It is a basic human impulse to attempt to place oneself within the chaos of the world. For centuries, we have employed geometry, navigation and cartography to make sense of our physical environment, beginning with the simple act of drawing a line. Canadian artist Lyndl Hall works with these themes in drawing, sculpture and video for her current exhibition at the Burrard Arts Foundation, ‘Circle, Sphere, Horizon Line’.
Burrard Arts Foundation: Can you tell us a bit about your background as an artist?
Lyndl Hall: I completed my Bachelors of Fine Arts at Concordia University in 2006 and my Masters in Applied Arts at Emily Carr University in 2010. Throughout these degrees, I pursued a very specific interest in drawing as a primary medium to think through, and while this has grown to include installation, sculpture and video, my primary motive continues to be the act of drawing a line.
My thesis concentrated on how the geometric line can act as a basic building block for more complicated systems of thought or standardized modes of perception. I was interested in lines that constructed space, and lines that bodies aligned with or were obstructed by, such as eye-levels, gallery standards, plumb lines, or the chalk liner on sports fields. This interest in geometric standards eventually led me to look at cartography and its associated objects: the invisible structuring of the globe through latitude and longitude lines, or the act of orienteering and triangulation through objects like the sextant, compass or sundial.
BAF: How did this show grow out of your existing body of work? Are its themes of navigation, geometry, and cartography familiar material to you, and if so, to what extent?
LH: I have made a lot of work around cartography, orientation and the dissonance between the empirical systems that we use in order to locate oneself in space and the experience of the material world within which we live. The aim is to examine the slippages that occur when abstract thought is layered over the phenomenology of the body in space.
There is also a strong historical link between drawing, or draughtsmanship, and cartography, and it is in cartography that one can see the most direct “real-world” consequence of drawing a line, and its associated history of imperial expansion. These are the dominant themes that this exhibition emerged out of. However, I was trying to move away from the specificity of the map or globe, and look at the physical presence of the associated objects, or the symbolic/poetic associations that have arisen out of this long history of engaging with movement and location. I wanted to examine the various systems that we have put in place to steady the body during uncertain times, whether that be the technology of orientation in order to empirically position the self or the touch of a talisman to give courage in danger.
BAF: In ‘Circle, Sphere, Horizon Line’, you’ve worked in both abstracted and non-abstracted forms. What’s your relationship to each of these different modes of expression? What did you hope to accomplish by using them together to talk about this material?
LH: I wasn’t so interested in the relationship between the abstracted and representational. Rather, I was trying to keep the materiality of the objects in this show foregrounded. The gestures are quite simple: cutting, filling, pouring, and so on. None of the pieces obscure the material process or revel in representation as a seamless activity. I wanted there to be tension between the abstract nature of geometry and the very messy materiality of the world – or, to put it another way, the relations or failures that occur when moving between the logic of two and three dimensions, or the logic of drawing and sculpture. The pieces go back and forth between these two states: plane and object, line and boundary, mark and image. That was a thread that was at the root of all of these pieces, such as cutting the three-dimensional sphere to produce a flat plane, or drawing a line in the sand and filling it to make a heavy, cumbersome object. Even in the more mimetic pieces, I tried to reveal the process of production. Their ‘thingness’ was just as important as that which was represented.
BAF: Two of the works – ‘Votive’ and ‘The Angel’s and Devil’s Mirror’ – stand out from the others in that they seem to make use of Christian or religious references. What can you tell us about these two pieces and how they can be contextualized within the show as a whole?
LH: A lot of the technologies that I am interested in are quite ancient and so there is also a long history of poetic and symbolic associations that we have built up around them. They have infiltrated our metaphors and our language systems. Many of the associations we have with time, spinning, spheres, globes, arrows, wheels, boats and so on are rooted in a rich symbolic history that, in the West, is deeply anchored in Christian iconography, which in turn emerged out of Greek and Roman culture. I was interested in pulling out some of these narratives and symbolic associations in order to complicate or extend the more discrete rationalism of formal geometry.
The image in Votive was drawn from a variety of historical depictions of Saint Christopher, specifically a giant fresco I saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York around the time I was making Sphere I and II (Saint Christopher and the Infant Christ, Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1472-75). I was amazed by the depiction of a giant platonic sphere within the religious panel: it both represented the physical world and was a symbol for the world, and by extension all who are upon it. It was not the sphere as cartographic globe used for positioning and externalized study, but the sphere as perfect form where all points radiate equally from a central node and are encapsulated in the whole. Saint Christopher being the patron saint of travellers was also of note. I liked the idea of a sculpture being a talisman or touchstone, imbued with good luck or protection that could be imparted to the viewer.
I came across the image in The Angel’s and Devil’s Mirror while doing research into Hans Holbein The Younger. Painting in the early 1500’s he was known for his very detailed depictions of scientific instruments and optical tricks. The drawing would have been on two sides of a thin piece of wood, with the angel on one side and devil on the other, and would have hung from the church ceiling, rotating as people walked by and acting as a memento mori for the viewer. For me what is interesting is that this kind of imagery isn’t necessarily specific to Christian iconography, but rather is part of a long lineage of symbolic meaning that still permeates our world today: the wheel of fortune, life or death, heads or tails, blind luck, and so forth. Part of what this exhibition was trying to allude to are the symbolic associations of the sphere and circle that exist in extension of its geometry; historical narratives that permeate our symbol sets even if only as a ghostly echo in the contemporary landscape.
BAF: ‘Birds/Boat’ made use of video footage from one of your family member’s research trip to Antarctica. How did you decided to incorporate this material into the show?
LH: At its simplest this show begins with a horizon line, the arc of which becomes a circle, and the spinning of that circle which produces a sphere. The horizon is a very potent idea; it is both a stable boundary as well as the ever potential “maybe” of a future possibility.
I remembered seeing this footage shot from the front of a ship in rough seas when I was younger and it stuck with me: the waltzing, dipping horizon, unstable with no fixed point of reference. Of course it is the boat itself on the surface of the water that is unstable but the disorientation of this topsy-turvy world was what interested me. While tracking down the clips of the boat I found the footage of the birds playing in the waves and it felt like the perfect counterpoint, rather than the uncertainty and precarity of the unstable body against the horizon, the birds appeared free of gravity, operating on all axes they play in the waves, untethered from the horizon.
I wanted the video to play like rhythmic wallpaper that washed over the exhibition, rather than a narrative thread. It provided a forward movement that is seemingly endless towards an ever-extending horizon, and a backwards looking towards the birds playing in the wake. I think it is interesting to note that the birds are albatrosses, with a giant wingspan anywhere between six and eleven feet. From their symbolic role in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, they themselves have become a metaphor for a heavy weight or burden, which can be paralleled to the Saint Christopher (Atlas) imagery.
BAF: In a show with the Burnaby Art Gallery, you mapped out lines of latitude and longitude, and in a show at Western Front, you created a sundial. When did you become interested in how we position ourselves in time and space? Why do you think you are drawn to these questions, and what are you hoping to achieve?
LH: Part of my interest in these orientated sculptures was how they might move or rearrange the viewers’ body. I was interested in how an object that is aligned with an external force might orient the viewer in a certain way: it could open up site lines, implicate the architecture of the gallery, pinpoint specific locations in a room, or reveal orientations that were previously not considered. The “white cube” is meant to be a neutralized space, independent of the outside world, which of course is a fallacy as it is steeped in history, systems and codifying structures. The aim was to link the object made with the specific room it was in and then the extended world outside that architecture. Viewers must then physically negotiate that orientation. For example, at the Burnaby Art Gallery, you could step over the wall, be blocked by it, or corralled along it. The lines were anchored very specifically in architectural points in the room – the ornate arts and crafts fireplace and the French doors leading out of the gallery. One continued outside, over the side of the wall of the building, extending across the lawn and ultimately disappearing into the flower garden.
The sundial at the Western Front could not tell the time inside of the gallery due to there being no sunlight, but it was aligned correctly to triangulate with the sun at Vancouver’s specific latitude – it cannot tell time accurately at any other location. It introduced a temporal element into the supposedly timeless gallery space and implicated the viewer through the inscribed epitaph “whilst beholding you become old.”
Arrow, from the current BAF show, is similarly oriented north. It indicates outwards from the room, at the same time dividing up the space and demanding to be physically negotiated. It also sits at an oblique angle to the architecture of the city, cutting across the East/West of Broadway and the North/South of Main Street. What I am hoping to achieve is a sensitivity or awareness of how we are invisibly oriented, and how one might be moved without even realizing it.
BAF: What kind of thoughts and feelings are you hoping that the show will inspire in the viewer?
LH: The show is very quiet and minimal and I don’t expect the narratives and associations I have mentioned above to be explicit to the viewer. In their quietness I like to think of the pieces as having a meditative quality, that they are nice to sit with and be quiet beside. I hope that perhaps the viewer would revel in the act of looking, and in being pleased with looking will start to notice recurring shapes or mirrored forms, recognize some narrative threads and ultimately pick up on some of the themes of orientation and disorientation.
Lyndl Hall’s show ‘Circle, Sphere, Horizon Line’ will be exhibited at BAF Gallery through February 18, 2017.