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Cyclorama - Lyla Rye
(exhibition catalogue)
Lethbridge: Southern Alberta Art Gallery & the Visual Art Centre of Clarington, 2014
Introduction: Ryan Doherty. Essays: Caoimhe Morgan-Feir & James Campbell
ISBN 978-1-894699-62-4


Introduction
By Ryan Doherty

Cyclorama is the happy outcome of a collaboration between the Southern Alberta Art Gallery (SAAG), the Visual Arts Centre of Clarington (VAC), and the multi-talented artist, Lyla Rye. Featuring still images, single channel videos, and mixed media installations, Cyclorama looks to the theatrical curtain as a device to conflate illusion and reality, dreaming and wakefulness, audience and participant. Between the “cyclorama,” typically a concave curtain at the rear, and the front curtains framing the scene, the stage becomes a liminal zone between everyday life and the imaginary world of the play.

In the 18th century, the critic and philosopher Denis Diderot posited that this three-walled box we call a stage did indeed have a fourth, if invisible, wall: an imaginary boundary that separated the fictional
world from the audience. Obliterating the fourth wall has since become an objective of theorists, critics, and artists alike from playwrights Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud to cinematic movements such as New Wave and Dogme 95. Provoking an awareness of the stage, its actors, and its narrative as being
a part of the same reality as the audience was a vital strategy to achieving any semblance of honest and affective experiences. For Lyla Rye, Cyclorama represents an effort to question the dichotomy of these two positions:

I want my installations to become stage sets, where the viewer is cast as actor, free to 
imagine the plot. Conceptually, I want the encounter to be like watching a theatre performance from behind the scenes. I hope to fully engage the viewer in the illusion, while also allowing them to be immediately aware of the artifice involved.

This catalogue serves to extend the exhibitions held at SAAG and VAC. It includes a host of beautiful images as well as two thoughtful essays for which we are thankful. The first, by award-winning author Caoimhe Morgan-Feir, surveys the exhibition in its entirety. Her essay deftly brings together Rye’s interests in cinematography, memory, the domestic, and recent video work inspired by Buster Keaton’s silent films, a practice uniquely situated between the theatrical vaudeville tradition, the beginning of cinematic conventions, and the spectacle and technical magic of moving pictures. The second, by VAC Director, James Campbell, examines Rye’s work Memory Palace—a series of “pop-up” tarpaulin rooms that draw upon notions of spatial memory and the transitory nature of stage sets. Campbell moves us through Rye’s vividly familiar architectural composition, revealing the complexities of its installation and emphasizing how the spaces trigger our recollection. Both essays reveal Rye’s art as a timely investigation, urging us to consider our physical relationship to film and movement through constructed space, whether architectural or imaginary.

With any project of this scope there are many individuals to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. Thanks to staff at both SAAG and VAC for their tireless efforts in realizing the exhibition at every stage. Rye’s installations are uniquely complex and the expertise and patience they require was delivered with enthusiasm. We offer thanks to Shani K Parsons who designed this inventive publication. Her nuanced understanding of Rye’s work has resulted in a book that reflects the artist’s practice in engaging ways.

Most of all, we offer our gratitude and congratulations to Lyla Rye, whose vision and collaborative spirit have resulted in two remarkable exhibitions culminating in this distinctive publication. It has been both a pleasure and a privilege to work with such an exceptional and committed artist and we hope this book serves her well.

 

CYCLORAMA | LYLA RYE
By Caoimhe Morgan-Feir

It remains one of the most famous images from the silent-film era: Buster Keaton, eyes downcast, standing in shock as a building front has just collapsed around him. His life narrowly spared by
his serendipitous position beneath the façade’s only open window, Keaton looks around at the ground as the house in the background sits splayed open. From the 1928 film Steamboat Bill, Jr., this image contains an architectural structure that occurs time and again in Keaton’s films: the bisected house. With the exterior wall missing, the building appears more like a dollhouse or theatre set than anything functional or livable. But the bisected house is more than just an iconic gag; it marks a crossroads
of histories. Lyla Rye taps into and expands upon this architectural form, using silent film footage, photography and installation to grapple with notions of domesticity, theatre, surveillance and the anxieties that these terrains contain. Rent apart, houses can be watched and peered into; Rye knows this, and makes a voyeur of the visitor.

The House Haunted (2011) offers one of the clearest examples of Rye’s interest in architecture as a framing device. The work pulls from another Keaton film, The Haunted House (1921), but, as the slightly differing titles suggest, the original film has been rearranged. Merging footage, Rye creates a vantage point that enables viewers to observe every room of the house. She assembles a digital panopticon. Footage from each room is compiled and arranged in relation to other rooms. In the lower right the basement footage plays, slightly above it the living room footage plays, slightly above it sits the bedroom footage and so on. Viewers can follow the characters through the house as they slip, dodge and try to evade each other in true Vaudevillian caper style. The house has been sliced open, allowing for a spatial arrangement of narrative.

In this schematic arrangement, or rearrangement, Rye focuses the viewer’s attention on a central element of the film: the building and its furnishings. Beyond serving as the primary frame for the piece, elements of the house routinely spur the plot forward—the house effectively functions as protagonist. Retracting stairs, trap doors and exploding books are frequently more pivotal and productive than Keaton’s hapless bank teller character (who accidentally stumbles from one calamity into another).
The objects are living, active entities. Rye plays into and exaggerates this tendency beyond The House Haunted. Each video work in Rye’s exhibition Cyclorama hinges on architectural structures and objects, such as curtains and spotlights, which lead both characters and visitors into the narratives.

Even without source material that blurs boundaries, Rye uses objects to guide visitors in unexpected ways. Memory Palace (2012) consists of little more than tarpaulins, bungie cords and fans. And yet, despite the flimsiness of these materials, Rye fashions a structure that functions similarly to the digitally replicated building in The House Haunted. Memory Palace offers a kind of passage, where one tarpaulin-strung room leads into the next. Visitors are directed by space, and led through rooms. Admittedly, though, the pacing differs entirely from The House Haunted, where characters are forced into action within Keaton’s world. In Memory Palace, visitors can take their time; there are no bands
or burglars or opera troupes waiting around the corner, but visitors are driven through all the same. As participants within Memory Palace, we may not be agitated, but we are certainly activated.

Within Spectregraph (2011), also built with footage from The Haunted House, inanimate objects retain their importance, but become far more ominous. Rather than showing the entire house, Spectregraph focuses exclusively on the entry hall and layers all activity together, so that it occurs simultaneously. With the colours inverted, Keaton’s character—garbed in ghostly white—appears dotted around the room, running up and sliding down the stairs, walking in and out of a side door and circling the landing all at once. Mixed into the slowly morphing chaos, hooded black figures (inverted “ghosts” dressed in bed sheets) slowly march across the screen. Slowed down, the jaunty, playful music that accompanied the film becomes dissonant and fumbling, with the strings and piano crashing into one another. The piece seems stretched and tortured—pained, even. Again, though, Rye’s focus points to Keaton’s status as one object among many. This is largely achieved through the overlapping within Spectregraph. Few things can undercut the centrality of the singular protagonist more than having them appear three or four times within a frame. With Keatons scattered around the room, viewers focus less on any individual character and more on the scene in its totality.

Within the context of the 1920s, this emphasis in Keaton’s films on objects driving the plot rather than, for example, emotionally-based character motivations, connects with a theme in many turn-of-the- century films: anxieties surrounding technological sovereignty and supremacy. As film historian James Lastra notes, “Keaton succeeds when he becomes a ‘thing among things,’ showing us how the movies rehearse our experience of human alienation and technological sovereignty.”1 The Haunted House does not address industrialization as directly as Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), but the same fears are evident and brought into the domestic realm. The position of humans at the centre of the universe, the centre of the narrative, has been called into question.

Rye uses this footage almost a century later, though, and new concerns have arisen. The dangers of alienation, while still present, have been joined—if not superseded—by those of omnipresent surveillance, and a resultant lack of privacy. Surprisingly, she manages to transition into contemporary concerns within Cyclorama using a seemingly understated object: the dollhouse.

Of course, dollhouses did not emerge alongside silent films. While some evidence suggests that miniatures have existed since antiquity, dollhouses as we think of them presently have been made since the mid-16th century.2 But they do have a connection with Keaton: their shared glory days during the 1920s. Perhaps there was something in the air. As Buster Keaton began to garner major Hollywood success in the early 1920s, English architect Sir Edwin Lutyens began to work on Queen Mary’s Dollhouse, the most famous of all dollhouses. Now, some ninety years later, Rye begins to resurrect the two in tandem. In connecting dollhouses and Keaton, Rye centers on some of the connections, and tensions, between the realms of the domestic and the theatrical that have existed since the turn
of the century. Writing in the 1930s, theorist Walter Benjamin noted a specific function accorded to the domestic realm: “In the interior, [modern man] brings together the far away and the long ago. His living room is a box in the theatre of the world.”3 The dollhouse reverses this structure. It transforms the domestic realm into a stage whereupon imaginary lives are enacted, and potential futures are played out. The dollhouse is a stage for the living rooms of the world.

While the typical dollhouse mirrors the opened and bisected house in form, their functions are widely different. Keaton’s films were intended for public viewing; dollhouses, on the other hand, are generally private. This distinction renders Rye’s photographic series, Projection (2007), much more intimate. The photographs depict a handmade, colorfully painted dollhouse from various depths and angles. As a small child plays with a house, reaching in and arranging, light projections dance across her back and highlight certain sections. Each room is painted a different color—pink, yellow, blue and green. As the light spills into the rooms, the shadows, which slice across the house at angles, become inky black. These angling shadows and blocks of colour abstract the photographs, and push them into the realm of the spectral and haunting. Although the projection spotlights areas of the house, it offers more confusion than clarity.

In Upstage (2011), surveillance morphs into something else: performance. The installation work consists of two elements: the first is a hanging curtain, reminiscent of theatre curtains, onto which a black and white proscenium arch is projected. Beneath this curtain, as if on a stage, projected footage shows a figure entering a door, after which a bright spotlight washes out the installation’s centre. Stepping closer to the work, the viewer’s shadow takes over centre stage. This process of transition, of viewers infiltrating the work itself, mirrors the plot of the original film, Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. (1924), from which the footage was culled. Keaton’s character, a sleeping film projectionist, dreams of entering a movie, wherein he jumps from one scene to another. Rye repurposes these scenes to allow viewers this experience; one moment they are in an indigo-tinted walled garden, while in the next they occupy a crimson-coloured desert. Their actions become the narrative; they become the shadow puppet star. All of a sudden, the wave of an arm or a turn of the head becomes a part of the work—the viewer, too, becomes an object among objects. They transform from observer to the observed.

In Rye’s Cyclorama exhibition, viewers vacillate between twinned positions: looking at space, and being looked at within space. Rye makes this transition through a subtle undoing. Keaton’s original films are restructured and reframed so that the already blurred lines between subject and object become indecipherable. Narrative becomes decentred, largely through spatial structures. When connected with images of the dollhouse, the bisected building, open and visible, hits closer to home. It seems more revealing, perhaps even more intrusive. The viewers’ position shifts. Where they once observed
the theatrical, they now observe the personal. Then, finally, the viewer becomes Keaton, the performer. Now knowing what being on display entails, they can create their own show. This shift happens by inches, but moves us by miles.

1. James Lastra, “Buñuel, Bataille, and Buster, or, the surrealist life of things,” Critical Quarterly 51.2 (2009): 36.
2. Flora Jacobs, A History of Doll’s Houses (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), 9-15.
3. Walter Benjamin, The Writer of Modern Life (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), 38.

 

Memory Palace
By James Campbell

Put whatever you can into the cupboard of your mind as if you were trying to fill a cup.

The preceding words were penned by St. Thomas Aquinas in a mid-13th century letter to his brother, John. He talks of memory. He goes on to provide guidance to his brother as to ways in which we
can strengthen our memory, enhance our ability to access moments past: “a man should arrange in an orderly way the things he wishes to hold by memory under his consideration, so that from one remembered thing he may progress easily to another.” Human obsession with the concept of memory, and its powerful place in our intellectual and emotional state of being, far pre-dates the 13th century. Ancient Greek and Roman treatises mapped out very specific memory enhancing techniques, as Lyla Rye notes regarding the title of her installation, Memory Palace: “The project title references the memory technique from ancient Greece utilizing the mind’s innate ability to remember spaces to organize large numbers of facts. By imagining facts to be remembered in various loci around a known space, one can create a vast repository of memories through a web of spatial associations.” As we daily wander any given room or space, we consciously and unconsciously register specific objects, sounds or aromas within that space. These varied “facts” become specific to that space and initiate trigger points for our individual “repository of memories.” As Aquinas alludes, the etched and ordered retention of things we wish to hold by memory allow an easy flow from one remembered thing to another, from one place to another.

In late summer and early autumn of 2012, Rye’s Memory Palace occupied the third floor loft gallery of The Visual Arts Centre of Clarington in Bowmanville, Ontario. Through the simplest of means, charged by colour and light, she transformed the two tiered, upper level of a former mill built in 1905 into a portal
for our personal memories. Rye created a series of seven “pop-up” rooms, constructed from tarpaulins of varied colour and shape. These rooms were suspended from the rough hewn rafters of the loft
by bungie cords. These components, as the artist observes, ring of the temporary, as they are materials often “associated with construction, demolition and provisional shelters.” The materials may indeed
have been transitory, however the experience of wandering those rooms was not. Rather, it was transformative.

Each room was comprised of one particular colour and a distinctive architectural form. Each shape, depending on an individual viewer’s context, might conjure a corridor, a tent, a gazebo, an arch
or a shed. It was individual memory and experience that the artist hoped to ignite during our journey through the Memory Palace. The path from room to room was often broken by fleeting visual access to an adjoining room, or architectural elements of the loft space. This was a conscious decision in the installation, so that the seven spaces did not become a unified architectural entity for the occupant, sealed within the loft. As the artist states, “..the work does not attempt to be architecture, but rather to remind one of rooms they might have encountered in the past.” It is with this thought in mind that I discuss Rye’s installation through my personal experience of exploring this installation.

Each room was illuminated from without by natural light through seventeen windows; eight on the floor level, and nine from the clerestory space above. The translucent character of the tarpaulins allowed this light to stream through, generating a particular glowing hue from space to space. That light washed over us as occupants, covering us in a varied palette of colours.

In one large room, the first that most of us encountered, an arched form reached up into the clerestory space. As we entered this white arched space, we became aware of the source of a constant hum. Two fans were suspended on a beam, pointing upward, their sustained gusts inflating the arched ceiling above us. An intriguing juxtaposition occurred in this space: while the arched ceiling suggested a timeless architectural element, the artist chose to create it using ordinary white tarpaulins. Did the white colour suggest marble, perhaps intending to evoke a classical temple? Yet this marble undulated rhythmically from the push of mere air. Clear light streamed through that stone. A myriad of memories were possible, sparked by the simultaneous multi-sensory absorption of light, colour, sound, motion and touch. This writer was transported to the Grand Chapel of The Palace of the Popes, in Avignon. Somehow, Rye’s arched room of plastic fibres, held aloft by cords and the wind, conjured a memory of a vast hall of white stone from the 13th century.

We then entered a corridor of red, a rich, visceral red. The colour that fell upon us here was capable of overwhelming any immediate need to ascribe architectural familiarity. We were not taken aloft in this space, as in the arch that preceded it. This was akin to a journey through an artery. A celebratory leap in primary colour occurred when we then entered a deep blue space. This was shaped much like a bedroom, its bright colour suggesting that of a child’s. Here, the blue tarpaulin shaped the illusion of dormers flanking south facing windows in the loft, and although the material covered the windows, we were immediately aware they were there. Light from other windows helped to define the rest of the room, washing a soothing blue balm over the space and those of us inside. The space conjured memories of comfort, a place full of stories read, of reassurances, and of calm.

From a cool blue interior space, suddenly into a brilliant orange tent, the type of tent found on countless campgrounds and in countless backyards. Here again, memory associations were dependent upon varied individual experience. Family camping trips, Girl Guide and Cub Scout outings, or a summer vacation night in a friend’s backyard; many such memories involve that kind of space, that shape, even that material. Closely related to the orange tent-like structure was one placed in close proximity, made of a green tarpaulin in the form of a gazebo. Associations with the summer were again present, from that familiar shape of the backyard enclosure, enhanced by the artist’s choice of green for its colour, recalling the green grass upon which the gazebo rests, and the lush foliage that surrounds it.

Again, this shift in place for the occupant, this jump from room to room, occurred only after a quick visual reminder of where we were as we wandered from one space to another. We were in an art gallery loft. We were also in a Memory Palace.

Rye’s installation was created with the simplest of means. Temporary materials for temporary rooms. There were no specific, tangible objects, no varied “facts”, placed within these spaces. These loci were void of any consciously placed memory triggers to be immediately grasped and ordered, as described by Aquinas. Yet these malleable, temporal spaces, awash in coloured light, ignited in each wanderer
an immediate sensory response, and a journey into memory. Again to St. Thomas Aquinas and the letter to his sibling: “a man should apply interest and emotional energy to the things he wants to remember.” The spaces created by Lyla Rye were charged with a transferable emotional energy. If memory is indeed the stuff of both emotion and intellect, perhaps it is in such palaces that the convergence occurs.

________________________________________________________________________________________





Erratic Room
(exhibition catalogue)
Toronto: TYPOLOGY Projects, 2013
Essay: Shani K Parsons
ISBN 978-0-9921137-0-4


Erratic Room
By Shani K Parsons

A dark doorway looms; fitful light from beyond the threshold beckons. Upon entering, you may chance upon discordant collisions between sound and image, or perhaps instead a dark and quiet moment’s repose, allowing pupils to widen and attention to focus on the absence of sensory stimulation. Images continue to appear and fade -- at times swiftly, other times slowly; a door slams, light sprawls across a living room floor. Other images evoke decidedly non-domestic spaces -- walls from a virtual world collapse; a crack crawls across a foreign roadway. From your cloistered vantage point within the darkened room, enveloping projections assume the form and function of apparitional windows on an unsettled world.

One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.
Annie Dillard1

Throughout human history, dark rooms have occupied a spectral presence in our imagination and memory, and even in today’s brilliantly illuminated world we continue to spend a significant portion of our lives within them. From the theatre to the bedroom, we enter or invest these anomalous spaces with feelings of anticipation, trepidation, fantasy or fear. Curtains closed, we await the return of light to our eyes, whether through the spectacle of performance or through sleep – itself a kind of personal performance in the theatre of dreams. During those first moments when darkness begins to settle upon us, our senses become finely attuned to the subtleties of atmosphere and existence, focusing inward upon the flow of our thoughts even while searching outward for any clue of what remains to be seen. In the absence of light, our minds take flight, seeking exits and entries through any aperture that can be discerned within the shadows. In the dark, where space becomes boundless and untenable, our most imaginative selves take centre stage, enacting our innermost desires and deepest dread.

Lyla Rye’s Erratic Room is one such anomalous space, finely tuned to interrogate and conflate dualities of light/dark, inside/outside, past/future, and reality/fantasy in ways that destabilize our assumptions as to what constitutes a “safe place” (e.g., home or sanctuary) in the world today. However, unlike the archetypal house or stage, Erratic Room is devoid of physical features, becoming a pure distillation of the anticipatory, fantastical spaces of the darkened theatre and the bedroom before sleep, as well as an echo of the once-magical creative spaces inhabited by digital photography’s forebears, the camera obscura and darkroom. Going back even further: our distant ancestors brought to life the very earliest of humanity’s pictorial images within the deepest of caves. In all of these hidden, hallucinatory places, representations of the real are carefully wrought within beams of light emerging from the end of a torch, out an aperture, through a lens. In the developing image before us, we make a mirror of reality, in which we desire to see ourselves.

But what happens when the lens is blurred or the window breaks, when there is no careful control? What of the mirror image then, and our place within it? Erratic Room confronts us with these all-too-likely potentialities. Rye’s source imagery, featuring architectural and urban apertures, enclosures, edges and experiences, are made stranger through strategies of framing, pacing, positioning, inverting, and stretching or collapsing (of time, space and scale), constituting an off-kilter vision of the world just beyond our walls. Looking through such troubled portals, we sense the true fragility and porosity of our carefully built enclosures – lights penetrating closed windows or gaping doors, floors tilting and bulging, gates shaking, walls being breached or broken down. Split between angled mirrors, the resultingly skewed projections defy our innate sense of perspective and gravity, adding a physical dimension to our feelings of instability. Out-of-sync sounds, unmoored from the images and actions they originally corresponded to, reverberate with an echo or foreshadowing of past and future uncertain events.

Playing across the walls and floor in front of, around, and even upon our bodies, Erratic Room’s randomized series of sound/image permutations functions as a virtual architectural intervention. Simultaneously delimiting and expanding the boundaries of the space it occupies, the room begets a similarly confounding effect upon our imaginations and memories with its trapezoidal representations of windows, doors, floors, walls, gates, and stairs under varying degrees of duress. Here (and by extension, anywhere), the normatively protective devices we have built to sequester ourselves from the outside world have an equally sinister potential to betray or entrap us.

In what shelter can one take refuge? Space is nothing but a ‘horrible outside-inside.’ In this ambiguous space, the mind has lost its geometrical homeland and the spirit is drifting.

The line of demarcation between outside and inside [is aggravated] … juxtaposed in us [are] claustrophobia and agoraphobia.

Gaston Bachelard2

And yet – a certain wonderment forestalls fear as our eyes adjust and we begin to see some of the shadows for what they represent. Recognition allows memory to meet imagination, tempering the unknown and opening up passageways toward understanding and integration of our sensory experience. In this way Erratic Room moves beyond mere funhouse effects and voyeuristic chills into a space of questioning and contemplation. Lights angle over walls in a way tat recalls night cars haunting childhood windows – but was that fear, or a sense of comfort one felt, wrapped up in blankets on a cozy bed? Sunlight streams through window blinds, recalling the warmth of a summer afternoon – or is that the advancing crispness that winter twilight brings? And at certain points we see a figure briskly appear and disappear – but this is no ghost. Who is this familiar foil?

•••

Buster Keaton is disentangling himself from the contrary bed sheet. He is not fighting it as much as trying to understand it. The linen is not an adversary; it is a puzzle to be solved.. With the silent perseverance of a microbe hunter searching out a cure for the plague, he transforms the sheet into something else. His was the spirit of the alchemist transmuting dross into gold. If only to get out of the jam he was in.

In the bed, he twists, turns one way, then another .No soap. The sheet ravels itself around him even more tightly. He stands up. It is a toga. He is a solemn Roman senator, surveying with fixed gaze something out there. Once more, stone-faced though perplexed, he tries to free himself. The sheet is maddeningly enveloping him. Another move… it becomes a flowing robe, the caftan of an Arab sheik. Again, he is at it. A winding sheet! We catch our breath. It has become the white shroud of the three dead little sons returning to haunt The Wife of Usher’s Well.

Buster is a prisoner with no means of escape. Does this call for Houdini? Pause. He makes another, somewhat acrobatic turn, and he is free. He gets out of bed, puts on his clothes, and that’s it. End of scene.

Studs Terkle3

The presence of Buster Keaton within Erratic Room is no accident or joke; his work fascinates Rye (as well as a long list of other artists who cite him as a major influence, from Jacques Tati to Jackie Chan, Samuel Beckett, Woody Allen, and Robert Wilson).4,5 Among the images Rye sourced for Erratic Room are key moments from two of his short films, namely One Week (1920) and The Electric House (1922). Both films feature the actor entangled in an epic struggle with structure – in One Week he vainly attempts to build a kit home for himself and his new bridge; in The Electric House he gamely outfits a patron’s house with all manner of automated gadgetry which goes haywire to disastrous effect.6,7 Like the bed sheet Turkel describes, the houses are puzzles to be reckoned with, impassive machines which offer not security but treachery in their baffling transformations. Windows become exists to be launched through, a stairway propels people into a swimming pool. Walls slip upside down and turn inside out – in Keaton’s representation of the world, all that happens in contrary to reasonable expectations.

However as man goes up against machine and fails and fails again, we do not despair but laugh; Keaton’s stone-faced determination in the wake of adversity both bewilders and emboldens us. As Terkel observes, “it is not a moment of fright we are experiencing, as much as antic anxiety. Our unsettlement is not unlike that of the little children in Truffaut’s 400 Blows, caught by the violence of Punch and Judy, yet delighting in their terror”.8 Ever the clown, Keaton nevertheless understands that his apparent lack of emotion conveys an uncanny sort of “patience and power to endure”, bestowing a “disturbing tension and grandeur to the foolishness … . For those who [sense it, there is] in his comedy a freezing whisper … of melancholia”.9

Like Keaton, Rye recognizes this tension between fear and absurdity, embedding within Erratic Room subtle flashes of humour that emerge unexpectedly out of the darkness. In one such moment, we glimpse Keaton dauntlessly clinging to One Week’s spinning wall, refusing to be cast out of the house he is fruitlessly trying to build. In others, The Electric House’s runaway stair and perverse pool (one almost kills him, the other foils his melodramatic attempt at suicide) appear and reappear – oblique references to threats and travails (Falls, floods) both he and we must overcome each day in our own presumably secure homes. “Like the hapless diners at the mechanized table [of Electric House], we too have had our chairs pulled out from under us, not knowing why the startling mishaps are happening nor how they will ever be fixed. [Yet] we are, oddly enough, not entirely hopeless, but rather mixed with [feelings of] expectation and optimism.”10

In another instance, we see a door close, but only under power of a giant hand, revealing the image to be sourced from a dollhouse, that miniature representation of an ideal domestic reality so replete with childhood fantasy and rituals of play.11 Echoing the outsized hand in One Week, which tears off calendar pages marking the film’s progress through time (and cheekily provides a bathing lady with cover), the surprising appearance of Rye’s hand writ large in Erratic Room has the effect of breaking the proverbial “fourth wall” separating audience from action, a form of direct address which in this case affirms the authorial presence of the artist and calls attention to the artifice in all images.12

This sense of artifice is in fact what unifies the disparate source images which populate the installation. For example, in addition to the hand-build dollhouse and Keaton clips, Erratic Room comprises high resolution video set up and shot from within the artist’s home, low resolution 3D animation demos from the web, and amateur disaster footage (edited and altered by Rye) also found online. The images are uniformly stripped of colour, inverted at times, and bear the artifacts of their provenance, so that the grainy texture of the Keaton clips speak to the distant cinematic past as much as the pixelated consistency of the found footage is a clue to its internet origins.

Isolating and actualizing the fundamental solitude and surreality in images mined from the fantasy-laden beginnings of film to the present-day profusion of “reality”-based media (which so often usurps fantasy in its strangeness), Rye circumscribes a contemporary world in which the slippage between fact and fiction becomes visible, even tangible and inevitable. In so doing, Rye has created within Erratic Room a potentially transformative, and ultimately transcendent, space. Although we may enter and inhabit this darkened placed as prisoners within Plato’s allegorical cave, cobbling together a false reality out of the artifacts of shadows, the possibility remains that we may yet freely emerge as philosophers, at home in a world beyond what we already know, dread, or desire.13

Able to look upon the light directly, we may come to see and apprehend those illusory “black and white images…” for what they truly and simply are: the purely visual poetry of “pointillism in varying intensities of gray.”14 As Bachelard observes in his Poetics, such knowledge bears fruit in far greater imaginings: “When so many doors are closed, there is one that is just barely ajar. We have only to give it a very slight push! The hinges have been well oiled. And our fate becomes visible.”15

SHANI K PARSONS
DIRECTOR, TYPOLOGY PROJECTS
OCTOBER 2013

 

WORKS CITED

1. Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life. New York: Harper & Row. 1989. Print.
2. Gaston Bachelard on Henri Michaux’s prose-poem, Shade-Haunted Space 1952):
Space, but you cannot even conceive the horrible inside-outside that real space is. / Certain (shades) especially, girding their loins one last time, make a desperate effort to “exist as a single unity.” But they rue the day. I met one of them. / Destroyed by punishment, it was reduced to a noise, a thunderous noise. / An immense world still heard it, but it no longer existed, having become simply and solely a noise, which was to rumble on for centuries longer, but was fated to die out completely, as though it had never existed.

(Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994. Print.)

3. Turkel, Studs. The Studs Terkel Interviews: Film and Theater. New York: New Press, 2008. Print.
4. Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film, 2nd ed. New York: WW Norton & Company, Inc., 1990. Print.
5. Samuel Beckett/UK and Irish Premiere. “Robert Wilson: Krapp’s Last Tape.” August 2012. Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival. Web. October 2013.
6. One Week Directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline. Performed by Buster Keaton and Sybil Sealey. Metro Pictures Corp., 1921. Silent B/W Film, Kino International Corp., 2005. DVD.
7. The Electric House, Directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline. Performed by Buster Keaton and Virginia Fox. Buster Keaton Productions, Inc., 1922. Silent B/W Film. Kino International Corp., 2005. DVD.
8. Turkel, Studs .The Studs Terkel Interviews: Film and Theater
9. Agee, James. “Comedy’s Greatest Era.” Agee on Film, Vol 1. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1958. Print.
10. Oldham, Gabriella. Keaton’s Silent Shorts: Beyond the Laughter. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. Print.
11. The dollhouse is a recurring motif in Rye’s work, through which she has mediated her interest in architectural forms and the domestic condition, particularly as it relates to motherhood. (Hayes, Kenneth. “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mother.” Lyla Rye: Hopscotch. Kingston, ON: Agnes Etherington Art Centre, 2007. Print.)
12. The concept of ‘breaking the fourth wall’, or direct address, refers to moments in theatre and film when characters acknowledge the audience as spectators. According to film historian Tom Brown, this cinematic device may function variously to establish intimacy, agency, superiority, honesty, immediacy,     alienation, or stillness between viewer and viewed. (Brown, Tom. Breaking the Fourth Wall: Direct Address in the Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd., 2012. Print.)
13. In Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave, the uneducated are likened to prisoners bound within a cave for all of their lives, believing as a result that shadows cast on the wall by a fire are the true representations of reality. Only upon being freed from the cave can a prisoner know the true reality and aspire to the mind-state of philosopher. (Plato. The Republic: The Complete and   Unabridged Jowett Translation. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. New York: Vintage Classics, 1991. Print.)
14. Oldham, Gabriella. Keaton’s Silent Shorts: Beyond the Laughter.
15. Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space.

ERRATIC ROOM
Print Series

The Erratic Room Print Series is produced by Lyla Rye in conjunction with the exhibition of the Erratic Room installation at TYPOLOGY. For over the past ten years, photography has been an integral part of Rye’s artistic practice, and the Erratic Room Print Series is the physical extension and embodiment of the ideas she explores in the ephemeral installation.

Conceived as a sculptural photo edition, the print series features four light-filled moments from the Erratic Room video projection sequence, each of which has been carefully selected, printed, and mounted between curved supports within a custom wood box frame. Like the installation, the edition hovers between two and three dimensions, playing with the viewer’s spatial perception in its warping of both image and support. The resulting artworks appear to flex and breathe within their containments, shifting in perspective and depth as the viewer changes position.

Digitally printed on glossy fine art paper, the prints are highly reflective and responsive to ambient light and the surrounding environment in a way that makes them truly site-specific: the constantly changing reflections and shadows playing across the photographic surfaces are considered by the artist to be integral to the images. Often ghostlike in form, they function as a visual index to the specific spatial and temporal conditions in which they are being seen.

The Erratic Room Print Series is shown framed with reflections on the next four pages. To see the unframed edition without reflections, see the Exhibition Checklist, p. 25.

ARTIST Q+A

What is your background and how does it shape your interest in visual art?
How did you come to be an artist?

I began my post secondary education studying architecture. I actually dropped out of art after grade nine. In high school I was very good at math and had strong three-dimensional perception so architecture seemed like the right direction. In the end it was not a good fit, at least not then and there, but that two years of study influenced me greatly. Once I made the transition to studying visual arts, it actually took me a few years to find a way to use my interest in architecture in my work.

Where does an artwork begin for you? How do you develop ideas and imagery? What materials and processes do you employ? How do you experiment or play?

Starting with a found element is my favourite way to work. Most often I have a material, site, or source footage that I reflect upon and respond to and the piece develops from there without much sense of what the final result will be. On a video project, I usually have to find, create, and alter almost twice as much footage as I ultimately end up using. The pieces grow and grow and grow and then there is a crisis point when I’m lost and confused. I often seem to have to discover the logic by trying as many possibilities as I can imagine. Then I start putting limits on the project and refine the logic more consciously than I did in the early development phase.

Erratic Room began with the Buster Keaton footage and the realization that the architecture was active enough that I could zoom in and isolate it. In his work the sets are almost cast members — they are so inventive, interactive, and mobile. Erratic Room then expanded to include a wide range of footage where I could find that mobility in architectural space, like web animations and product demos. It was also informed by news reports of people being pushed off subway platforms, trucks careening into houses and toxins leaking into basements. I felt a new sense of societal anxiety about the safety and security of built space.

I also have vivid architectural dreams where there are no other people but the spaces change or grow as I move through them. When I remember these dreams I can usually find a starting experience or the memory of a room that was the origin, and then I can consider how my subconscious altered it.

How has your practice changed over time? Has your work evolved in a particular way? Have there been experiences in life or work that changed your approach?

In undergrad, I began studying painting but then made architectural models to paint from. Then the paintings came off the wall and I shifted to sculpture. I always wanted to occupy a lot of space and give the viewer a spatial experience. At first I did this by creating many small objects but by grad school I had developed the strategy of using very ephemeral materials to occupy a large amount of space. This has the advantage of saving money and storage space and allowed me to show site specific works particular to each gallery or exhibition space. I’ve worked in many unconventional places including warehouse basements, an elevator, a women’s prison and a decrepit bathroom of an old rooming house. Each of these spaces was the impetus for a unique piece that was aligned with an investigation into a material and its potential — structural, formal, optical, and referential. The disadvantage of working this way was that if I didn’t have any exhibitions scheduled I didn’t know what to do with myself and after each show I was left with only images and fragments.

After becoming a mother I taught myself video editing with the help of some very generous artist friends including the late Kartz Ucci, and Michael Balser, and filmmaker Ross Turnbull. Each of them taught me something about what it meant to work in a time-based medium. But I was also heavily inspired by watching my daughter. I think I carried that responsiveness from the site works to the video pieces. This allowed me to investigate my reactions to unplanned footage of my daughter and me. Video also seemed like a way to impact a large volume of space without much material. I really relate to much of my practice as being experiential. The fact that the work is both ephemeral and temporal locates the viewer within the present moment with respect to the work. Their memory of the experience is as much a part of the piece as anything tangible, kind of like a book: is it an object, a narrative, or your experience of the narrative?

I then developed strategies to have the video imagery impact the perceptual experience of the physical space in which it was situated. I think of this as a contrast to the alternate reality, or window experience, that conventional film presents. In parallel with the video installations, a series of sculptural interventions began to emerge, and then alongside many of the video installations I developed a series of digital photos. The Erratic Room photo series came after the video installation but has similar intentions.

More recently, I’ve been making Screen Grab buttons which are an exploration that comes from long hours of searching the web for imagery and editing video. They represent moments when alternate realities collide in too-perfect-to-be-planned ways. I also like the idea of the collisions of image and text being further re-contextualized when the buttons are worn on people’s clothing.

What art/artists/movements do you most identify with and why?

For a wide range of reasons I strongly relate to minimalism, early site constructions and also the first generation of film and video explorations. Artists like Mary Miss, Alice Aycock, Bruce Nauman and Gordon Matta-Clark are big influences. In addition to Buster, I have an ongoing art crush on Giotto and his wacky buildings.

What memorable responses have you had to your work, and have they changed the way you think about making art?

When I was doing video work with my daughter that became controversial, the best response I had to the work was in a comment book, from a survivor of incest. This person felt the work was very disturbing but ultimately said that they’d be back to see it again. I was so pleased with this. I felt the work walked the fine line between being too disturbing and insensitive on one hand and so benign that it became cute or forgettable on the other. I don’t think I’ve hit that perfect place since, but the work hasn’t been as contentious lately either.

On a day off, what are some of your favourite things to do?

I love to be in nature and to be active. I swim, hike, canoe, skate, ski, and bike. I also read a ton of novels and watch films: Canadian, independent, and foreign, with a smattering of Hollywood.

What are you reading/watching/looking at/listening to these days?

I’m reading Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam and am waiting for my partner to finish Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda. I am also an avid listener to podcasts on a wide range of subjects from science to spiritualism to advertising to culture. I haven’t had time for many movies recently.

Do you collect anything? What? Why?

I don’t actively collect anything, as in seeking out things to acquire, except maybe books — novels and art catalogues. I feel that I learn so much about the world from novels in a way that seems truer than what I learn from the news. A novel gives you a world view, the psychology of the characters and the full arc of events, that is hard to get from the sporadic and often traumatic reporting from around the world that we have access to.

I guess if I am to be completely honest, I have also consistently gathered Danish modern furniture and jewellery in weird materials — bone, glass, felt, porcelain, rubber, plastic, stainless steel, etc. I like to see the inventiveness of designers and experience the joy of having intimate daily contact with the objects.

What are you working on right now?

A single channel video playing with red/cyan colour separation from black and white footage of chase scenes from Buster Keaton’s film Cops. I am also starting to think about a sculptural installation where the video element is perhaps simply a light that moves across reflective, transparent, or mobile surfaces.

Name 1–3 contemporary artists whose work you feel deserves more attention.

There are so many, especially mid-career Canadian artists. I have to admit, my first thought is of my partner John Dickson’s work. I think his last series of live feed video and audio installations are brilliant (but I am rather biased!). I am very excited to see that Polish artist Monika Sosnowska is having two shows in Canada this year, but at the same time sad to know that I won’t have the opportunity to see them.

LYLA RYE
TORONTO, 2013

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Upstage
(exhibition brochure)
Durham: Fabulous Festival of Fringe Film. July 2011
Essay: Tony Massett


Upstage: An Outdoor Video Installation by Lyla Rye
July 28 – August 1, 128 Garafraxa Street North
By Tony Massett

The very nature of an outdoor installation involving projectors, screens and electronics is a complex affair fraught with logistical problems even on a good day with benign climatic conditions.

Located at 128 Garafraxa Street North in the main shopping area of Durham sits an empty lot surrounded by hoarding, former site of the Dell Theatre. This was Durham’s original movie theatre, converted into a supermarket in 1961 and eventually morphing through a downward spiral of ignominy and vacancy to eventually founder in an inferno of arson.

For five days this empty site will be reawakened to invoke the mythology of memory. It will take the form of a video installation that plays with empirical notions of past and present, there and not there, as a loosely held structure closely aligned to the world of dream.

Lyla Rye

Lyla Rye’s site specific video installations are keenly tuned to the environment in which they are situated, pondering a mythology or anthropology whose intent is subtly camouflaged in the code of presentation. Her chameleon adaptations to the surrounding setting into which it’s sited, successfully emulating the culture they critique. Her previous interventionist installations (kiosk, 2009) a permanent installation can be found at the Cadillac Fairview Mall Toronto.

Buster Keaton

The narrative vehicle for the installation is a segment from Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (a silent era movie from 1924) Buster Keating one of the great comedic actors of the silent era, an actor of great physical prowess and remarkable facility with mime and clown, influenced by the European tradition of Commedia Del Arte.

Keaton plays the role of a cinema projectionist who falls asleep on the job. This ploy and the ensuing dream sequence propels Keaton into the movie within the movie and the fiction within the fiction. Keaton is challenged by an unpredictable shifting landscape, in a world wherein the film image literally shifts from land to sea to snow to desert to train tracks never hanging on to a specific reality for more than a few seconds, leaving Keaton little time to adjust to circumstances before a new set arrives. This theatrical film contrivance allows for a fast continuity of sight gags, the perfect vehicle for the superb gymnastic ability that was the signature of Keaton and the comedy of the silent era.

Upstage

Upstage as a noun, denotes that area, at or toward the back of a theatre stage. Upstage the verb; to move toward the back of a stage to make (another actor) face away from the audience; hence fig. to overshadow, force into a disadvantageous position.

Rye has digitally manipulated the original film image, inverting elements to create a theatre’s proscenium arch that is projected onto an actual proscenium arch, the main physical feature of the installation. This arch construction frames the movie within the movie. The core imagery is projected through the arch onto the floor of the site upon which sits the theatrical artifice. Using the digital image as an archeological metaphor to locate the theatre beneath.

The pervasive presence of Keaton has been digitally removed from the projection leaving only a circular spotlight indicating his absence. A spotlight of incandescent brilliance, the paradoxical state of high visibility for the viewer yet blinding exposure to the performer, who is nailed and transfixed in the expectation of performance.

Circumdances

Absence, presence and transformation are the comedic vehicle that Keaton exploits with exquisite timing and physical grace. Absence, the pre-existing reality, departed, for which preparedness seems futile. Presence the confusion with lack of preparedness for the new set of circumstances. Transformation, the saving grace of at least demonstrating a fine ability to dance, no matter who calls the tune.

The conceit of the projection is that the viewer/performer is able to step into the movie, emulating the manner of Keaton’s original gesture of stepping from one fiction into another. The spotlight as portal, a request, inveigling performance, step from here to there. The consequence, a shadow dance in ever changing circumstance.

Participants with their backs to the projector will from their viewing perspective append their shadows, become the figure within the fiction. Stationary or gesticulating the interlocutor is in position to upstage the projection, or vice versa.

There and not There

The Supermarket leaves a slight, indistinct trace of its former presence with the few remaining floor tiles suggestive of domesticity on a large scale. The Dell Theatre’s ghost is a barely perceptible shadow, where the horizontal floor breaks off into a steep decline of the typically sloped seating arrangement slanting down to the cinema screen.

The absent Keaton, the absent Dell Theatre, invocations of lost time.

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Lyla Rye
(exhibition catalogue)
Toronto: Koffler Gallery, 2011
Essay: Etienne Turpin
ISBN 978-0-920863-93-0


Allegory & Anxiety: On Lyla Rye’s Swing Stage
By Etienne Turpin

However anachronistic it may sound, it is important to ask the fundamental question: ‘what is architecture?’ The creation of architecture must be a criticism of the problems of today. It must resist existing conditions. It is only when one faces up to today’s problems that one can really begin to deal with architecture. – Tadao Ando

In her lyrical and ludic sculpture, Swing Stage, Lyla Rye resists and redoubles the “existing conditions” of present architectural surroundings, invoking an industrial past and attendant social anxieties. Developed for the off-site program of the Koffler Gallery, Rye’s installation is presented at the Olga Korper Gallery, situated within the Morrow complex. Built in the 1890s, the building functioned initially as a foundry. Although long divorced from this original use, remnants of its industrial past are still visible in the gallery’s high, peaked ceiling and metal trusses. Rye’s sculpture re-inhabits this space in a deceptively simple mimetic occupation. A rectangular platform of impressive scale floats one foot above the concrete floor, suspended from the roof trusses with chains that replicate the truss configuration. The black but highly polished surface of the platform mirrors the ceiling above. A circular screen positioned above one end of the sculpture captures a video projection that includes historic drawings of the building, footage from the site, and a Google Earth model view of the adjacent neighbourhood.

In Rye’s installation, the swing produces an allegory for an unfixed and mobile ground, that is, an event of encounter. As with every successful allegory, the aspects of the sculpture that we recognize as familiar are only partially so, in that the components are both referential and differential with respect to our “existing conditions” and their history. This is due, in part, to the multiple optical inversions at play in Rye’s installation. First, the roof trusses are reflected against the vinyl surface of the platform, creating a peculiar image of a recessed absence in the centre of the piece. Then, the window on the eastern gallery wall near the peak of the roof is reflectively doubled in the stage surface which, depending on the perspective of the viewer, offers a refracted and oblique yet impossible view out of the gallery. Finally, the floating circular projection not only mimics the impossible-to-reach eastern window, but offers a series of possible vistas through a mix of archival and contemporary imagery of the site. The multiple redoubling of the visual economy within the space creates an allegorical encounter; the referent is split between the possible and impossible, the past and the future, and the real and its representation.

The viewer is invited to step up on the low-lying platform and take in the perspective of the gallery from this suspended stage. Immediately, the anxiety of walking on the raised swing, with its slow but unsetting movement, signals the uncertain ground of the installation. This uncertainty is registered in the body of the viewer. Here, the encounter with Swing Stage seems to redouble the anxiety – within the discipline (the body) of architecture itself – that accompanied the development of new architectural types in the late nineteenth century. The Morrow foundry was one of many novel building types that accompanied the Industrial Revolution, which included the railway station, the market hall, and the factory. All of these emerged without lineage and defied architectural precedent, making the historical conventions through which architecture understood itself increasingly untenable. Industrial innovation meant the ground of architecture was literally shifting.

The site-specificity of Rye’s installation also shifts the ground of the gallery’s architecture through more subtle historical references. Of the many moments of redoubling encountered in Swing Stage, the repetition of the roof trusses in the pattern created by the chain suspension is the most visually striking. Less obvious is the fact that the trusses themselves are the double of the work that once took place on the foundry floor – the production and casting of metal. Not only did the Industrial Revolution and its attendant built forms create an uneasiness for architectural tradition, these forms also shaped the spaces within which the technologies of production would become the norm. With Swing Stage, the visual economy that connects the chain to the truss, and the truss and the chain back to the foundry floor where they were produced, references and redoubles patterns of industrial political economy as the viewer is held in suspense on the platform.

Notably, as industrialization in the nineteenth century made way for mechanization and standardization, a concomitant eventuality occurred on the side of consumption. The famed “transparencies” of iron and glass construction, including iconic works such as Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace in London, 1851, and Gustave Eiffel’s eponymously named tower for the Paris Exhibition of 1889, helped to reframe the anxieties of industrial production through an architectural image of democratic transparency, physical lightness, and an open syntax of visual commerce. Yet these icons are not the end of the story. Present-day architectural apprehensions are less a matter of formal precedent or typological pedigree, and more concretely tied to issues of uneven development and rapid gentrification.

Looking up from Swing Stage to the small circular eastern window, we might also assume a reference to the American artist Gordon Matta-Clark’s building cuts, not by way of the physical removal of material to create an opening to the outside (despite a surprising formal similarity), but through the ephemerality of Rye’s platform from which any view of the exterior is pursued but never completed. Of particular note is Matta-Clark’s Day’s End (Pier 52) (1975), a piece executed over several months as the artist, suspended in a harness above the abandoned New York city pier, cut geometric but partial sections from the corrugated steel walls of the former workspace, creating a veritable clock (sunlight passed along the cuts and down a central trough through the pier floor) that rendered the workday visible again.1 As the pier was already emptied of its industrial past, Matta-Clark could address the loss of labour through the site’s decay, and the loss of social history signaled by this absent working class. Similarly, Rye stages a confrontation, by way of the swing as allegory, between the lost space of the functional foundry and its renewal as an ornamental type. In this regard, the title Swing Stage alludes to the suspended scaffolds used for construction or maintenance on the exterior of high-rise buildings. It can thus be read as an ambiguous allusion to the very process of gentrification, or “urban renewal,” which prevented the foundry from falling into terminal disrepair and allowed the gallery to remodel the space in its own renewed image.

Swing Stage also seems to hint at the idea of the stage as a site where the temporary suspension of disbelief can occur. If this is the case, can belief also be suspended on this platform? For an allegory to work, both disbelief and belief must be held in moments of differential suspension. In this sense, Rye’s sculpture is both mimetic, with regard to the formal image of industrialization, and disjunctive, with respect to the space it inhabits and the visual tropes it makes manifest. This use of a compositional disjunction nested within a formal logic of mimicry characterizes a mode of art making that is especially contemporary. That is, as the activist and critic Craig Owens presciently argued in his study of art and postmodernity, it is precisely allegorical.2 The allegory allows for an open and dynamic relation produced by a mimetic but disjunctive presentation of recognizable forms.

We may borrow from Matta-Clark’s description of his own practice of intervention to characterize Rye’s sculptural suspension: “Angles and depths can be perceived where they should have been hidden. Spaces are available to move through that were previously inaccessible. My hope is that the dynamism of the action can be seen as an alternative vocabulary with which to question the static inert building environment.”3 Through the staged anachronism of the industrial foundry and the multiple redoubling created for the viewer held in suspension on the platform, Rye has created an anarchitectural and allegorical sculpture that undermines any inert sense of building or static sense of ground. As we try to find our balance, and then our orientation, we encounter the allegorical accuracy of Rye’s redoubling of our “existing conditions” and the persistent anxieties they produce.

Etienne Turpin
August 2011

Notes
Epigraph. Tadao Ando, El Croquis 44 (September, 1990), 192.
1. Interview with Gordon Matta-Clark, reprinted in Gordon Matta-Clark: Works and Collected Writings (Barcelona: Ediciones Poligrafa, 2006), 215-220.
2. Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism,” October 12 (Spring 1980), 67-86.
3. Gordon Matta-Clark, quoted in Urban Alchemy/Gordon Matta-Clark (St. Louis: Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, 2009).

Lyla Rye is a Toronto-based installation artist. Her work has been exhibited across Canada including at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Victoria; The Power Plant, Toronto; the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax; the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, Lethbridge; and the Textile Museum of Canada, Toronto. She has shown internationally in San Francisco, New York, Adelaide, Paris, and Berlin. Her works are in the collections of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, York University, Cadillac Fairview Corporation, the Tom Thompson Art Gallery, Harbourfront Centre and the Robert McLaughlin Gallery.

Etienne Turpin, Ph.D., is a founding editor of the architecture, landscape, and political economy journal Scapegoat (www.scapegoatjournal.org), and a research fellow at Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan.

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Hopscotch
(exhibition catalogue)
Kingston: Agnes Etherington Art Gallery, 2007
Essay: Kenneth Hayes
ISBN: 155339092X


Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mother
By Kenneth Hayes

Lyla Rye investigates spatial phenomena through architectural forms. Initially, this work took the form of sculptural constructions conceived as a kind of nomadic gallery architecture, but the birth of her child in 1999 caused something of a break in this practice. After this event, Rye adopted a new medium, video installation, and took her child and her relationship to her child as her primary subjects. This change purged her work of its lingering emblematic or allegorical tendency and rendered it more abstract and relational. Her work is now inscribed with an arc of development determined by her daughter’s growth and Rye’s changing relationship with her. Although the reorganization of her practice aligned the artist with the newly dominant mode of contemporary art production, namely digital video projection, her attunement to spatial phenomena persists as a will to defy projection’s rectangular format and engage the gallery and viewer in new spatial configurations.

In a number of recent works, the artist’s focus on her daughter has been mediated by a large dollhouse that stands in apposite relation to both the child and architectural form. The present work, Hopscotch, is Rye’s first major video installation in which the image of her daughter does not appear directly. The familiar dollhouse has also been modified to appear more grid-like and less specifically domestic. This seems to signal a return to the artist’s earlier concerns, but if so, it is with a considerable difference. Instead of offering miniaturized ideal types, the artist now brings to her work a stronger tendency to lay bare the power relations embedded in social structures like the home, gender roles, and games. This is even the case when making a work that apparently expresses a powerful yearning for the liberation of pure formal play.

Like many artists who, in the twentieth century, have explored the art of children1, Rye is fascinated by the imaginative life of the child, but as a mother she is too aware of its complexity to appropriate it as innocent or idyllic creativity. Indeed, some of her videos focus so acutely on mother-child emotional dynamics that they have been received as both provocative and confrontational. The current work concerns games, which play a clearly important but somewhat obscure role in the cognitive and psychological development of children. As does any other “concerned” parent, Rye wonders what that role is and how it shapes her child, but given the current orientation of her artistic practice, she also considers more generally how games relate to art, since they clearly do.

The game of hopscotch seems benign compared to many others; think, for example, of the alarming lesson in social Darwinism taught by the game musical chairs. Hopscotch is predicated on a kind of hidden code that controls the movement of the players. However simple this code (certain squares are not to be stepped on), it is not explicit in the gridded form of the drawing on the ground, and must be learned or agreed upon by the players. Children seem to have transmitted these rules among themselves at least since the Victorian era. The minor conspiracy embedded in the game makes it the antithesis of an axiomatic structure. Rye’s allusion to the game’s structure and its aimless expenditure of energy (for her video Hopscotch surely doesn’t look anything like the game) is designed to challenge the reductive, isotropic, and universalizing ambitions of minimal and architectonic sculpture. This playful form of contestation may be how the work comes to have a namesake in Julio Cortázar’s famous 1963 reader-determined novel, Rayuela (published in English as Hopscotch in 1966).

The grid – and, by extension, its great proponent, Modernism – is the obvious target of Rye’s critique. It is not, however, the legacy of historical Modernism that Rye protests, but its contemporary resurgence, both as a new orthodoxy in home décor, and more fundamentally as a fantasy of unlimited plasticity. The work consists of a video projection of a gridded, miniature domestic space that functions as the stage for a continuously changing abstract composition of forms. Each of ten somewhat similar modular toys is manipulated with a distinct rhythm and pace in what is essentially a stop-action animation.2 What emerges is not exactly a clear reference to Modern sculpture, nor is it precisely a simulation of any particular formal system. Instead, it is something like a generalized mélange of Constructivist, De Stijl, and Neo-Concrete motifs. These results are determined in part by the limits of the toy system, and in part by the artist’s ability to evoke a history of sculpture installation that runs from Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbaus to the messy production spaces of Jason Rhoades.

The impact of this work is extended by projecting the horizontal floor plates and the vertical walls of the dollhouse as lines of black and red tape following the rays of the projection. Since the projection collides with a corner of the room, these lines override the ordinance of the gallery space, inducing a mild disorientation. Only a few units of this larger grid are actually filled with the changing projected images, but the extension invites the viewer to fill in the blanks by extrapolating the relentless energy of their formal play.

The understanding of Hopscotch benefits from some comparison with the closely related video installation Project, presented in 2004 at the Doris McCarthy Gallery, University of Toronto, Scarborough. This work used the same dollhouse, but with two projectors, filling a corner of the gallery so that the vertex that was patently farthest from the viewer appeared to be closest. In this limited respect, the work resembled the corner projections of James Turrell, but in some more distant way it also recalled the mannered marvels of Renaissance perspective. Both Project and Hopscotch tackle the problem of the corner, and make it the site of a slip. Again, the precedents for this are Modernist ones. Nancy Troy has identified the “problem of the corner” as fundamental to the plastic spatial conception of the De Stijl interior,3 although there is possibly an earlier reference in Rye’s work to the visual subversion of the interior by perspective in the peep-box, like the one built in the seventeenth century by Samuel van Hoogstraten.4

The interior tone of Project was muted, as it is in the new work, but in it Rye’s daughter was visible in full colour through the window openings. The child’s diminutive figure was enlarged, in much the same way that the corner was inverted. She may have been banished to the corner (which we know as a traditional place of punishment for children), but instead of being isolated and spatially deprived, she commanded it as a stronghold and base of operations. Secure in this impossible place, the child hovered over the work as a tutelary spirit. At the same time both present and absent, she was like prisoner and warden bound together in one panoptic structure. All the lineaments of the space converged on her partly concealed figure.

The theoretical position occupied by the child corresponds remarkably closely to that of the architectus as described by Northrop Frye.5 The architectus was one of the standard figures in the repertoire of traditional literary works. Found alongside the hero, the vice, or the senex, he was usually depicted in antique theatre in the paradoxical person of the “tricky slave.” This figure was distinguished by having the closest association with the author, largely because his actions and deportment betrayed the fact that he knew the outcome of the plot. While the architectus may have been imbricated in the narrative just as much as the others, he had the consolation of knowing his fate, and thus projected a sense of superiority to events.

A striking avatar of the architectus can be seen in the series of photographs Bruce Mau made to promote his role in the exhibition Massive Change. By staging himself in relation to the model made to plan the arrangement of graphic displays, Mau presents himself not just as a designer (the exhibition was in fact a large collective effort) but also as the looming, disembodied intellect diffused over and above the work.6 A friend who worked at Mau’s office when these images were circulating described the experience of visiting the exhibition as verging on hallucinatory, since he imagined that through all the doors of the gallery he could see Mau’s grotesquely enlarged face. These photographs express perfectly the contemporary obsession with the curator as the one who presumes to know and explain arcane or occult matters to us.

Rye’s work, more ironic than self-aggrandizing, presents her child as the architectus who both disrupts the house and remakes it in her own image. Obviously, the miniature scale of the dollhouse aids in the child’s assumption of this role, and it is abetted in an important way by the fantasy of visual omniscience that is phenomenally embedded in its form. Bisecting a model of a typical or generic wooden house (what Bachelard would have called the oneiric house), and splaying it so that the two halves lie in the same plane, has the effect of multiplying the interior. Each room is seen from two points without either needing to correspond in detail or décor to the other. As is typically the case with wondrous boxes, the dollhouse is more copious than it appears from the exterior. This structure reproduces the subjective interiority that is characteristic of modern bourgeois culture, including its obsessive concern with power in society and security of the self. This is why dollhouses may be experienced as uncanny. For the dollhouse is not a game; it is an organon by which the child tries to reason out the order of the family, thus to learn the truth of society.7 Through it, the child plays symbolically with the possession of a command that she lacks in real terms, even as she is the absolute centre around which the family’s entire domestic setting and economy is constantly adjusted, and even fundamentally constituted.

Hopscotch responds to a particular stage in the necessary detachment between mother and daughter. That is why it could be described on the one hand as a work of weaning, while in another sense it is a work of mourning. In short, it demonstrates mother and daughter’s reciprocity in the extended process of parturition.

To make Hopscotch, Rye had first to make the rather charged gesture of removing the furniture that had accumulated in her child’s dollhouse over a considerable time. Gone are the traces of occupation, the souvenirs of relations, and the gifts and mementos of particular occasions, all of which served to construe the house as a kind of memory palace.8 In their place, the house is refurbished with a series of abstract compositions made of modular toys that the artist borrowed from her daughter’s daycare. As her daughter was away through the day, Rye played with these toys in the house, even using a hand-held light to suggest the passing of days. Her daughter’s absence is both the condition of her ability to make this work and its new subject.

If Rye plays at identification with her absent daughter, it is not as mere infantile regression. Instead, the scenario seems to hint significantly at alternatives – a dreamy world of afternoon romance, or a frenetic practice of home-making – faced in the recent past by middle-class women as they approached middle age and their children’s departure from the home. Of course, in the middle of the last century, this event would have occurred when the children left for college, while today it likely happens at or before pre-school. On the other hand, the delay in procreation typical in present-day North America often means that women are at roughly the same age now when these events occur as they were in the past, while their children are much younger.

Considered not in terms of class or demographics but as autobiography, the work seems to recall Rye’s past as a sculptor, or even to attempt a symbolic recuperation of the artist’s early studies in architecture. Thinking about her daughter at this juncture seems to have led Rye to self-reflection and to make a work that captures a point from which it seems possible to see equally the origins of her own ambitions in childhood impulses and the inevitable diminution of those ambitions in life. The personal dimension of this sense of a lost or diminished vocation is countered by the general historical awareness of Modernism’s failure to convince the middle-class public of the necessity of precisely the kind of total revision of domestic space enacted here. This is given its particular sense of contemporary urgency by the realization that a kind of market-determined neo-modern plasticism may succeed where the earlier idealist venture failed.9 Rye’s work seems to parallel in strange ways one of the great myths of modern architecture, that of the source of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural genius in the Froebel blocks that his mother encouraged him to play with while he was a child.10 Wright’s mother claimed to have resolved that he would be an architect even before his birth and urged him in this vocation at every turn. The story of Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother can be described as mythic in the full-fledged sense that it answers (in the affirmative, of course) one of the great unanswerable questions posed by Modernism: whether it is environment and experience that determine character. This idea, which can be called Environmental Positivism, haunts the modern imagination and gives a special charge to how we see our children, and especially to the games we urge on them.

In her imitation of child’s play, and by evoking the unseen hand of the architectus hovering over the work, Rye reveals that an architectural/archaeological fantasy lurks in the project of developmental psychology. In Hopscotch, the architectus is present in a more deeply sublimated form than ever before in Rye’s work. It is a weird synthesis of the artist (at a variety of subjective moments), her daughter, and the designers of the toys that fill the screen. In the most objective sense, Hopscotch comprises a veritable encyclopedia of contemporary modular children’s toys, and functions to commemorate their proliferation at a particular historical moment. It also records the point in life when Rye became acutely aware of them. The work is a meditation on these toys, and not just because it seeks to express their formal possibilities, but because it tries to exhaust them and their mythic power. Over and over again, this class of the toys presents the limits of a modular system as the very condition of an unlimited creativity.11 They promote the fantasy of a universal fungibility, an infinitely repeatable change without loss or expenditure.

“You can be anything you want” is the ontological message these toys impart. Even as she plays the game, Rye lets us in on her melancholy suspicion that it’s just not true. Life is variable but not infinitely plastic; like hopscotch, it takes its fixed and awkward course.

Notes
1. See Jonathan Fineberg, The Innocent Eye: Children’s Art and the Modern Artist (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).
2. Rye’s new work reflects the interest in low-tech animation developing among Toronto artists, as evidenced in such work as Peter Bowyer’s Cartoon (2001-2003) or Kirsten Horton’s Cig2Coke2Tin2Coff2Milk (2006).
3. Nancy J. Troy, The De Stijl Environment (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1983), p. 46-71
4. See Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 62. It is worth mentioning the resemblance of Rye’s work the Alain Paiement’s early installation Beyond Polders, as it too had something distinctly Dutch about it.
5. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), p.174.
6. These portrait photographs were made by Kevin van Passen for the National Post, which does not preclude seeing them as a construction on Mau’s part.
7. Or, as Friedrich Engels put it in the title of his book, The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State.
8. For an analysis of domestic clutter, see Paulette Singley, “Living in a Glass Prism: The Female Figure in Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Architecture,” Critical Matrix: Princeton Journal of Women, Gender and Culture. 6/2 (1992)
9. One need only watch an evening of television to witness a barrage of images promoting a total plastic revision of life that would have made Mondrian blush at its temerity.
10. See Norman Brosterman, Inventing Kindergarten (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997).
11. For comparison with Modern design theory, see Reinhold Martin, The Organizational Complex (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2003).

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The Mother of all Controversies
(newspaper review)
Sarah Milroy: The Globe & Mail. February 25, 2003


The Mother of all Controversies
By Sarah Milroy

We are a long way from the days when naked children were considered the safe stuff in art, writes Sarah Milroy, judging by the troubling questions raised by the work of artists such as Lyla Rye and Sally Mann.

Image caption:
Artist Lyla Rye (above left) playing with her daughter in Toronto last July. At the time, Rye was at the centre of controversy in Halifax for her video-loop installation Byte (above right), which showed her and her baby singing into each other’s open mouths. On the screen, however, their actions are ambiguous. Are they kissing? Fighting? “I wanted to maintain that moment of uncertainty as long as possible,” says Rye.

When one raises the subject of children in art, many Canadian art-history buffs will think first of Paul Peel’s Venetian Bather of 1889, a painting now in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. A sinuous and silky rear view of a naked boy, it was the first nude to be exhibited publicly in Canada. While portraits of women (or men) in the buff were still considered too outré, naked children were considered safe still.

Today, however, the painting provoked giggles, perhaps even denigration from gallery viewers. Kiddie porn! And that’s nothing compared to Peel’s works in the Art Gallery of Ontario, like his 1890 painting After the Bath, depicting two chubby cherubs warming themselves in front of the fire. Or The Tired Model, a studio scene in which a naked tot hides weeping behind the easel, his Cupid’s quiver fallen to the floor. The artist, a kindly looking figure with a long white beard, peers around the canvas edge, cajoling the boy to resume his model’s duties. “That’s the picture that draws the most comment,” says Toronto artist and AGO docent Lyla Rye. “All the teenagers see it as sexual abuse.”

Rye is watching their reactions with special attentiveness these days, given her own wrangles with censorship. Last July, Rye found herself in the centre of controversy in Halifax for her video-loop installation titled Byte, which presented her and her baby daughter engaged in a sensual mother/child game – singing into each other’s open mouths – a game abruptly terminated when her daughter bit her mother’s lower lip.

On the screen, however, their actions are ambiguous. Are they kissing? Fighting? “I wanted to maintain that moment of uncertainty as long as possible,” says Rye, who deliberately escalated the viewer’s anxiety by pixilating and blurring the image. Just what is going on here?

It was this uncertainty, and the unease it engenders, that no doubt led to the confiscation of the tape by the Halifax authorities, prompted by the alarmed response of two teenaged girls. The police retained the video until after the end of the exhibition’s run, returning it with a warning: “We won’t be pressing charges, but we may press charges if she persists in showing it.”

A number of viewers apparently share their concerns. The comment book at the Cambridge Galleries in Cambridge, Ont., where a small selection of Rye’s recent work is being shown, speaks volumes about the generational shift that has occurred in the perception of appropriate adult/child interaction. If one can judge the age of the writer by their handwriting, a pattern seems to present itself – teens responding with comments like “gross” and “sick,” while older gallery visitors seem cautiously supportive. “I am impressed and intrigued with the levels of intimacy into which you are plunging,” writes one woman; another writes, “Mothers and babies have always interacted in this physical way. The sense of touch is integral to emotional growth.”

Perversion, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder. While the law is quite specific on what constitutes child pornography – the depiction of under-18-year-old children’s genital or anal regions, and the explicit sexual activity of minors (not including hugging, kissing and touching) – widespread public opinion is considerably more conservative.

It’s the rare artist, these days, who will even stick a toe in these troubled waters, for fear of either being accused of predatory inclinations toward children, or of fostering such inclinations in others.

But how justified is the big chill? Judith Levine, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based author of Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex (published last year), maps out the wide discrepancy between perceived and actual instances of pedophilia in North American society and argues that, from a purely statistical standpoint, “our fear of sexual assault far exceeds the actual need to feel fearful.” But in Anglo-American culture, she argues, we tend to sexualize our general anxieties about social change. These days, she says, “Much of our anxiety is centred around the impact of the media, the Internet and the commercial marketplace in general, which uses kids as both its target and as its sales force. These vehicles,” she adds, “engage kids in previously adult activities and give kids access to images and ideas that we were previously able to barricade from them. It represents a perceived loss of control over children’s lives – which was a little illusory to begin with.”

Whatever the roots of the unease, there is no doubt that our culture is riven by a deep contradiction: aggressively asserting the precocious sexuality of children in mainstream culture on the one hand, while reflecting terror about its implications on the other. As AGO contemporary art curator Jessica Bradley puts it, “What interest me here is what kind of visual imagery we will accept in any other domains – like music videos, advertising, cinema, magazines – that we will not accept in art. I think this reveals some of our notions about what art must be. It’s a very conservative clinging, perhaps, to a notion of art’s social duties.”

Can art help us to unravel these contradictions? There have been a few pioneers – most of them women – who have ventured into this dangerous territory. In the United States, photographer Sally Mann is the most striking exemplar, defiantly continuing to photograph her children – often nude – as they go about their lives in rural Virginia. No adult can look at these pictures and not feel the rapturous lens through which Mann sees her children, or not envy the lazy, sensual lifestyle of children who can run around naked, swim in the river and play in the mud all day. ”Many of these pictures are intimate,” Mann wrote in the preface to her 1992 book, Immediate Family. “Some are fantastic but most are of ordinary things every mother has seen – a wet bed, a bloody nose, candy cigarettes. They dress up, they pout and posture, they paint their bodies, they dive like otters in the dark river.”

But my children, confronted with these images (including one called Popsicle Drips, which shows her son’s nude torso spattered with dark Popsicle juice stains), reacted with an appeal for the privacy of the child. How will they feel about these pictures when they grow up, they asked? Why couldn’t the mother just keep the picture for herself, instead of putting it in a book where strangers could see it? To what extent, I wondered as I listened to them, can Mann’s children truly be considered partners in the art-making process, as she asserts them to be, when they cannot possibly understand the adult context in which the work is to be received?

I found myself weighing the same questions looking at Rye’s most recent work in the Cambridge show. Provocatively titled Carnal, the video projection starts small on the wall – we see her daughter, now four years old, licking the melted ice cream off a spoon – but the image grows and grows until it envelops us, bringing us closer to her tangled thatch of blond hair, her pearly, luminous skin and downturned lashes, and her glistening lips and delicate, slithery pink tongue, which works its way methodically around the spoon. Rye has slowed the image down, heightening the sensuality of the moment.

The work, she says, records her daughter’s total absorption in her innocent pleasure and her mother’s pleasure in watching. “I wanted a deeply saturated, luscious colour,” says Rye, and she got it. But how will this imagery be received by others who visit the gallery? Is she not leaving her child open to danger by placing her loveliness on public view?

When it comes to liberalism, this is where the rubber meets the road. Does our fear of how such an image might be interpreted entitle us to remove it from public view? The answer must be no; all images of innocence could then be censored as enticements to depravity.

That’s not to say that the choices for the artist are made without trepidation and human cost. Lyla Rye recalls the aftermath of the Halifax episode: “We decided to hire a social worker to come and do an assessment of our home, and of my relationship with my daughter, just to be prepared, in case of the worst. I wanted to know: If they come for her, I know they will come unannounced. But will they come at night? How many will there be?” So far, thank God, there has been no knock at the door.

In the end, works like this may help us to sort through our own feelings about the parent/child bond, about sensuality, innocence, trust and maybe even the betrayal of those things. One note inscribed in ladylike cursive in the exhibitions’ comment book spoke volumes about the complexity of audience response. “I need time to process the pieces here … “ wrote this visitor. “As a past survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of my own parents, I can say that watching the images surfaced in me anger and hostility similar to others who have commented here. Perhaps if I had had a more ‘pure’ childhood I would be less disturbed.”

But, she adds, “I’ll probably be back again.”

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Domesticate
(exhibition catalogue)
Halifax: Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 2002
Essay: Ray Cronin
ISBN: 0-88871-723-7


Domesticate
David Diviney, Erik Edson, Alexander Graham, Shelly Rahme, Lyla Rye
By Ray Cronin

The artists in Domesticate have made works that deal, in various ways and in varying degrees, with human separation from the natural world. Whether they address the chasm between humans and animals, the various systems humans need in order to physically survive in the world, or with the way that we try to remake the world in our own image, these artists can’t forget that we are, in large part, as much products of our technology as we are of our biology.

We live in the world but we aren’t of it. This paradox has informed Western culture since its inception – even our original myth, the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, is a tale of losing connection, of trading harmony for the knowledge of good and evil, gaining individuality at the cost of the inevitability of death. Human evolution also tells a story of separation, of growing away from nature towards culture. Where would one look to find the natural habitat of a human? Is there anything natural about humans at all? Bataille says non, and I tend to agree with him. Our habitat is our culture, and our culture is manifested in the world through technology.

Technology allows its wielders the illusory comfort of creating new worlds, but this comfort comes at a price. We need money in order to access the technologies through which we define ourselves as human; somehow we in the West have allowed ourselves to be defined by our access to things. We have traded the individual freedom of agency for the illusory freedom of consumerism.

Western culture is the extreme case, but all human cultures have evolved away from nature, it’s just that some have retained more of a memory of what it was like before the Fall. In these other origin stories, although difference is assumed, the worlds of humans and animals are still parallel, lacking the near total disconnection from the earth characteristic of urban life.

What is the natural habitat of a human? Much like the animals that we have domesticated, our natural environment is a place of our own construction. The natural habitat of cattle is a farm, the natural habitat of a house cat is a house, and the natural habitat of a human is a culture. Bataille was right: we train ourselves.

[exceprt]

Invisible Cities

Technology has made us nomads and tourists by giving us access to the entire planet. Our experience of each culture is interpreted through the thought structures that we carry around with us. I envision my structures and places where an individual can see the external world and contemplate the mental frameworks that we have constructed. –Lyla Rye10

As our natural habitat is culture, we no longer have roots. As Rye points out, technology has made us nomads. Nomadic Architecture shares with the other works in this exhibition a sense of creating a vantage point. The viewer is invited to engage with this work, to stand inside, to pass through, and otherwise be contained within the sculpture. Their portability lends them a certain seeming fragility, but it is belied by the obvious tensile strength of the objects. Like a cross between a building and an exoskeleton, one of these sculptures offers the illusion of shelter for the body without seeming to separate that body from the world. Like clothing, these objects are meant to travel with us on our journeys. Their evident portability – their nylon carrying sacks ready to hand, the way that Rye has sanded the joints so that the objects seams are readily visible – suggests that these objects have utility, that they collapse easily for our convenience. But it is just a suggestion – any journey that the viewer takes with these works is a mental one. These sculptures look like tools (like tents and like architecture), but they resist being used. That looking like is important here – these works seem familiar, seem as if one should understand their function, but it is an understanding that slips away as one engages with the work. “As my structures are made up of many identical elements, the final forms have an optical quality that is both mesmerizing and physically unsettling.”11 That unsettling feeling is like the tingling as the feeling returns to a foot that was ‘asleep,’ it’s not exactly a pleasant sensation, but you can’t walk otherwise.

As nomads we pick and choose from whatever cultures we happen upon. Rye’s sculptures mimic this wandering with their mélange of architectural styles: a latticework trellis echoes a column and a yurt, a Greek temple and a Mongolian tent. “My tents merge many traditional strategies and forms with contemporary materials and Western architectural history to create composite structures that come from an indeterminate place and time.”12

We are urban nomads, wanderers in our self-styled ‘virtual’ worlds. Rye’s structures for viewing lack anything to make them work as shelters – in them we are always exposed, and never quite comfortable. “We wander in the frame, the absence of the frame, in our bodies, in space… Art is wandering par excellence…”13

Back to the Garden?

So we are domesticated – culture – broken, as it were. Technology, the sum of the tools and techniques with which we manipulate things, has allowed us to disconnect from the natural world. However, that separation is based in wishful thinking, for while we live in our heads, and while we all create our own worlds, our bodies are still dependent upon this same earth.

The challenge then, is how to reconnect, all the while recognizing that we are unnatural, that we will continue to live in our own, all too human, worlds. This gap between nature and culture is a lack that defines us as human. We have indeed been cast out of the garden, but we did it to ourselves. Whether the taste of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil is bitter or sweet is a personal call.



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Here’s Looking at You Kid
(newspaper review)
Blake Gopnik: The Globe & Mail. March 18, 2000


Here’s Looking at You Kid
Blake Gopnik
Visual Arts Critic, Toronto

Birth. Love. Sex. Death. The “universal human moments” they say great art is meant to commemorate.

Well, recent decades have given us plenty of death art. Sex pictures, too. Even love gets an occasional nod. But birth and babyhood have been sadly neglected. (Dare I venture that it’s because they’ve traditionally been the property of women?) Even when art does take a look at life’s beginnings, the view is rarely pretty. Mary Kelly’s famous Post-Partum Document of 1975 – a compulsive record of life with new-born, including soiled diapers and other nasty bits – was hardly Mother Goose. But now a new video work called Siren, by Toronto artist Lyla Rye, celebrates the glories of new parenthood, without ever descending into cloying motherese.

Most viewers first notice the piece, now on show at Toronto’s Mercer Union artist-run centre, by its soundtrack. The whole gallery echoes with the quietly nagging sound of a baby crying. (I wonder how the other artists showing in the space feel about this Siren song?) Trace the noise to its origins in one corner of the gallery, and you discover a little peephole in the drywall; look through it, and you see the source of the tears. A tiny baby, only six weeks old, has been caught in one continuous, close-up take on video.

Chances are, she won’t actually be crying when you take a look. For most of the five-minute loop, the little newborn lies quiet on her back, listening to the sound of some other baby’s tears. If you catch the tape at its beginning, you get to watch her almost smiling – gurgling, at least – in a moment of baby calm.

There is nothing more entrancing than a baby’s face at rest. Of course, we’re all hard-wired to go gaga over those chubby cheeks and tiny, pouty lips. But there’s also the fact that you can almost feel the frantic learning going on as she comes to grips with her environment. (One child psychologist has written that, based on learning speed and quantity of knowledge gathered, babies beat out any scientist for smarts.) It’s no wonder that the Christian Saviour was often shown as a baby. In a good moment, there’s no better, more improbable mix of wisdom and innocent composure than a tiny dot.

But good moments don’t last long, unless you’ve got a truly beatific child.

Even Baby Rye eventually gets fussy, as she begins to react to that other crying infant. (A peek behind the scenes: Rye recorded her baby straight, in the natural progression from smiles to tears that comes when Mom pays more attention to a video camera than to her flesh and blood. Then Rye pushed the soundtrack out of sync, so that you hear her baby’s wail even when the footage shows her happy. You read the infant as responding to some other baby’s noise, rather than to parental neglect.)

Baby’s eyes start getting shifty; her top lip wobbles; her lungs fill up with air as she prepares a yell. And the delicate stasis that is the best of infanthood gets shattered once again.

Rye’s piece isn’t artistic pablum. It captures the glorious enchantment of infant life, but also its terrifying fragility. For all the video’s happy innocence, the worry of living on this earth and among others is captured here in utero.

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Threshold
(exhibition catalogue)
Toronto: The Power Plant, 1998
Introduction & Essay: Louise Dompierre
ISBN: 0921047339


An Introduction to Threshold
By Louise Dompierre

For some, Threshold may evoke a fin-de-siècle mood, anticipating a passage into another era. Although the exhibition may be perceived as such, that was not the way it was originally intended. In fact, the idea for Threshold evolved over a long period, before millennial considerations became so preoccupying.

As an architectural element, a threshold marks a passage from one space into another. In the context of this exhibition, a threshold promises both a physical movement forward and a figurative transition into an incorporeal world. Consisting of a series of ten rooms or spaces, this exhibition attempts to draw the viewer beyond the immediate environment of the gallery and away from those matters that condition the human subject’s place solely in society. The exhibition conflates physical, mental, and emotional space as a site for introspection. Disorienting architecture, ambiguous sounds, indistinct forms, and displaced objects imply alternatives to an entirely secular state of being.

Threshold features artists representing several generations and from various countries who rely on allusive means and techniques to move beyond the exclusively physical. To effect a transition into a more speculative dimension, the works engage the sense and the mind with imaginative use of space, form, colour, texture, sound, and light. At the same time, Threshold also seeks a certain willingness on the part of the viewer to respond to the conditions provided by the artists and to accept that the responses will be unique and pleasurable.

In recent years, much emphasis has been placed on the secular aspect of contemporary art practice and on the relationship of the human subject to the social/cultural/political milieu. These themes, however, have left little room for analysis of formal values in the context of installations by contemporary artists.

Threshold focuses on the relationship of the human subject to a new interpretation of space. At first, this different emphasis may appear to be merely formal, but gradually form takes on added meaning.

A key question, but perhaps not one that can be fully answered at this stage, is why the issue of space, of enduring interest to those involved with the practice, study and enjoyment of the visual arts, should attract special attention now. That is should come to the fore at this moment in time should not, perhaps, surprise, but there are particular reasons for present interest.

Since the sixties, developments in science and technology have appreciably altered our perceptions of space. In the continuum from the initial human exploration of the moon to, more recently, cyberspace, the concept of space as a speculative realm has been reasserted, maybe for the first time in the history of art since the Renaissance. If walking on the moon stirred a sense of adventure in most people, discovering cyberspace has added to the possibility of limitless exploration. Cyberspace would seem to have removed, for now at least, any barrier between here and there. This, I believe, is the context for Threshold. In this exhibition, the clearly delimited physical entity of The Power Plant acts as a site for transformation, placing the human subject in direct relationship to architecture. At the same time, the artists’ inventive use of architectural space effects a transition from the strictly tactile and sensory to the immaterial and mysterious. This is the place where most of the works function and where emotion is given free play.

Of more significance, perhaps, is that the discovery of cyberspace has led us to question the concepts we rely on to understand the world we live in. Artists, like theorists, are in the vanguard of investigations into the contentious issues raised in a mutating world – one poised between an apparently reassuring yesterday and a radically different tomorrow.1 To my mind, by opening space beyond the physical and material, artists join the growing ranks of individuals in many fields who are pondering the true impact of cyberspace on human activity and thought.

It ought to be said, however, that this exhibition’s exploration of another dimension is undertaken, for the most part, without reliance on new media. In fact, most of the works in Threshold draw on fairly traditional means to transcend material reality.

Ideally, a viewer might experience these environments slowly, perhaps over a number of days, rather than absorbing them in one walk through the show. But the exhibition was conceived as a cumulative experience and as a series of sites, each opening into the next, each adding to or contrasting with the work that preceded it.

Teresita Fernández’s installation combines the actual space of the gallery with a sense of space that extends beyond the physical parameters of the environment, generating a kind of third space that suggests both “here” and “elsewhere.” Ann Listegaard similarly expands her space beyond the room itself, and her work makes use of a mesmerizing sound element to induce the viewer to slip deeply into the process of experiencing art. Ian Carr-Harris is also interested in bringing together two different conceptions of space. In his work, time past and present are blended: he uses simulation to reenact a portion of the gallery’s history. By contrast, Lyla Rye exposes the normally invisible real components of architectural articulation to create a maze that leads the viewer to reflect on the often unacknowledged yet significant impact of the structures we develop to apprehend the world. In a related yet contrasting vein, Masato Nakamura draws our attention to the corporate model and how it too determines the world we live in. In his work, common yet striking corporate signs become iconic, transcending their original meaning. Like Nakamura’s, Judith Schwarz’s work is infused with a spiritual quality. However, the space she opens up becomes the chapel of art itself. Both Peter Kogler and Mischa Kuball shift attention from the image to the process to which the image is subjected. In both cases, the viewer's own conceptual as well as emotional energy becomes the content of the work. Finally, Claude Lévêque, whose work occupies the clerestory and divides the gallery and the exhibition in two, also seeks an emotional response from the viewer. The energy inherent in its physical form metaphorically reenacts the obsessions of the subconscious mind.

Threshold is not only about transcending the physical reality of the spaces but also about architecture and the particular means each artist uses to transform a space. This is the primary perspective provided by the following comments on the artists’ works.

It should be noted that as this text is being written, most of the works are still in progress and will remain in development until the exhibition opens. The text, then, can be no more than a threshold to a much deeper and longer process of understanding.

[exceprt]

Lyla Rye

In contrast to Carr-Harris, who introduces simulation into real space, Lyla Rye’s installation peels off wall surfaces, leaving interior structure exposed and raw. By making the invisible visible, Rye uses architectural elements to foster direct sensory experience – here by challenging us to enter a maze of gigantic proportions.

Her maze, constructed of unclad metal studs set at a slight angle and close enough to each other to preclude walking between them, stands along one side of Carr-Harris’s work. Adjoining stud walls are arranged to form the maze at the south end of the Royal LePage Gallery. On the south wall, dramatic lighting seems to extend the structure as a series of intricate shadows that stretch like spiderwebs onto the wall.

“Unlike a traditional maze, where the centre is equated with paradise,” Rye says, “my labyrinth will have no goal in its centre and no apparent order. Rather, it will feel like a chaotic jumble of walls or a building in the process of being built or dismantled. I am interested in the metaphorical significance of the maze as a formal structure which provides a series of choices, each of which affects one’s final destination.”4

Paradise is not our destination here but the other installations in the show, some of which can be seen through Rye’s construction. But the complexity of Rye’s maze impedes the viewer’s progress through the exhibition, adding a slight level of irritation at having to negotiate the obstacles that prevent us from reaching the works ahead.

However, anxiety to find a way out of the maze gradually gives way to the experience of the space itself. The process of walking through the labyrinth brings us to consider the means the artist has relied on to entrap us. Rye reasserts the articulation of space by reference to basic structure. In her work, the architectural body of the building is seen as the determining element of experience, both literally and as a representation of itself as shadows on the wall. As subject, we are asked to consider how this skeleton, normally invisible, is here turned into visible challenges and obstacles. No matter which route we opt for, we are constantly returned to metal studs that partially obscure our view. Like prison bars, the structure is at once restrictive and yet open to the outside. But while prison thresholds are barred, Rye’s only threshold is conceptual, opening up beyond the materiality of the space.

Rooted in an experience of the actual, extended as a representation on the wall and acting as a metaphor, Rye’s maze reverberates with meaning that extends into the emotional and intellectual.
1. See Digital Gardens: A World in Mutation (Toronto: The Power Plant, 1996), 16.
4. Lyla Rye, artist’s statement, 1997.