Ian Carr-Harris (1985)

“Ian Carr-Harris,” Parachute, no. 39 (June – August 1985), pp. 68-69.

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Ian Carr-Harris
Carmen Lamanna Gallery, Toronto
January 26 – February 21

Anti-symbolic symbol? Dogmatic anti-dogmatism? These are the contradictions that forcefully present themselves in a viewing of Ian Carr-Harris' installation Untitled. They are not there unconsciously; neither are they to be resolved.

As in other of Carr-Harris' "tableaux," Untitled is a presentation and a demonstration; it tells a story, a story with a moral. But unlike his recent installations, Untitled is to the point. Its short text does not equivocate; a loud voice exhorts: "This is a symbol. It is a symbol of fire. Fire is an old symbol; it's been many things. Never trust symbols."

This short, prescriptive narrative, although it repeats itself every half minute and dominates the space during its enunciation, is not the first thing to present itself. When we walk into the gallery, the first thing we see is a large, black mass. This dense, wavy mass fills the space and blocks our passage. And it is behind this presence that the voice sounds.

The voice refers to this mass—"it is a symbol of fire"; and we see that the curling, black flames are cut from plywood and glued together in vertical planes. It leaps from the floor, rooted like a bush, the "darkness visible" of Milton's flames without light. The voice speaks behind this symbol of fire, almost in the sense of the originary authority of Moses' burning bush, as the presence behind a presence. So it has been many things. (Here perhaps the title, Untitled, becomes significant as that which cannot be named.)

Passing behind the flames towards the source of the sound, we find the second of the three elements that make the installation. This is a large speaker cabinet that has been added to both auditorily and architecturally by a serried group of hornlike speakers. These reiterate and visually reinforce the power and authority of the place from which the voice is spoken, and in a way mimic the flames. (Behind the speaker is the third, functional element—a table that holds the encased audio equipment, again all in black.)

Of course this voice is recorded and repeated, so it does not have a presence, in the sense of a voice present to itself in consciousness or enunciation, as much as it has an auditory power, and a prescriptive effect. (We could say that it is amplified in the way a symbol grows in power. In its most literal sense the statement is a salutary warning, but we should not accept the statement at its word outside the context of the work as a whole — its pragmatics.) And it is not as if there is not an equivocation in this "voice" after all. Its reference "this" not only refers to the symbolic black mass but enfolds the voice through its address in a symbolic structure. This is not enough, however, to reject Untitled as contradictory, or, worse, lacking in self-reflexivity—as if it is only speaking in prescriptives without understanding its contradictory construction or grounding.

What the statement points to as a symbol can be symbolic only if, as a representation, that symbol makes something present, and if the image and meaning possess an inner unity. And yet what is textual in this work, by standing outside its "symbol," evacuates its unity and meaning in pointing to it as a symbol, as a convention and as variable. The ontological status of the symbol is weakened, and the only presence that it maintains is its particularity as art, rather than its contractual or ideological form. The narrative not only questions symbols, it works against the interpretation of the whole structure as a symbolic act; but it can do this only through the operation of the work as a whole in its contradictions. The statement is split between a presence and a prescription, just as its reference "this" is unstable. The unity of the reference-referent structure (voice-symbol) is shattered into disparate levels; even the self-referential is shaken in its self-sustaining formal status.

This dissonance or rather dissension within Untitled situates us in the same "place" as where the work questions its own statements (it cannot be trusted), structure and presence. This is the power of the work to under-mine the symbolic within the seductive strengths of the work itself, that which tends to make it a symbolic presence: its material richness and formal unity, the suggestiveness of the image and material. It uses a presence to undermine a presence, a symbolic act to question the symbolic. It is as if fire, or a conventional symbol that determines or guides a specific goal or action in a consensus, has given way to another, old understanding: conflict as the order of things.

The symbol and the work in their mutual unity have been dissolved into heterogeneous particularities or "languages." The conflict does not exist between image and text, statement and material, or reference and referent, but inheres within the material presence of the work itself or between languages, opening a gap in their communicative transparency. Since in Untitled the process of the work only takes place through our viewing, our subject necessarily is implicated in what comes apart in that viewing. The symbol must fail in its function of dividing and uniting what is one if that one is no longer and never was a one that can be identified with.