Lessons in the Pleasure of Pedagogy: Ian Carr-Harris (2002)

“Ian Carr-Harris: Lessons in the Pleasure of Pedagogy,” Sketch (Fall 2002), pp. 6-7. Sketch is the magazine of the Ontario College of Art and Design where Carr-Harris teaches.

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Ian Carr-Harris: Lessons in the Pleasure of Pedagogy

Artist or teacher: whatever the discipline, pedagogy is a dominant theme in Ian Carr-Harris's work. While an interest in demonstration informs both his practices as teacher and artist, there is nothing necessary dry or academic about the clarity of a focusing gaze. In both practices, Carr-Harris has devised a subtle rhetorical model—part demonstration, part seduction—to engage our interest, whether it is to be produced by the event of an object or the style of a lecture.
    Carr-Harris came late to the study of art, having completed degrees first in history and then in library science before studying sculpture at the Ontario College of Art. His early training in history was formative, focusing his life-long interest in the connection between narration and event, between the telling of a story in the present and the having happened of an action in the past. (This association between the here and now and the there and then always manifests itself in his work.) The language basis of this interest does not preclude the image since the relation between its representation and reality provides the primary model. The substantiality of Carr-Harris's art—he is a sculptor, after all—complicates any transparency we might be belied to think exists between the two. Any representation—word, image or object—is a construction; Carr-Harris's works are tableaux that reconstruct the frames of these presentations.
    Lest we think that Carr-Harris over-intellectualizes the process of making art, even in the era of high visuality of the Renaissance art was an intellectual discipline. Painting afforded models to look at nature. Think Da Vinci or Dürer. By coincidence, Carr-Harris's exhibition opens with a piece about Dürer that in many ways is representative of his concerns as a whole. Not part of the Power Plant exhibition per se, which concentrates on the last decade of work, After Dürer (1989), nonetheless, was chosen as a preamble to it for a number of reasons. It is representative, and the last, of the audio-visual installations of the 1980s by which Carr-Harris gained his national and international reputation (he co-represented Canada at the 1984 Venice Biennale and was selected for Documenta in 1988). It is typical of the work of that period in exposing all its elements to view: cabinetry, projector, speaker, and screen, all custom fitted by the artist. Although it reveals the continuity of concerns that pass through his whole career, finally, and more importantly, it is a foil to distinguish what is different in the succeeding period of the artist's work—the themes to which the exhibition is devoted.
     After Dürer engages the spectator between two images: Dürer's famous print of an Indian rhinoceros and a film shot by the artist of a real rhinoceros at the Toronto Zoo. Between reproduction and so-called reality an obvious discrepancy exists, but the work also points to other questions: How do schemas of knowledge impose themselves through representation on our experience of the world, and how does even imagination map convention onto our perception of it?    
    All Carr-Harris's works are tableaux for demonstration—thus, the role of the table or the vitrine and the function of lighting in defining a stage for the presentation of the theatricalized lesson. After 1992, while his presentation might not change, the content does. If in After Dürer we are asked to compare image and reality, to match the reference against the referent, in succeeding work the ground of that secure relationship dissipates. Now images only call forth other images in infinite regress, never settling in reality. In Index (1993), where a pile of books is strewn abandoned on a flimsy card table, the books refer to a book of books (an index), which refers to the library, which refers to the Book of Knowledge of the universe, etc. (Whenever a book or an encyclopedia plate appears in Carr-Harris's work, we are referred to the discourses and framings of the library and the museum, nineteenth-century heirs to the Enlightenment tradition of rationality that is now in ruin.)
    Do we lament this infinite deferment of the referent, or in some way take pleasure in the indices of its mediate touchings? Two works named after fictional female characters, Annabel (1999) and Molly (2002), seem to repeat traditional laments about loss and the passage of time. In the former, Carr-Harris, however, has a computer voice read over the text to Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita as one more trace of a debased repetition. In the latter, the lesson of loss is to be learned and repeated in front of one of the institutions of inscription: the schoolroom blackboard which spells out in proper penmanship the affirming last lines of James Joyce's Ulysses. There is no irony in Carr-Harris's strategy; nor is there really a lament. Rather, the artist takes pleasure in the retracing and retouching implied in the structures of such deferment. In the end, is not the trace of deferment the structure of representation in which we take pleasure in the visual arts? Here is the revised lesson Carr-Harris's Power Plant exhibition confirms. Could it be that in the guise of a masterful teacher, behind all his classroom presentations of which I count, as well, the art gallery exhibition, this artist and rhetorician is also a poet?