/Elisabeth Belliveau & Jessica MacCormack
The exhibition natural disasters, pets and other stories features new animations and drawings by Jessica MacCormack and Elisabeth Belliveau. This exhibition brings together the artists’ individual interdisciplinary practices, converging on the use of stop-motion, to explore fragmented narratives, psychic spaces and surreal animal imagery. Themes of home, language, the body and landscape are explored through animated drawing, cut-outs and collage. The imagery is addressed and echoed through the arrangement of script and soundscape. natural disasters, pets and other stories transports the viewer into suspended worlds where unsettling stories of becoming unfold.
Jessica MacCormack completed her MFA through the Public Art and New Artistic Strategies program at the Bauhaus University (Weimar, Germany). Elisabeth Belliveau is a published author who completed her MFA in Studio Arts at Concordia University. Both interdisciplinary artists have exhibited nationally and internationally in festivals, screenings, artist-run centres and museums.
/THE WORLD IS MADE OF WORK
In their exhibition natural disasters, pets, and other stories, Montreal-based interdisciplinary artists Elisabeth Belliveau and Jessica MacCormack use stop-motion animation to bring to life idiosyncratic interior worlds that possess a dreamlike temporality, which seems to transpire outside of historical time. The videos’ uncanny cadences and pacing aptly convey both artists’ distinctive explorations of the relationship between time, self-discovery and the work of the imagination.
Stop-motion animation takes an incredible amount of time, as the animator must painstakingly re-arrange the objects or images being photographed at each frame’s interval, many times per second. Each shot reflects only the tiniest incremental change in the image’s composition, making the filmmaking process particularly slow. Similarly, the artist’s focus on the minute detail seems to encourage intense introspection or flights of fancy, as though the artist becomes lost in the tiny subjective worlds in front of her. The practice therefore seems particularly well suited to evoking psychic spaces (including the realm of trauma), oneiric states and fragmented – as opposed to linear – narratives.
The relationship between animation and one’s inner emotional life is complex: powerless to respond with immediacy to real-world events due to the time-consuming nature of its techniques, animation encourages reflection and reckoning, or, to invoke the sphere of emotional dynamics, “processing.” (Arguably, auteur animation has always indulged a bit of a melancholic streak, with the stereotype of the animator as a kind of neurasthenic shut-in.) Because animation must always reflect an imaginative interpretation of the world, it often carries a more potent affective impact than an indexically recorded image could, and is arguably therefore more capable of expressing an individual’s subjectivity and vision, unrestrained as it is by the laws of time and space. Equally important is animation’s capacity for visualizing the seemingly unrepresentable, giving what is obscure and buried deep inside some kind of image.
In Belliveau’s Margaret’s Mountain (2009), the young, French-accented narrator, Diane Morin, claims that “poetry needs time and love, and we are nervous about both.” The video’s whimsical collage practice does with images what poetry accomplishes with words: bring new feelings and meanings into being, in this case through unexpected transformations and juxtapositions. Belliveau’s video feels like a kind of séance, as she channels poignant memories and brings together living and dead in a landscape that is both internal and topographical: the artist’s two grandmothers, both named Margaret (who, it is suggested, have divinatory powers); poet of the Yukon, Robert Service (1874–1958); and poets/singer-songwriters Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. Animated figures wend their way across spaces that merge the wilderness with domestic interiors.
The lyrical narration of Margaret’s Mountain reaches our ears at a kind of remove, both by virtue of Morin’s accented voice and because she is speaking on behalf of the two Margarets. Belliveau’s stylized poetic verse further distances us from “the real world” and conveys a highly personal and tearfully romantic sphere of love, longing and loss, and of the tricks of fate. In her finely crafted universe, Belliveau’s characters abide and endure, but this patience – the handling of time’s passing with grace and with care – is ultimately rewarding as it gives access to a beauty that lies beneath the surface of things.
In MacCormack’s Nothing Ever Happened (2009), the visions we see arise from its unseen protagonist’s dissociative state. The video places us squarely inside a child’s mind as she stares into a fish tank “for hours” and sees a strange, sometimes disturbing, parade of morphing children and animal figures. Using cut-out photographs that recall the animation work of Terry Gilliam for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, MacCormack dramatizes the kinds of hallucinations that one’s mind is forced to create when one is unable to face – or even conceive of – an experienced trauma. This state of daydreaming is more akin to a nightmare: visual manifestations of past abuses and indignities that can’t show their real forms can only shift in and out of legibility. Presenting visions produced by a feeling body, the video suggests that the act of looking can be generative as well as receptive, depending on one’s psychic state. Whether it be through the notes of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” played on a music box, the sound of snoring, or the striking image of a child’s head engulfed in a bouquet of opium-producing poppies, Nothing Ever Happened portrays a state of blissfully unaware sleep ruptured or haunted by the repressed. The video’s strong sense of disembodiment proves that something did happen, and these surreal images may or may not lead us back to what exactly it was.
On the level of sound, it should be noted that both videos make use of expansive, complex soundscapes cobbled together from electronically produced, recorded and found sound from a variety of sources, including, in MacCormack’s video, young David’s befuddled and earnest question, “is this real life?” sampled from the famed YouTube video David After Dentist (1). (As of this writing it has logged 60, 696,886 views.)
Both Belliveau and MacCormack dream of inhabiting different bodies – those of human and non-human animals alike – and of not being reducible to any permanent form. By its very nature, animation holds out the promise that “things will change.” In the revolutionary Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s writings on Walt Disney, he praised what he called the Disney cartoon’s “freedom from ossification,” a “revolt” against “stagnation,” and a “triumph over all fetters, over everything that binds.” The defining trait of animation is its kinetic capacity for mutation, its refusal to stay still. In the dynamic shifts of one form to another, Eisenstein finds a liberating “departure from one’s self. From once and forever prescribed norms of nomenclature, form and behaviour.” (2) The animated image is about the process of becoming and about the infinite possibilities for change that the future holds.
The forward march of the moving image is arrested in the exhibition by the drawings, paintings and objects shown alongside the animated videos. These artifacts appear like frozen moments and footnotes from the films, offering a different experience of temporality by allowing a more sustained engagement with a single image – saved from the flow of time and therefore from being lost in the ether of our memories.
2 - Eisenstein on Disney, ed. Jay Leyda, trans. Alan Upchurch. London: Methuen, 1988, c1985.
/JON DAVIES is a writer and curator based in Toronto. His writing has appeared in C Magazine, Canadian Art, Animation Journal and in books on artists Candice Breitz, Luis Jacob and Daniel Barrow. He recently curated the touring retrospective "People Like Us: The Gossip of Colin Campbell" for the Oakville Galleries and "Ryan Trecartin: Any Ever" (with Helena Reckitt) for The Power Plant, where he is an Assistant Curator.