If I just come right out and tell you that seeing Lyndal Osborne’s current exhibition was like staring at the surface of the sun, would you understand what I mean? Probably not. But since it’s the first analogy that came to mind, I should explain. Her Of Water & Tides at the Art Gallery of Burlington is made up of two installations occupying the gallery’s largest space and a small adjacent room. In the main, it’s all about the surface of things. The larger work in the larger space is based on a dualism: time spent living along Australia’s Shoalhaven River during an artist residency in 2002 and experiencing the lingering after-effects of devastating fires in the region, contrasted with time at home near Edmonton watching how the North Saskatchewan River freezes up in the winter. Shoalwan: River Through Fire, River of Ice comprises, in large part, several thousand empty clear-glass jars and bottles of various sizes assembled together on the floor in a large irregular shape. Amidst this sea of glass (or, arguably, a metaphorical river of ice) is an archipelago of islands, fecund places sporting evidence of life. A number of these are like large platters laden with small bowls containing a myriad of organic things – the shells of small scallops, for instance, the stems from some gourds, seeds, nuts – certainly denotative of the living world. Other islands seem to be comprised of nothing but wooden sticks, and one is a mountain of big, long seedpods. Another appears to be made up of dozens of small crustacean-like creatures arranged in a large spiral as if on some strange geometrical march. And then there is an island entirely made of metal, an assemblage of what seems to be old gears, springs, rotors and old bolts. Machinery. Artefacts. An island, presumably, reshaped (for good or ill) by human hands and ingenuity.
Lyndal Osborne, Shoalwan: River Through Fire, River of Ice, 2003
The entirety of the installation is dimly lit, small pools of light focused for the most part on each island amidst the expanse of glass vessels (which are also, it need be noted, things made by human hands and ingenuity). Finally (and here’s where my borderline metaphor comes into play) Osborne’s islands appear to my eyes as sunspots strewn across a glassy surface, small, aesthetically meaningful regions of truly magnetic intensity towards which we are irresistibly drawn.
The sound of crashing waves intrudes upon the installation, for in a small adjacent room is Tidal Trace. It’s a work dominated by a wall-projected video of waves crashing on a beach. In front of the image Osborne has installed, well, a beach strewn with Nature’s flotsam and jetsam – weeds, sticks, shells, that sort of thing – and even colourful bits and pieces of the rubbish with which we so increasingly contaminate absolutely everything about our planet. This piece has good intentions, but is a bit too earnest and overt, a bit too on the nose. It’s Shoalwan that impacts. And that’s because there are metaphors lurking about there.
Art Gallery of Burlington: http://artgalleryofburlington.com/
Lyndal Osborne: Of Water & Tides continues until April 5.
Gil McElroy is a poet, artist, independent curator, and freelance art critic. He is the author of Gravity & Grace: Selected Writing on Contemporary Canadian Art, four books of poetry, and Cold Comfort: Growing Up Cold War. He is Akimblog's roving Ontario correspondent and can be followed @GilMcElroy on Twitter.
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