Saddest Light In The World

A wonderful installation, SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), filled the John A. Russell Courtyard with the delicate healing light of five illuminated roadside sign boxes through the months of January and February, 2008. The animistic ready-made industrial lanterns were aligned like so many offduty stoic beasts of fluorescent burden, casting warm coloured light into the glazed spaces. Like James Turrell’s Sky Spaces, the installation was most potent at dusk, as the fading blue/black winter night light mingled with the mechanistic glow of the steel and plastic electric horses.

Making high art out of the DNA of ordinary atface-value urban wasteland life by subtle extraction and extreme nuance requires a particular gift. Like the lyrics of the Weakerthans, the art of Simon Hughes and the films of Guy Maddin–the works of spmb_projects (So Paulo-Manitoba) heighten our understanding of ready-made/everyday spaces, places, and social relationships. Winnipeg artists and architects are at their best when they ignore the wider world and do what comes naturally, finding beauty in their immediate circumstances.

In this case two breakthroughs occurred. The neutral glass courtyard was recognized as a potential arbiter of amplified illumination. Like stacked Russian dolls, the light within a light box within a glass box within a big blue winter sky generated infinite combinations of viewing angles and reflections. Second, the light sources were corralled from the godforsaken Pembina Highway. The portable sign boxes are advertising’s most banal product, either lost in the blind spot of habituated urban perception or contributing to urban light blight. In the courtyard they rise to the occasion of newfound visibility and take on a patient and noble bearing.

Borrowing from Marcel Duchamp’s recontextualizing of ready-made projects, Dan Flavin’s installations using off-the-shelf light tubes, and James Turrell’s rich and mysterious lighting amalgams, spmb_project’s Karen Shanski and Eduardo Aquino (with the minimalist Matt Baker) opted for a sensate chromo-therapeutic treatment to address a more serious deficit, the lack of light in a long Winnipeg winter. As easy as it might have been to create a text-based words-are-cheap installation, keeping the letters off the shelf reduced the legibility of the obvious meaning to zero.

Quietly observing the five-horse scene is the beautiful installation of Edith Dekynt’s poem, Myodesopsies 04 (Probable Song), about the phenomenon of particles (floaters) in our view when we stare at blank surfaces like a blue sky. Commissioned by Neil Minuk, curator of the Architecture II Gallery, the Belgian artist wrote the poem to conform to the geometric proportions of the Russell Building’s curtain wall system, and then distributed it as lyrics to more than 20 musicians, who composed songs for broadcasting into the courtyard–music for a film without images.

Both SAD and Myodesopsies suggest intelligent ways to engage architecture through works of sculpture, poetry, and music. Relinquishing control of our pristine urban and architectural spaces is necessary to support the rich and interactive possibilities for collaborative engagement amongst artists and designers. Finding examples of their sophisticated resolution is a rarity. Dekynt, Shanski, Aquino, Baker and Minuk have set a high standard of exemplary transdisciplinary practice, exploring the thresholds of vision and perception with poetry, music and installation art, making architectural and urban production invisible.CA

SAD was on display in the courtyard of the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Architecture from January 4-February 4, 2008. Myodesopsies 04 (Probable Song) was installed in September 2006.

Herb Enns is the director of the Experimental Media Centre at the University of Manitoba, and a contributing editor to Canadian Architect.