The need to unravel, expose and turn inside out, as a manifestation of a desire to escape back to the primordial, organic Paradise, has been vastly present in art in the past couple of decades. Life supporting structure of technology has become an armour which protects us as well as isolates us from our biological essence; an attempt to understand the core of our humanness seems as hopeless as trying to scratch oneself wearing an astronaut's suit.
Yechel Gagnon's Core is story of evolution. Using a simple, natural material -wood- which has undergone a series of transformations caused by mechanical forces induced by the process of production and the artist's own technique, Gagnon reflects on the art process as the missing link in the nature-society chain. The work Core is the documentation of a process of interaction between nature, technology and art in which creation and destruction simultaneously affect the matter, transforming its form and function.
Core is an installation of three sculptural pieces made of plywood. Gagnon examines three levels of the nature-culture relationship within the context of a continual circle of creation and destruction. Canply, August 1899 is created through the destruction of man-made order and utilitarian aesthetics, in favor of reviving the beauty of the essentially chaotic irregularity of natural forms. Petrified Substance is the opposite: the natural loose form of sawdust is solidified into a quasi-natural form reminiscent of a tree-trunk. Dune - a heap of loose sawdust- is the missing link in the chain: wood as pure matter, in its most natural form, ready to be used as a base for the new growth.
Although highly conceptual, Gagnon's process is also very organic and physical; it is a search for beauty and the pleasure of creating. Gagnon's interest in plywood is closer to the fascination of a craftsmen with his material than to a conceptual artist trying to convey an idea.
Gagnon's medium is the message. Cheap, affordable and available, plywood is a debased contemporary version of wood, which is a traditional and noble material. Developed as one of the first arts, woodworking was also the essential craft that led to the development of design, architecture and technology. Using an industrial product originating from this ancient material to make art is bound to be interpreted as a bold statement about the nature-culture relationship.
A base utilitarian product used as a construction material, one sheet of plywood is made of material originating from several different trees. The round irregular form of the tree trunks are debarked, sliced into long and thin planks, then glued together in a hot press. Plywood is meant to be used in the support structure, on the inside. It is not meant to be seen, but only to be present as a force, rather than as an object having a certain look, hardness, smell and colour. Its aesthetics is irrelevant: as a utilitarian product, plywood is stripped of any other characteristics but the functional ones. At first glance, a sheet of plywood is as anonymous in appearance as an industrial product can be; it is flat, smooth and matte beige. However, a more careful inspection reveals an organic network of fine light brown lines, whirls and colourings innate to wood used in assembling the piece. Its side is more complex; like a Kit-Kat bar, plywood consists of six or seven layers of different colours, ranging form almost white to deep brown, suggesting different species of wood. This is the material which Gagnon uses to produce highly aesthetic «paintings» and sawdust sculptures.
Canply August 1899, is one of Gagnon's plywood paintings. Using an electric router and various hand tools, Gagnon digs into the plywood, revealing the inside layers, creating delicate abstract landscapes, subtly controlling the compositional arrangement of wood textures. The beauty of Gagnon's process is in the fine interplay between the existing pattern within the material, and her compositional ideas; it is a struggle for harmony between the material, the artist, and the tool. There is an element of unpredictability and excitement in the process, which Gagnon calls "excavations": what patterns, what colours, what traces of the tree's life will she find under the surface? Confronted with the artist's ideas and the powerful electric tool, which has a potential to change and transform the material, the sheet of plywood suddenly stops looking like a generic industrial product. It becomes raw material again: it becomes the colour, smell and density of wood. Like Rorschach's ink blots, the wood patterns shining through the smooth surface suggest unknown spaces, landscapes and aerial views. Gagnon follows these signs, exposing surprising textures and colours with each stroke of her router, struggling for control over them, yet obeying their nature. A completely new aesthetics emerge as the synthesis of the human mind and Nature's unpredictability. The artist simultaneously controls her material and yields to it, and the pleasure resulting from this process is liberating.
The debris that is left over after Gagnon has finished her work is a pile of sawdust. She uses this left-over material, this "garbage" to build her sculptures. Unlike her paintings, Gagnon's sculptures are about forcing the material into an artificial form rather than liberating it. Petrified substance is a cylindrical sculpture of sawdust, looking rather like an attempt to turn the sawdust into its original form- the form of a tree trunk. Making a thick paste and pouring it into an industrial tube, Gagnon created a heavy, solid cylinder, whose regular and geometrical form is dictated by the shape of the mold. The process is exactly the reverse of the one that artist employs in her paintings. Instead of creating art by destroying the utilitarian character of an industrial product, here Gagnon takes up the natural material in its rawest possible form- and makes it into an art object, thus disabling the material to decompose and provide sustenance to other organic forms. In this way the artist turns a potential source of energy into a useless imitation of a life form. Saturated with glue and preserving chemicals, Gagnon's petrified tree has reached a state of permanence, like an ancient column which has no other use but to witness the past.
The third piece -Dune- is the key to Gagnon's story. This black-stained mound of loose sawdust is the only potentially useful piece in the exhibit. Although disguised as the luscious and elegant form of a black mountain, this piece is saturated with raw energy. It has an inherent potential to be destroyed by the laws of nature, and to give life in the process. Dune is the base substance, the elemental source of energy which both culture and nature are built upon.
Civilization is based on the principle of imitation. Science is in constant struggle to reveal the secrets of Nature's creations in order to create counter-products, with the use of which we can direct, magnify or neutralize Natural processes in order to secure the survival of individuals and of the entire species. Paradoxically, the dead matter brought to life through the utterly controlled process of imitation has become the ultimate vision of conquering death. Frankenstein's syndrome is overtaking modern science, which is increasingly preoccupied with creating life out of inanimate matter, thus conquering the life cycle itself: the final step in taking control over the Nature. However, even if this goal is reached, it is not very likely to mean that culture has dominated Nature; as a structure based on imitation of natural principles, culture is bound to be subordinate to them. Does the solution for our survival rest in imitation of the most powerful principles of nature, or in obeying them and subtly directing them to satisfy our needs? Gagnon's art is searching for resolution of our relation to nature, one in which the struggle for supremacy is replaced by an understanding and acceptance of natural processes as guidelines for human acts of creation.
Copyright © 1999 Maja Kulenovic