“Something useful salvaged.”
Saskatoon Star Phoenix, 23 February 2002
Picture two wooden harpsichords placed at the end of a long, dim
room. Silence, but for sounds leaking from adjoining galleries. Then the music
starts, sweet and lyrical. It is taped music, emanating from the instruments,
but not created by them. There is nothing else in the room, save a couple of
framed transcriptions, neatly penned, of the music, and a shelf on which rests
a pair headphones, connected to … nothing.
This constitutes Decoy, Michael Maranda’s installation at the Mendel Art
Gallery. As the title suggests, the work appears real and straightforward, while
being in actuality an elaborate and rather elegant ruse. The viewers, like circling
geese, are lured in only to find themselves figuratively in the hunter’s
sights, betrayed by their curiosity and the complex expectations they haul along
with them into the gallery.
Every component in this minimalist exhibition poses challenges. What distinguishes
art or craft? What is valuable? Must everything be operable and serviceable?
These are the sorts of issues considered by Marcel Duchamp more than 80 years
ago. The French artist’s Ready-mades, impromptu artworks fashioned from
such elements as shovels, urinals and bicycle wheels, were initially disparaged
but are now considered brilliant. These pieces are the progenitors of Maranda’s
Garbage dumps are piled high with objects — chairs, TV sets, crockery
— that once worked. Having stopped working, they have been discarded.
Broken or disconnected headphones and an instrument that won’t play might
be considered refuse. In this display, such objects are ennobled, reconsidered
in their careful positioning against the blank, white walls of the art museum.
We are asked to consider that an idea might be more valuable than the concrete
thing to which it leads. Might a quick sketch in the margins hold more significance
than the massive, finished sculpture it engenders?
Even more tantalizing and contradictory is the fact that everything in this
room nearly works. Maranda, while no cabinetmaker, took pains (and about 10
months) to construct two, almost-functional harpsichords. A little tinkering
could render them playable. With a bit more attention to finishing details,
such as the uneven lengths of the keys, the harpsichords might be considered
finely crafted utilitarian objects. Yet the artist deliberately stopped short
of creating anything approaching notions of perfection or usefulness.
Realizing the full extent of this withholding, I actually became quite annoyed.
This is not, perhaps, the response the artist desired. I think he probably wanted
us to ponder the contradictions of the creative impulse, the nature of genius,
the finer points of the art-craft dichotomy. I couldn’t. I was too preoccupied,
sulking at the feeling that the rug had been pulled from under me.
I was not allowed even to enjoy the music, Bach’s opening Aria of the
Goldberg Variations, as interpreted by esteemed Canadian pianist Glenn Gould
and then performed by Maranda himself. No, that pleasure was circumvented too,
by curator Dan Ring’s text panel, explaining that “While Maranda
has had musical training, he has not played in years.”
Ring further refers to “the hesitant and odd manner in which the music
was recorded.” Thus the performance, like the instruments, is not only
flawed but deliberately flawed.
How does one begin to evaluate such an assemblage? It seems Maranda has covered
all the angles and anticipated any queries or quibbles.
“The instruments are ill-conceived and poorly constructed,” one
“That’s exactly what I intended,” the artist might respond,
smugly. “I used commercial plans, and I’m no wood-worker”
“But those wires, dangling from the ceiling are very clumsy and distracting.”
“ Aren’t they?”
“The musical presentation lacks finesse …”
“So glad you noticed. Since I hadn’t played in years, I was pretty rusty. I taped myself playing the left and
right hands separately on a real, working harpsichord, then mixed the recordings.”
The finishing touch was provided by something even Maranda did not foresee.
In an interview, Ring mentioned that the headphones now on display are replacements,
because some light-fingered visitor walked away with the original set. This
surely validates the maxim that anything not nailed down is liable to be stolen.
On first entering the gallery, one is inclined to make connections amongst the
headphones, the music, the harpsichords. The individual struggles to fill the
gaps, as is necessary in viewing motion pictures. The intersections of images
are blurred to create smooth transitions. On discovering, here, that the connections
are fraudulent, some people, like myself, may experience a sense of disappointment.
Others of a more practical disposition — and here we must include the
thief — may shrug and (literally or figuratively) salvage something useful.
The irony is as supreme as if someone had grabbed Duchamp’s shovel from
a museum display in order to dig a trench. Someone stole Maranda’s disconnected
headphones, envisioning them not as an element of an art installation but as
a useful object. Here is a cultural critic of a different ilk. In a startling
way, the act heightens the contradictions inherent in the exhibition.
The show is meant to be puzzling, Ring affirmed, “Certain kinds of art
demand or expect a certain kind of effort on the part of viewers. We have to
present art from time to time that’s challenging.”
What the curator finds particularly appealing about Maranda’s work is
“his level of engagement in the ideas and his serious, well-intentioned
and thoughtful approach.”
Having devoted so much space to that which I found irritating about Decoy, I
must note that I enjoyed solving a puzzle it presented. Why were there two harpsichords,
when one would have served the purpose?
It seems to me the twin instruments are like big decorative stereos, “delivering” the music from the right and
lefthand performances, respectively. Moreover, they can be seen as signifiers for the composer, Bach, and the interpreter,
Gould. The harpsichords are even positioned so that two players could see one another. This largely empty room can be seen
as an evocation of an 18th-century salon hosted by a patron of the arts. It doesn’t take too much imagination to fill
it with ghosts.
Maranda, former editor of Saskatoon-based BlackFlash magazine, has studied at
the University of Rochester in New York, where he was working on a doctorate
in visual and cultural studies. Recently, he moved to Toronto, to assume editorship
of Fuse magazine.
Two bookworks by Maranda, part of the Mendel Art Gallery’s permanent collection,
are concurrently on view at the Mendel, and they shed some light on his interests
in exploring the patina of authority acquired by artworks over time.
For his handbound editions he has laboriously extracted certain elements from
the writings of the 18th-century philosopher, Emmanuel Kant. One book, for example,
contains only the punctuation as it appears in Kant’s Three Critiques.
This fanatical attention to detail, and the fascination with culture and cultural
criticism are characteristic of Maranda’s work.
Decoy remains on view until March 10 (2002).
Sheila Robertson is a freelance writer
“Review of Decoy”
Parachute, 115 (July 2004), p. 8 of Para-para- (enclosure)
Michael Maranda readily admits to not being a wood-worker, nor to being a virtuosic
keyboard player. But this admission to incompetence is, at most, an inadequate
one. For Decoy is precisely a strategic setup involving the issue of
incompetence: a performance of the term’s relation to and implication
with the authority of the Baroque tradition. Such a setup subjects the term
“incompetence” to an opened-ended conceptual schema, an operation
that results in an aporia of sorts. The present text attempts to discuss the
complexity of such a setup in Decoy. However, before proceeding, an inventory
of the “props” employed in this setup is necessary:
1. A set of actual, but non-functional, headphones had been placed on a small
2. Two identical harpsichords built by the artist. Upon inspection, however,
one notices that the harpsichords were neither well-constructed nor functional.
Each harpsichord contained a hidden speaker through which one could hear a recording
of the aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. This music was played by
Maranda while listening to and trying to mimic Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording.
Maranda played each hand separately and then mixed the two taped performances
3. A handmade copy by Maranda of Bach’s original manuscript for the aria for
the Variations hung alongside a reproduction from which the facsimile
Decoy made no attempt to disguise its technical flaws, but it did exhibit
a seemingly sincere effort with respect to certain forms of apprenticeship.
I use the term apprenticeship because it could be argued that Decoy demonstrates
a genuine investment of effort in order to achieve an acceptable level of skill:
in this case the construction and the playing of a traditional musical instrument.
But this performative-based investment in the demands of a tradition can satisfy
only part of the picture. If, for the moment, we consider only the instruments,
we could agree that the effort appeared sincere enough; yet the harpsichords
could be viewed as having functioned more like movie props — simulacra that
are required to look good only at a distance or, as they say, on or for camera.
In other words, as objects, the quality of construction was adequate or convincing
only up to a certain point. On closer inspection, their flaws became all too
apparent. Seen in this light, the harpsichords didn’t seem to be capable of
exemplifying a sincere effort by some aspiring apprentice. Rather, the issue
of craft had to be reassessed in view of a more calculated approach, that of
the one who trades solely in theatrical tricks, in simulacra that play to the
Likewise, Gould’s 1981 performance of the aria from the Goldberg Variations
allows the possibility of a similar sleight of hand. Due to the deliberate slowness
of Gould[’s] performance, Maranda-the-apprentice does not require much skill
to keep up with the master. Yet, for the same reason, it is equally easy for
Maranda-the-deceiver to play like the master. The flaws in the performance
may testify to the struggle common to the trials of apprenticeship, but the
artifice, the mixing of the two separate recordings of the left and right hands,
works to undermine any sense of sincerity that might accrue to such an achievement
Here, it is necessary to speak of two incommensurable gestures or forms of life:
on the one hand, the practice of apprenticeship and, on the other, the mimicking
of such an effort. The conundrum of Decoy has to do with the way it succeeds
in staging these two incommensurable gestures in one single event. These gestures
are deemed incommensurable because the criteria by which an act of sincerity
— represented by the labour of apprenticeship — is evaluated are
no longer applicable when it comes down to what might be called the art of deception.
Thus, for example, it doesn’t make much sense to conclude that when two
mime artists convincingly act out a tennis match they must in fact be competent
tennis players; according to the protocols of this special case, the simulacrum,
the faked match has no stake within the register of so-called reality. Granted,
there is good mime and bad mime, well-made props and poorly-made props, but
their success or failure as performances or simulations only count within the
context of the performance or theatrical genre. Thus, sincerity or competency
was, for Decoy, the initial draw or attraction that was designed to bring
the viewer’s expectations up short. As a setup or trap, Decoy set
into motion an irreducible oscillation between the experience of what, from
one angle, might have been taken as a genuine or sincere gesture only to see
it devolve into its less than serious, “negative” other. As a result,
this vacillation from the one possibly feigned gesture into its equally contentious
other could not be settled by simply resorting to the artist’s self-effacing
admission nor, for that matter, by deferring to the protocols of an exceptional
context (the art gallery).
I would say, coming full circle, that the ambiguity, the aporia opened up by
Decoy hinges on the issue of deception. For the act of deception, the
work of the decoy, here, is itself in question. In what sense can it be said,
in all seriousness, that Maranda himself was being straightforward, that he
was not all along just playing at being incompetent? Or, if he wasn’t simply
deceiving himself, was he indeed serious? Did he intend to deceive, to distract
viewers just enough to put them on the right track in order to demonstrate the
susceptibility to error?
Who can say? If it comes down to a question of standards, it will not suffice
to refer to some standard case for, as Maranda goes at some length to show,
the not-quite-up-to-standards will always be an integral part of the performance
of any established measure or standard regardless of how extraordinary the circumstances
in which it finds itself.
The author is an artist and writer living in Toronto.
“Review of Decoy”
Espace sculpture, 69 (Fall 2004)
In the gallery, two beautifully constructed harpsichords stand on their elegant legs, silent, waiting for
hands to bring them to life. Suddenly, haltingly, one hears the Aria from the Goldberg Variations, played on the
harpsichord but not the ones we see. Nearing the instruments one realizes that one could not in fact play on them as they
are flawed in numerous minute ways. Painstakingly constructed and beautiful, they are nonetheless dysfunctional. Decoy:
A person or thing that lures into danger, deception, or a similar trap.
Maranda’s previous work often rendered itself opaque. On 1,540 different drawings the artist wrote the word Aufhebung
using various different grades of pencils, three per drawing, and never in the same combination. The word was written several
thousand times per page so that all one was left with was a series of works marked heavily in lead, the word itself illegible.
This is at once a loss of confidence in the ideas of the Enlightenment and a laudatory striving towards resolution, however
futile. Aufhebung refers to Hegel’s “successful resolution of the dialectic.” The drawings were
pinned so that they would flutter when the viewer passed them, underlining how fragile this resolution really is. Taken
outside of the Hegelian construct, the German word also means rescinding, annulment, or reversal. To understand the piece
in these complex terms the viewer must then be aware of this philosophical debate, language, and history. On the other hand,
since the word itself, repeated so often, is unintelligible, the work is reduced to a purely visual piece. Here, in essence,
art literally obliterates didactic theory in favour of visual practice.
On the walls accompanying the harpsichords are hand-drawn music scores of the Aria. They stand in for the less than perfect
acoustics that sound through the gallery, sufficiently representing the Goldberg Variations, which are familiar to
most. The instruments, too, stand in for the ones better executed and fully functional. Within this context these latter
are unnecessary. The idea has been made visible and therefore the concept has become art: it would be redundant, even gimmicky,
to create instruments that were professional in their rendering of the utilitarian thing they were meant to be.
In an attempt to address drawing, Maranda spent months making ink by grinding and mixing paste and filling a variety of
glass containers with the results. The idea was that by paring the work down to its essential materials, ink, the drawing
itself was no longer necessary. Continuing with his insistence on making words images, as in the Aufhebung piece,
Maranda made the material, the idea, the image. This concept can be seen in some of the artist’s other work, like
his retyping of all three Kantian critiques but omitting all but the grammatical signs, like commas, quotations, and periods.
Maranda claims with a smile that he is trying to “get people to stop reading,” and yet this incredibly arduous
task of recording punctuation marks in the precise places that they are found in the original text, and choosing quite specifically
this particular text, he nonetheless claims, only to erase, the philosophy of the book. On the one hand, he renders the
text as image, and on the other — where he leaves only the corrections in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus —
the futility of attempting to make sense of the world, as philosophy strives to do.
These earlier works brought the criticism that Maranda, being an artist, was too conceptual and should, as a real artist,
make objects rather than try to render concepts visible. This critique triggered the installation Decoy, which the
artist made partly in order to demonstrate that he was indeed not good enough with his hands to create an object that was
perfect, an object that was beautiful and useful, in short, an object that was art. The flawed yet elegant instruments are
the fruit of Maranda’s long labour, and the accompanying music, played by the artist, further underlines his lack
of manual proficiency. Poet and essayist Tim Lilburn points out that the harpsichords refuse transcendence; so too, the
artist aligns himself with these instruments and their inability to perform the tasks demanded of them. Lilburn references
Kant’s Critique of Reason and the claim of metaphysics that the mind lures, then betrays us. Similarly, a decoy
is there to lure and then deceive. In this case, the claim is on the one hand, that an artist does not necessarily excel
in making things, and, on the other, that beauty — these handcrafted instruments and music — does not always
emerge, even when the correct steps are followed.
Nonetheless, I would take issue with Lilburn’s claim that there instruments are “broken in spirit … shorn
and weak,” for they clearly stand in for something complete. Maranda’s harpsichords need not be functional for
they represent an idea: a striving for beauty and transcendence. The halting attempt at playing the notes that we hear are
the artist’s admission that he is not the artist that he was demanded to be. However, the poignancy, the futile but
intense striving in is attempt to be, is quintessentially artistic. Standing before Decoy one in filled with an intense
admiration and emotional empathy with the artist who devotes his life to trying to make sense; to continue, like Sisyphus,
his way up the mountain.
“Daily Terror Gives Violence a Bad Eye.”
The Toronto Star, 20 March 2004
The most honest title in town right now is David Yonge’s
“Performance Art Cannot Save The World” at YYZ Artists’ Outlet.
The Vancouver artist’s videotape of himself body-slamming a 1980 Camaro
— one of three tapes at YYZ next to a big mess of broken glass, a torn
toy and folded chairs on the floor — should be called Violence Lite.
In this regard the installation, which shows to April 10, is timely, unintentionally reflecting the much-contested wisdom of the deep thinkers at the Canada Council for the Arts, who recently picked Toronto’s Istvan Kantor as one of this year’s recipients of the Governor-General’s Awards for Visual and Media Arts.
For Yonge’s sexy but fundamentally unthreatening approach is a lot like
Kantor’s work going back to his Machine Sex Action Group — “long
live kinetic energy” was its motto — whose participants wore lots
of attitude, a few wires, bolts and nuts, and nothing else.
It’s not that Kantor shouldn’t get his hands on the $15,000 award. After years in the outrage business — throwing his blood on walls, sticking things up his bum — he’s as award-worthy as a lot of other G-G winners over the years. But it’s wishful thinking on the G-G jury’s part to assume he has made his mark on all of society, as opposed to the walls of the National Gallery of Canada, where he was banned following a bit of blood-flinging there in 1991.
Let’s face it, Kantor’s heart belongs to Dada.
This particular G-G award reeks of nostalgia for the bad old days when art believed it really could get down and dirty. Today, art’s ability to reinvent horror is in danger of becoming superseded by media news coverage.
Unlike Kantor, Yonge understands the ultimate futility of his gestures.
“As Yonge leaps onto the car from a 12-foot ladder, one cannot deny the
extreme and ridiculous nature of the event,” say the notes accompanying
Yonge’s installation. How true.
It’s Yonge’s battle against playing it safe — one he loses, I think — that makes you want to stay with his YYZ installation.
In Yellow Diablo vs. 1980 Camaro, Yonge, in the guise of Mexican wrestler Yellow Diablo, slams himself again and again into Detroit iron, urged on by the surrounding crowd. Naked from the waist up, his upper torso seems particularly vulnerable to the many jagged sheet metal edges.
Perhaps this is, in the words of the accompanying text, an “extreme …
deconstruction of masculinity and bravado,” but the whole thing feels
like an early Iggy Pop show, with only the guitar track missing.
The same smells-like-teen-spirit aura comes from another of Yonge’s performance
pieces, where he jams a Canadian flag up a the bottom end of a cuddly toy —
he calls it I like Canada And Canada Likes Me — only to yank it
out at the other end. The rag moose doll is then wrapped in the flag, like a
shroud around a really dead idea.
It’s tempting to snigger at Yonge’s proposition that we as a nation
“are not simply being exploited by our neighbouring hegemonic superpower,
but that we are also systematically exploiting ourselves.” I see it more
as a jingoistic means of high-colonic irrigation.
But what’s interesting is the clash between what Yonge wants to do and
the success he has in doing it. He’s the angry young artist without the
dynamic means to make it register.
It’s not that we’ve become inured to violence, real or manufactured
— witness the visceral outrage to the terrorist bombings in Madrid, Toronto’s
gang-style shootings or even the flesh flaying in Mel Gibson’s The
Passion Of The Christ. Rather, I’d argue we feel the proximity of
violence more now than at any time in generations.
But what complicates our reaction is the way in which violence is so rapidly
mediated for our consumption, much the way Sept.11 was described as “being
like a movie.” Like news, weather and sports, we now tune up or down the
level of violence we want — or can endure.
We mute its effect by turning on the CBC or watching a Merchant Ivory film.
We get it full blast via the Fox network or a blow-’em-up action flick.
But watching Yonge’s attack on an old muscle car seems dated in the way
of an ’80s Rambo film. In show business terms, violence has passed him
When the constant violent media flow is turned off in the absence of fresh disasters,
you can almost sense the unrest. What’s going on? Who knows? The waiting
becomes unbearable. And when death and violence are denied — witness the
Pentagon’s silent no-ceremony treatment with regard to its own returning
dead — the psychic tension is ratcheted all the higher.
This helps explain why the recent anti-war protest from military families began
at the U.S. air base in Delaware where the American dead are returned from Iraq.
Not being a part of any ceremony must be as unnerving for the families involved
as anything seen in their daily dose of bad news from the front.
You react to what’s happening at YYZ much the same way.
You can like Yonge’s spunk and the spunky, garbage quality of his videos
for what they are: a blast from the past. But then you realize his crash-and-burn
approach is not nearly as discombobulating as the eerie tranquility surrounding
Michael Maranda’s companion installation in another of YYZ’s spaces
at 401 Richmond St. W. (Also, Caroline Mosby’s series of oil paintings,
“It Rained That Day,” are in the YYZ window outside the entrance.)
Called “Decoy,” Maranda’s piece features two elegantly constructed
mock harpsichords in an empty room with the sounds of Bach’s Goldberg
Variations sprinkled down over them from a tiny, tinny CD player. The silence
in the room feels tense, like the gap between bad things happening.