Provocation in Black and White
The Sod Project
This project was the result of three individuals working together to create three installations, all revolving around the use of sod (squares of grass). The three of us were connected by circumstance. Scott Cohen and I lived in the same industrial building in which one of the lofts was frequently rented out for the use of filming music videos. The filming of one such video produced Roger Maddox, a set designer from France who sniffed, as we did, the whiff of opportunity contained in the immense amount of sod that would be left over from the shoot. High-pitched conversations soon led to a plan to create art with sod in the urban milieu of Montreal. We would each conceive our own idea, but the work for the installations would be done together, allowing for individual creative vision within the structure of a group.
Roger was inspired to create a crosswalk out of strips of sod, which we placed at the intersection of Roy St. and St. Laurent Blvd. As we observed and documented people traversing the crosswalk, we noticed that children were the most notably excited, jumping over and upon the strips of sod, and then retracing their steps. Many people walked around the strips of sod, most probably due to cultural conditioning - some may have not wanted to 'disturb' the sod. Those who are attracted to what departs from the norm were clearly impressed. No one appeared to be either upset, or annoyed, some were clearly amused, and others paid little attention.
Scott decided to use a vacant asphalt lot as the location for his installation. This corner lot was lined on two sides by large concrete blocks. Strips of sod were placed to cover the top of each block, and a circle of sod was created in the center of the lot. As the lot was a low traffic area, this installation lasted for weeks, the grass remaining green for a surprising length of time, providing a lovely contrast to the bleak asphalt and concrete. This installation was the strongest considering formal concerns: asphalt and concrete were the ground, the elements created with sod.
My installation would be the most temporary, and would require an additional two people to help. The goal was to cover the floor of a metro car in the Montreal Metro with strips of sod. We hauled backpacks filled with sod to the Lucien l'Allier metro station, and took the orange line to the end, at which point we feverishly emptied the packs and covered as much of the floor as possible. And then we sat, hopelessly attempting nonchalance while giddy with excitement, eyes on high alert for metro police, who would be only too willing to foil the plan.
As people entered the metro car we observed a wide range of reactions, everything from sheer delight and fascination to clear annoyance and disgust. I was most surprised, though, by the studied indifference of many. Possibly caused by shyness, or perhaps the consequence of urbanites eager to appear blasť. For those who were interested enough to ask us questions (the cameras, video and still, gave us away) we supplied concocted stories about the sod, a study on greening the urban environment for the city of Montreal was one such fabrication that was discussed at length, among others. Eventually, the metro police did catch up with us, but found themselves on the wrong side of the platform, thereby allowing our rapid escape.
All of the installations contrasted the expected with the unexpected and urban zones with nature. Due to the short life span of sod (when not placed on soil) and Roger's imminent departure back to France, we had to work within a tight time frame, a situation that merely intensified the experience. A spontaneous adventure into temporary public art, the sod project left us feeling extremely satisfied, both with the process and the results.
Redpath Sugar Refinery
Redpath Sugar Refinery, abandoned since l982, sits like an ancient red brick ruin on the banks of the Lachine Canal, in Pointe St. Charles, Montreal. Signs forbidding entry skirt its flanks. A sunken ship on dry land, it towers above the earth, even as its floors and walls crumble to the ground. It is otherworldly and full of grace. A cathedral shaped structure, part of the main building, is filled with windows and huge empty space. The atmosphere is still and quiet, but for the amplified sounds of birds fluttering up to the peaked roof. Sunshine cascades down through the windows, beams of light in the vast darkness. It is my first visit to Redpath, and I am completely taken, shaken asunder, swept into a space where time has stopped, a feeling that each moment has always existed.
From this mystical cathedral of light I enter into a dank tunnel, small rooms jut off to the sides, bleak and rank. I emerge into the main building, whose floors remain mostly intact, each floor an open space, connected to the next by metal staircases. With some trepidation I climb the staircases, one by one, until reaching the upper floor. Massive double doors open to the outside, a doorway only a bird could exit without plummeting several stories below. There is but one more staircase to ascend, at the top of which is a much smaller room. Daylight beckons through a narrow door, opening onto the roof of the refinery.
Stepping outside, I am greeted by a panoramic view of the city of Montreal. A grand vista of buildings filled with the hum of humanity stretches out in front and to the right of the building. Below lies the snow covered ground, and the Lachine Canal. To the left, sprawls the west of Montreal. I stand watching, breathing in the view, exhilarating in the wide-open space from my perch, the peak of Redpath. The sun is brilliant and hot, the sky clear blue. The air is warmer on the roof than on the ground or in the building. This strange journey has led to the most fantastic of places. Here, I decide, is where I will create a transcendental work of art.
Part of the roof was another level higher, not of gigantic proportions but the height of a single storied home, on the whole reminiscent of a partially destroyed, simple village building. The deep red of the brick contrasting with blue sky elicited thoughts of buttes or mesas in the landscape of New Mexico or Arizona. It felt like a village abandoned, derelict, but still beautiful, located in a difficult place to get to, isolated, protected by its height and the sheer drops surrounding it. I would create a painting installation that respected the character and feel of the location. Redpath and I would communicate with each other, to allow me to show others its particular beauty, and its sense of timelessness.
The part of the building rising up from the roof would become my ground, an immense canvas with its own history embedded in the brick, steel and wood. I painted with my artist oils on girders, window frames, the nails and hinges of the small wooden door, scratched in drawings on the walls, and attached strips of white cotton fabric that would dance in the breezes and tangle in the wind. Each moment of the process, from beginning to end, was imbued with a sense of incomparable and somewhat inexplicable elation. It truly was a piece in which the process was as important as the end result.
The project began in January, and was completed in April. The site and other areas of Redpath were photographed and documented on HI 8mm video and Super 8 film. I was to visit the site on several occasions during the next year, filming and photographing it once again in January l992. Sadly, Redpath Sugar Refinery has since been converted into luxury lofts.
Ladder & Soil