Jamie Hilder
Shelfed Gallery

Abbas Akhavan
Elizabeth Zvonar
Colleen Brown
Steven Brekelmans
Gabi Dao
Marina Roy
Eleanor Morgan

 

I’ve recently discovered the joy of what I don’t know. Instead of seeing dirt I see what I don’t know about dirt: what it’s made of, where it came from, what it does, where it goes (through dust, evaporation, absorption, digestion). Plants seem familiar but I don’t know them: I don’t know why they grow here and not in other places, I don’t know what they taste like, what they do to bodies, which animals, insects, or bacteria survive off them. I don’t know what happens when I eat things, beyond the path the food takes from my hand to my mouth. And if I think about it, I don’t even really know what it does in my mouth. Or I do know it, in a way, but not in the way that most of us mean when we say we know things. That is, I can’t sufficiently describe or categorize it. But that’s a problem with the idea of knowing, I guess (and maybe there’s less of a problem with guessing). There’s an audacity in knowing that I am becoming less comfortable with.

I don’t mean this as an announcement of a new spiritual identity rooted in a general fascination with the enormity of the world. Though that disavowal is perhaps more to remind myself that, should I allow myself to live in that fascination more intensely, I will likely have to find new people to love and to love me, as my friends and family won’t put up with this for long. It’s possible I’m prematurely moving from the Kierkegaard’s ethical stage into the religious stage. It’s also possible I am underestimating my age, and am actually right on schedule.

 

Train Tunnel

Marina’s altarpiece came with some information: that the coral is painted. That the ground is lichen and the kind of foam used for foliage in the miniature railroad hobby subculture (and the architectural model subculture). That the stone is petrified wood, and that the hair wrapped around the Christ and Mary icons is her own hair, harvested over approximately a year’s worth of baths. The plastic googly eyes in the figures’ palms she didn’t, or couldn’t explain. Sometime sculptors just get things right.

So let’s start here: it wasn’t until my late twenties or early thirties that I understood that coral was naturally an orangey-pink color. I think I might have thought coral was actually the stone that coral grows on, a consequence of the regularity of the compound noun “coral-reef” alongside my lack of tropical snorkeling experience. When people would say “coral” in reference to a colour, I would just pretend to know what they were talking about. It was a very localized colour-blindness.

Lichen: I had to ask Marina what lichen was. After she told me that it was a vegetation that grew on rocks and trees, I googled it and spent some time digging myself out of a werewolf hole. Once I realized how lichen is spelled, I discovered that not only is it fungus and algae living symbiotically, cooperating and sharing resources and techniques for nourishment, but it is also NOT those things. That is, scientists have recently discovered a third component in many lichens: a kind of yeast detected at the DNA level. That’s something new that they know now.

<i>Foam Mattress</i>

Model foam: I don’t know what foam is made of. I have zero understanding of foam. Part of me thinks it’s primarily organic, but another part knows that it off-gasses pretty intensely. I remember being fascinated with the chemical smell of foam mattresses that I would sleep on as a child, either as a guest or while camping, and being told to stop picking at the foam so as to not ruin the mattress or make a mess. But foam cries out to be picked at. It is matter but also air, and its comfort in being both is what my childhood fingers couldn’t abide. Its architecture wouldn’t collapse around gaps, but would absorb the space as part of its structure, with only minor (if any) structural effects. They would become negative places, and negative places seemed like great places to spend time.

Petrified wood: until I had to write about it, petrified wood lived in a part of my mind where I keep things that I am confident nobody will ever ask me to write about. I have heard of petrified forests, but if I’m being honest, my dominant understanding of those spaces is that they are forests and that they are really scared. It’s an image that hasn’t been challenged since childhood. I now realize that petrification happens when the organic material is completely replaced by minerals, when it is deprived of the oxygen that would allow it to decompose. What once was wood is now stone, in the same way that what once were thinking and feeling bodies become something else when overcome with fear. Perhaps they become meat in that moment. Discovering the definition of petrification turns its alternative definition into a terrifying metaphor: that your organic self can shift in an instant, and betray itself through a complete, involuntary, exterior stillness.

Plastic icons of Christ and the Virgin Mary: I can tell from the hands who they are. My family isn’t Catholic since my great grandmother on my mother’s side, so I don’t have an intimate understanding of what the figures would look like unwrapped, but nor would I be surprised, I think. The googly eyes in their palms are a surprise, but it doesn’t seem as blasphemous to me as it might otherwise. But here, again, it’s the material that confounds. The icons are mass-produced plastic figures, as are the googly-eyes, and I don’t really know what plastic is. I think I’m touching plastic now, while I type this, and while my fingers rest while I think of other words to type. But I don’t know how or what plastic is. I was reminded recently that it is petroleum based, and I said “Oh yeah, that’s true,” but I don’t understand how they are connected, at a chemical or physical level. My understanding of plastic is cultural, and environmental. By that I mean that I live my life dependent on plastic while feeling bad that there is so much plastic in the world. I suppose that makes it the ideal material from which to craft Catholic icons.

Hair: alive or dead? Both? Also, then, a perfect material for a religious encounter. A friend of mine once told me something she was told by an artist she was working with: that some stories are like hair—they stick with you for a while, but then they fall out and drift away. Other stories are etched on your ribcage and stay with you forever. It’s a really lovely way of thinking through how we are narrated as subjects. But what happens to the hairs that drift away? How does hair decide to leave?

The in-betweenness of hair stays with me. A student of mine assigned me—or gifted me—an essay on how death exists in the living body, particularly in the skin. The epidermis, or the outer portion of skin, is comprised of three layers: the deepest layer is comprised of basal cells that continuously divide, creating keratinocytes, which are squamous cells, and which comprise the second layer of the epidermis. The outer layer, what we know, see, clean, touch, kiss as skin, the stratum corneum, is made up entirely of dead keratinocytes. But those dead cells combine to form keratin, a protein that protects the skin from harmful substances. So even our dead cells work for life, and foster it in other ways as host to thousands of organisms that live in symbiosis with the body. So we don’t necessarily die when our brain function ceases or our hearts stop pumping blood, because the “we” that we imagine is only partial: it neglects the other organisms that will continue to feed in our bodies, of our bodies, and potentially emerge from our bodies (a body made of millions of bodies, so that term also seems insufficient). We also don’t die at that mythical time of death because we are already dead: our bodies depend on the dead portions of them to protect them, at least in the epidermal structure. Hair is that same in-between, emerging from the dermis as dead cells but still attached to the follicle, until the follicle stops holding on.

<i>Leshan_Buddha</i>

The scale of the sculpture is dizzying, if the foam and lichen represent a forest canopy, and the coral a mountain-sized flourish. The hairy icons are then impossibly large, dwarfing the Titans and the Leshan Buddha, and swirling with hair. When Marina installed the work, she mentioned that she had written a chapter on the Sasquatch for an upcoming book, and I asked if I could read it. She agreed, and it has provided a textual support. She traces the history of the Sasquatch through the stories of coastal First Nations and its emergence into the settler-colonial myth of Bigfoot, but also links those stories to the large, hairy bodies of wild figures in cultures around the world: “Across the oceans, there’s the Wodewose in Europe, the Yeti in Tibet, the Yowie in Australia, the Almas in Mongolia, the Orang Pendek in Indonesia, Batutut in Vietnam, the Yeren in China, the Amomongo in the Philippines, the Barmanou in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Chuchunaa in Serbia, the Basajuan in the Basque, and Am Fear Liath Mòr in Scotland.” Her argument is that there is something integral in the imagination of wild spaces, with wild figures, that operate as “one of the last ciphers of hope.”

There is hope, then, in the visual hum of the hair-tornadoed icons. Mitch Hedburg has a joke: “I think Bigfoot is blurry, that's the problem. It's not the photographer's fault. Bigfoot is blurry, and that's extra scary to me. There's a large, out-of-focus monster roaming the countryside. Run, he's fuzzy, get out of here.” I want to take this joke seriously, just like I take Marina’s sculpture seriously, while finding it funny. Blur is central to the joy of not knowing. Once blur becomes focus the wild disappears, the peripheral moves to the centre. So how do we keep the wild, how can we bring things out of focus, in order to live where hope is?

I had an eye exam recently, because I just qualified for benefits through my job. My plan was to claim blur where it wasn’t, since I have never needed glasses, and wanted my benefits to pay for sunglasses frames. But the optometrist administering my test concluded that I have slight visual degeneration, to the point where I could get a prescription for very weak reading glasses, should I wish. Then she told me that, at my age, I can expect my vision to deteriorate fairly evenly over the next decade as a result of my eye’s hardening lenses. It wasn’t devastating information, but it wasn’t welcome. But thinking about my recent discovery of the joys of blur, and Marina’s text and altarpiece’s lessons about the wildness that lives in the peripheral, I’m beginning to feel better, almost happy about it. Perhaps that transition from the ethical to the religious stage begins with a degenerate clarity.