Rob Kovitz's Ice Fishing in Gimli
by Jeanne Randolph
Fuse Magazine, June 2004, pp. 41-46
Review of exhibition at Gallery OneOneOne, Winnipeg
Winnipeg, where the moon is full every night.
The Gothic Unconscious exhibition series was uncompromised curatorial speculation ("How are we to wrestle with restless ghosts and tragic histories in the context of twenty-first century culture?") manifest as installations of work by a hundred artists.
As materialized hypothesis, The Gothic Unconscious fluctuated melodramatically over the course of one hundred fifty-five days: the colour of walls shifted, the lighting moved, furniture changed, the windows were framed then clogged, then luminous, while dramatic arrivals and departures of art broke the silence of civic amnesia: all under the transfigurative spell of curator-in-residence Sigrid Dahle.
On the south wall of Gallery One One One the broken backbone of Winnipeg's social history was diagrammed in clean straight lines in blood red paint. The lines were punctuated by thirty-five cruel facts, such as
October 11, 1875. After a month-long journey, a party of 285 Icelanders arrives in Winnipeg and heads for a settlement in Gimli. The Dominion government lends the colonists $5000 to purchase supplies in Winnipeg; some local merchants see this as an "opportunity to dispose of quantities of old, unpalatable pemmican, flour of a similar quality, and weavilled beans."
For those one hundred fifty-five days this mural lasted unchanged, looking like a transit map for hell, where the name of every stop would be prefixed by "Tragic- [genocide," police brutality," epidemics," political corruption," unjust laws," commercial ruthlessness," dispossessions, " floods," famine," class warfare"].
Unlike its Winnipeg moon, The Gothic Unconscious displayed itself in phases: the "Blind Spot" phase, the "Trauerspiel" phase, "Das Cabinet des Dr. Jeanne Randolph" phase, and in the end, the "Ghost Month/Ice Fishing in Gimli" phase. At the allusive centre of each of these phases artworks embodied traumatic causes and effects, effects that merge into causes, causes that dissolve into effects. Each painting, sculpture, photograph, performance, video, and film offered versions of Winnipeg's past in the costume of an uncanny metaphorical present. The juxtaposition of the works of artists (who are always capable of composing forms of reparation for damage done to their body politic) suggested that trauma might generate, rather than annihilate meaning. Like Joseph Conrad's character Marlow in Heart of Darkness, Sigrid's inimitable curatorial method demonstrated how "meaning was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze."
I prefer winter...Something waits beneath it -- the whole story doesn't show. [Andrew Wyeth]
During the final thirty-nine days of The Gothic Unconscious the gallery was cast as a nearly emptied room: looking in through the gallery windows one could see four armchairs draped in white sheets, a few little end tables in pools of light. Near each cloaked chair sat tall stacks of thick grey-white blocks and their off-cuts of 186-cubic-inch rectangular chunks (perhaps hewn from dirty glaciers? Or glass bricks heavy with grime?).
Once inside, a line of photographs (William Eakin's Ghost Month) would be visible crossing the pale corner between the two far walls; and the weighty white slabs? They were in fact made of paper, three-volume tomes of the massive Ice Fishing in Gimli project concocted and designed by Rob Kovitz.
Ice Fishing in Gimli is a unique hybrid fabrication impossible to describe except by triangulation:
triangulation from point a:
"For one writes only half the book," [Joseph] Conrad insisted, "the other half is with the reader."
Rob Kovitz's half of Ice Fishing in Gimli is more than 1500 pages long at present (volume four will likely be finished within the coming year), consisting entirely of appropriated texts and images.
Given our literate heritage, for any material object that appears to be a book our reflex is to identify the sequence of beginning, middle and end. Each of the present three volumes of Ice Fishing in Gimli enhances this reflex with a table of contents naming the seven books of which it is comprised: house of squid, exodus, song of the sibyl, at the beach, far interior, lives of the saints, all the words you love. And within each of the seven books are prevailing themes, four at the least, eight at the most.
I have not read Ice Fishing in Gimli word for word, but I have read every single image. This seemed to me to be the natural way to begin a relationship with a 186-cubic-inch unique hybrid invention. And I would claim it is no coincidence that one of the volumes provides a quotation mirroring my vacillation between reading words, skimming words, reading images, skimming words, reading images, reading words not always in that order:
(Schopenhauer, Borges remarks, had already written that life and dreams are leaves of the same book: reading them in order is living; skimming through them is dreaming.)
It is uncanny how Ice Fishing in Gimli lures a reader into Schopenhauer's metaphor.
Given our literate heritage we are alert as well to recognize the signs that some text and image combinations will free us from strict compliance with Time (first things first, then the middle, the end is last). In this literary project, composed entirely of clippings from other authors' gardens, the in-between spaces become exceedingly fertile ground. Visually, one in-between space looks as vacant as the next; imaginatively, its yield depends on how much concentration one expends upon the clippings at either end. This implicit and explicit design technique dramatizes the value of "the half that is with the reader."
triangulation from point b:
The squiggle game: The psychoanalyst would shut his eyes and scribble with a pencil on a piece of drawing paper. Then the child would take the pencil and turn the squiggle into something, saying what it had become.
If any of us were to draw a line, and then draw a circle touching the right end of the line, couldn't this be the primal form of a saga? The line could portend an implied movement; and the circle could designate the relation of that movement to a circumscribed space. Given European literate heritage, we would usually assume that the line led toward the circle rather than way from it.
The judgment call an author or an artist must make about this (or any) squiggle is how much to elaborate upon it. The line and the circle needn't remain nakedly abstract, nor would the author-artist be morally obligated to freeze this squiggle as a literal map with mileage(sic) and emblematic landmarks in proper scale.
The therapeutic value of the squiggle game is in the elaborations. The cultural value of the simplest story (for instance "They travelled to here.") is likewise revealed in the elaborations upon it.
With a marvelous methodology Ice Fishing in Gimli elaborates upon ice fishing in Gimli, Manitoba, sustaining a correspondence between the reader reading and Gimli's Icelandic descendants living. This correspondence is vivid because the specificity of ice fishing in Gimli is attached to hundreds of histories and hundreds of literary creations whose imagery it shares. The profusion of imagery is offered, it should be no surprise, as themes of the book: for instance protasis (fish story) page 44, exodus page 121, road movie page 176, dreamland page 386, plans for everybody page 442, at the beach page 563, handbook of snow page 608, the transport page 718, society on ice page 842, alien architectures page 910, dead and cold page 1250, lives of the saints page 1476, et cetera. And then, speaking of elaborations, these themes are embellished as well. For instance volume 2, book four: at the beach, society on ice is a concatenation of quotations about rural life as a weather-beaten, violent, incestuous, social nexus of deluded souls holding their land and mores in a death grip. And interspersed with literary imagery, to vivify the symbolism even more, are wry, eloquent pictures and depictions from a plenitude of magazines, artworks, books, films, drawings and photographs.
triangulation from point c: copyright
Ice Fishing in Gimli already belongs to what a romantic psychoanalyst, D.W.Winnicott, called "the common pool of humanity:"
...Every object is a 'found' object. Given the chance, we begin to live creatively, and to use actual objects to be creative into and with. If not given this chance then there is no area in which we may have play, or may have cultural experience; then it follows that there is no link with the cultural inheritance, and there will be no contribution to the cultural pool...In using the word culture I am thinking of the inherited tradition. I am thinking of something that is in the common pool of humanity, into which individuals and groups of people may contribute, and from which we may all draw if we have somewhere [in our psyches] to put what we find.
Ice Fishing in Gimli will, however, when formally published, emerge from the warm common pool into the cold light of copyright law. This eventuality evokes the shade of ye olde Samuel Johnson, who wrote
It is a writer's duty to make the world better, and justice is a virtue independent of time or place.
Rob has contemplated Johnson's edict with extreme care. If justice is a virtue, then one would hope that it will be nourished by current (and future) copyright law. Among the hundreds of excerpts and images drawn from the cultural pool and prepared for delectation as Ice Fishing in Gimli is a "fair use notice." The notice itself trumpets an ideal of present legalities, (detailed in Title 17 Section 107 US Copyright Law), an exemplar of which would be Ice Fishing in Gimli making
...such [copyrighted] material available in the effort to advance understanding of political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, environmental and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes "fair use" of copyrighted material.
I would guess there has never been a poetic work in Canada that has undertaken on such a profound scale the advancement of understanding of political, human rights, economic, democracy, and so on and so on and so on, without a single original sentence from the author.