Lani Maestro: L’oublie de l’air, Darling Foundry

Border Crossings (March, April, May 2011)

Lani Maestro, L'oublie de l'air, installation view, Darling Foundry, 2010. Photo: Guy L'Heureux. Courtesy: Darling Foundry.

With their installation at the Darling Foundry, L’oublie de l’air, visual artist Lani Maestro and violinist/composer Malcolm Goldstein have touched upon the ineffable, the otherworldly and the profoundly simple, all the while demonstrating the artistic rigour that both are known for in their respective disciplines [September 23 to November 28, 2010].

Covering the sleek cement floor of the renovated foundry, far below the concrete rafters and clerestory windows, is sand – tonnes of shimmering granules of black aluminum silicate, carefully raked to form a thick even blanket. Small black pools are interspersed throughout in a regular pattern – black, liquid, and smooth. The windows above reflect in their circumference, shifting in perspective as we pace the edge of this odd, perfectly ordered desert. The air is filled with sound – a shrieking, grating, pulsating violin, tense and cathartic, and sometimes silent. The emotional tenor is high even if there is no melody or theatrical unfolding.

I walk back and forth. I sit on the bench provided. Nowhere can one enter the installation to feel the sand underfoot or see one’s own reflection in the water. It is a closed microcosm indifferent to anything beyond itself. Only an imaginative empathy can enter: here we have rock, water and air, and the memory of the fires that once fuelled the seemingly alchemic process of forming metal. One could thus call the installation a site-specific intervention that unleashes the foundry’s repressed history of industrial toil and misery, of which sand is the index and music the spectre.

But such didacticism would be an imposition and a constraint on the work’s poetic logic, which opens a far more expansive, if less easy to define, territory. In no way does L’oublie de l’air include the beholder or even address her, as standard definitions of “installation” would have it, yet its materiality and music wraps itself around us to the point of rendering us immobile, caught in the spell of its most modest monumentality. It is as if the vast hollow space of the foundry is full, so full that it does not allow time to enter. Our intellectual handles and habitual ways of being become unanchored and dissolve into the work: dry/wet; hard/soft; vital/arid; reflection/absorption; yielding/resisting; here/there; now/then. These terms become declassified and free-floating. When the music breaks into silence, the street noise from outside hits like an oppressive weight – time invades along with the knowledge that the binaries will revert to their hierarchical order once outside the gallery doors.

Materially minimal and formally spare, L’oublie de l’air is exactly what you see: black sand and black pools filled with water. But why is this fact so crucial in a world governed by appearances? What would it matter if, for example, the sand simply covered a platform instead, especially considering we cannot touch or traverse the installation? This question sounds perverse to ears attuned to minimalism and arte povera, which considered material integrity paramount. Although it may no longer be possible to hold onto the belief that any material simply delivers its meaning “as it is” – it is context-bound and variable, just like words and things – this semiotic layer is not exclusive either. There is always an uncodifiable surplus of matter that threatens to unravel even the tightest of readings. Lani Maestro mines this “remainder” left by the way side of signification, prying material free from the ideologies we take for granted. The fact that the installation is not experienced as an image (as if it were a photograph of the invisible fourth wall of theatre) is due to the weight of the sand on our minds, so to speak, because there is no easy way to make equivalences between our day-to-day experiences and this tightly controlled mass of sand.

This resistance to language is equally palpable in Malcolm Goldstein’s soundscape. Like Maestro’s sculptural work, Goldstein’s medium, the violin, is a way of thinking – a way of discovering new expressive possibilities, rather than expressing pre-held ideas. Independently titled On Withered Fields, Wandering Still, the music seems to exude from every crack of the cavernous foundry as if exposing an ontological truth. The range of sounds is extraordinary, unfamiliar and far from what is normally accorded a violin, yet it seems so utterly innate to both this space and the instrument that any attempt at decortication would seem aggressive. This creative indivisibility is a perfect match for Maestro’s mysterious landscape, which makes itself prone on the floor, its pools open to receiving the full depth of the violin’s call.  

The improvisational collaboration between Maestro and Goldstein, unlike the symbiotic relationship between two artists working in the same medium, is an elaborate act of ekphrasis, a leap across the boundary dividing matter and music. It is as though the music absorbs the shimmering pools and expanse of sand into its wavelengths and, vice versa, the material obduracy of the landscape metamorphosizes into the sounds of Goldstein’s violin. The work is an indivisible unity; the two that is one à la Irigaray. Neither is figure; neither is ground. Together, Maestro and Goldstein successfully demonstrate the possibility of a generative and respectful reciprocity – a utopian gesture beyond duality.

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