dust bunnies" appear delicate and almost crystalline in their form and suggest an ephemeral presence despite their enormous size. Arranged in the form of constellations, these objects are given a further patina of preciousness that belie their conventional associations with dirt and the domestic.
In 2006, Wilson presented two new works at Harcourt House Gallery in Edmonton. Field Theory turned to familiar ground in its presentation of individual stalks of barley attached to an electrified metal grid suspended from the gallery ceiling. As the city experiences another major population expansion and new housing tracts encroach on yet more farmland, the prairie - sparser and more delicate than traditionally imagined - is resurrected in a downtown art gallery, the gentle swaying of the field about which many prairie poets have written, reproduced here through the intervention of electricity. The second work. Wind Theory, seems to be moving Wilson's work in a slightly different direction. The artefacts of the natural world are replaced by their image, in this case a video close-up of leaves moving in a fairly robust wind. High above the heads of viewers at the top of a three-storey stair-well, the video is accompanied by the sound of a wind-storm that resists an easy match with the movement on the screen. Seen from the outside of the gallery, the silent yet aggressive movement of the leaves creates a sense of uncertainty in passersby who associate such degree of movement with a strong wind but who see no evidence of such weather elsewhere.
These two works speak to many of the concerns which have preoccupied Wilson for the past ten years: the tension between materiality and ephemerality that is evidenced in the condensation, the scanned dust particles and soundtracks of earlier works appear in the representation of a wind that cannot be felt. Similarly, the interest in the liminal spaces between the living and the dead, between nature and culture that underscore so much of the work with birds and butterflies is captured again in the ordered arrangement of barley on metal. While a questioning of the constructions of and by nature, science and technology are the overt concerns of many of his works, it is the underlying preoccupation with the philosophy of the unseen and the imagined - the fantastic "air-loom"-like creations - that continues to motivate Clint Wilson's art.
The birds were borrowed from the University of Alberta's extensive zoology collection.
I am borrowing the concept of "liveness" from Mark Simpson's excellent essay "Immaculate Trophies" in Essays on Canadian Writing 68, Summer 1999.
This is made even more evident in Wilson's decision to wrap Haeckel's original charts upon themselves in order to create what he describes as "circular phylogenic histories." The charts were illustrations for Haeckel's principle treatise on phylogeny titled Generelle Morphologie.
In Gravity and Grace (2000), an audio-track supplied digitally manipulated sounds of pond-life. In Generelle Morphologie (2002), Wilson used an audio work produced by composer David Dunn titled Chaos and the Emergent Mind of the Pond in a five-part audio track which also included the constant flap of an owl's wings and a hummed version of the popular tune Watzing Matilda.