Indicating structure, FLAT DEPTH blends physicality with image and relates to the body in space to identify an imagined place in the surroundings. Fragments are fabricated into another experience, repurposed, ambiguous. Glass holds the memory of process pushed and pulled, the material is shifted, revealing time altered, solid and fragile. Drawn elements mark time and the fabrication of memory restructured in the moment where the shadow speaks of a transitional space. In this system, possibilities and perspectives emerge in the space that unfolds behind the image.
/RACHAEL WONG holds a BFA in Glass from Alberta College of Art and Design and an MFA in Sculpture/Dimensional Studies from Alfred University. She received the 2010 RBC Award for Glass and is a past resident of the Glass Studio at Harbourfront Centre and at the Living Arts Centre.
/THE PLAYGROUND OF THE FLAT AND THE DEEP
Rachael Wong’s exhibition Flat Depth demands a great deal of audience participation. Her installations in glass and paint dazzle with high contrast colours and sumptuous curves, but their ability to manipulate time and space perplexes viewers out of their usual stasis. Though the work has been made through painstakingly ardent, hand-built processes, its focus remains steadfast on the viewer who unwittingly participates in a series of sensory exercises designed to confuse and delight.
It is natural to identify Rachael Wong with Post-Minimalist artists like Eva Hesse, whose sculptural paintings and painterly sculptures denounced the rigidity of modernism through the promotion of a fundamental body-object relationship 1. Like many of Hesse’s noteworthy pieces, Flat Depth relies heavily on organic forms that are serially arranged but not geometrically restricted. As with many Post-Minimalists, Wong’s practice involves the qualitative exploration of materials and their ability to influence spatial perception. However, through this body of work, she advances Post-Minimalist investigation by distorting both the cognitive and corporal perceptions of the viewer through the functional reassignment of traditional media. Keenly aware of predictable bodily and psychological responses to stimuli, Wong instates perceptual conflict to free fine art and craft from their silos and merge theoretical discourses.
In her research on art, perception, and the body, Margaret A. Boden identifies differing psychological systems responsible for how a viewer interprets what they see. There are contrasting mechanisms responsible for factual or indicative processing– “that red paint looks like blood” – versus bodily or enactive processing – “I feel ill because that looks like blood.” 2 Boden argues that a potential explanation for the division between fine arts and crafts can be found in these unrelated processes, wherein fine art is interpreted through indicative mechanisms and crafts are interpreted through enactive mechanisms. Wong’s installation is notable because it simultaneously manipulates both indicative and enactive mechanisms with its unconventional use of media.
Flat Depth challenges sensory receptors, and therefore the cognitive mind, through the deterioration of assumed constants. Wong understands that her viewers meet physiological phenomena with particular expectations: through strategic applications of glass and paint, she creates an imaginary reality where materials react differently with time and space. Globulous blown-glass forms in white, red, and black protrude into space, defying gravity; time appears arrested because, rationally speaking, organic, fluid forms cannot behave this way. The anticipation that the scene will suddenly burst into animation again – leaving quite the mess in its wake – is logically absurd but physiologically expected. Similarly, Wong merges the properties of two- and three-dimensional media to disrupt the normal behavioural patterns of light. Her lengthy process begins by mounting and lighting blown or flame-worked glass to produce clusters of shadows upon the gallery walls. A selection of these shadows are masked with tape and filled with paint to create a visual record of the moment of installation. Finally, Wong paints mock shadows that are indistinguishable from their real counterparts. The climactic moment occurs when a viewer approaches the work and interrupts the light, obliterating the objective shadows to reveal their simulacra.
Wong provides another indicative challenge with her use of automatically arranged lines and arrows. Directional cues lead the viewer on a path throughout the piece toward no particular destination. Despite their unconscious arrangement, these symbols are not purely formal elements; the artist correctly assumes that because pictograms have associated values, the viewer will predictably follow instructions. As a consolation for their unrestrained obedience, the gallery-goer is rewarded with punchy graphics and fleshy forms at every turn. For Wong, this element of play represents a celebratory nexus between intellectual and bodily viewing experiences since it titillates both indicative and enactive mechanisms 3.
Boden’s research suggests that viewing certain art objects may initiate an impulse to act. This enactive process often occurs when a viewer encounters craft works designed to perform a function. According to the unconscious, these objects are regarded as extensions of the human frame and therefore illicit corporal responses. Furthermore, artworks that mimic the appearance of the figure or are pleasing to the touch create similar impulses 4. Wong’s glass installations feature seductive curves and vessel-like protrusions in cool whites and pulsing reds. As glass bulbs ripple from the walls and reach out into space, the viewer registers an enactive desire to handle, caress or fondle them. The artist’s creative process yields similar associations. From the initial practice of forming molten glass, to the delicate placement of the final serial blob, bodily activity is ever present. Since the glass medium has a significant history in functional, hand-made production, it is unsurprising that Flat Depth would resonate so acutely with the psychological mechanics of the body. Conversely, the ironic interplay between the two and three-dimensional components of the installation recall the investigations of Post-Minimalists like Hesse, thus temporarily relieving glass of its firm association with craft 5.
Flat Depth is successful because it expands upon the exploration of human perception conducted by the successors of Minimalism. Wong’s expert manipulation of both intellectual and bodily systems compliments her technical expertise in fine art and craft production. The gestalt of her efforts is a sensory playground rife with contradictions of form, function, and natural phenomena. Boden suggests that borderline cases of artworks engaging both indicative and enactive systems are exceptional 6, yet Wong’s practice is so dually focused that she not only activates both mechanisms, but decodes, scrambles, and pits them against one another. Wong so effectively manifests her agenda through sensory pomp that the unsuspecting viewer is too delighted to notice their preconceptions about traditional media are becoming lost in the fray.
1. Rosalind Krauss, “Eva Hesse: Contingent”, in Mignon Nixon, Ex. October Files: Eva Hesse (Cambridge and London, MIT Press, 2002): 27 - 34
2. Margaret A. Boden, “Crafts, Perception, and the Possibilities of the Body”, British Journal of Aesthetics 40, no. 3 (2000): 291
3. Rachael Wong. Statement. 29 March 2012. <http://rachaelwong.ca/artist_statement.php> (29th March 2012).
4. Boden, M. A. 2000, 294.
6. Boden, M.A. 2000, 297.
/COLE SWANSON is an artist and curator working in Toronto, Ontario. He has participated in international exhibitions in Italy, Taiwan, China, and India. Swanson is a Shastri National Arts Fellow for his research on Indian painting and is the Curator & Residency Coordinator for the Living Arts Centre, Mississauga.