Playing Dead: Liz Magor (2002)

Liz Magor, Toronto and Vancouver: The Power Plant and Vancouver Art Gallery, 2002.

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Playing Dead: Between Photography and Sculpture

In the summer of 2001, a controversy swirled around a sculptor dead for nearly a century. It centred on an exhibition over which the artist had less than full control, for more reasons than that he was dead. Thus this exhibition, From Plaster to Bronze: The Sculptures of Auguste Rodin, at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, was rightfully contested by the Musée Rodin in Paris, heir to Rodin’s artistic legacy—for the exhibition was full of recently made posthumous casts and foundry, not studio, plasters. At stake was the authenticity of the work on display, an abyssal issue, given that Rodin’s bronzes are “examples of multiples that exist in the absence of an original.” So wrote Rosalind Krauss, questioning the status of the posthumous castings in the 1981 Rodin Rediscovered exhibition in Washington, D. C., and initiating a controversy that returned to haunt the Toronto show. Krauss went on to write, “If bronze casting is that end of the sculptural spectrum which is inherently multiple, the forming of the figurative originals is, we would have thought, at the other end—the pole consecrated to uniqueness.” No such pole, though, exists: “at the core of Rodin's massive output is the structural proliferation born of this multiplicity.” [1] Multiplicity rules throughout, because at the “origin” of the proliferating chain of bronzes is another reproduction—the plaster cast that forms the mould. Lamentably, no theory revoking artistic originality as postulated by Krauss was provoked by the ROM's institutional sleight-of-hand, for the current debate focused on the dubious use of foundry, not studio, casts in the reproduction of the Rodins. The dark side of this comical return is that we have gone past Krauss’s inaugural question of original reproductions to the unsettling one of simulacral reproductions. [2]

Of course, people familiar with Liz Magor’s sculpture will know that these issues of authenticity, or, we would rather say, identity stemming from mechanical reproduction, are at the heart of her work. At the same time, they will recognize that the devices or tropes deriving from what is inherent in sculptural practice are feints that she puts forth in her works. Or at least they will recognize that these concerns define Magor’s early and later sculptural work respectively. I summarily suggest here that the mould-cast relationship is at the crux of Magor’s work, so that the issues of false identity of the posthumous Rodin sculptures—of what their surfaces denote, not simulate, of authenticity and originality—are pertinent to discussions of her sculpture.

Between her two bodies of sculpture, the second of which is exhibited here, Magor initiated a decade-long photographic investigation documenting the contemporary phenomenon of re-enactors (also exhibited here). Re-enactors are hobbyists who dress in period costume and stage historical battles—of the French-English colonial wars, the American Civil War, and so on. The historicizing nature of Magor’s photographs would seem to issue from the sculptures and installations she prepared from 1989 to 1991 on the subject of Canadian identity: Cabin in the Snow, Gut Parkas, Siberian Husky, Child's Sweater, Skidegate Chair, Banff Chair. Following on the re-enactor photographs, Provincial Sideboard, Forces of Wolfe and Montcalm, Hallowed Ground and Lethbridge Telegram invert the process, being sculpture or installations made between 1991 and 1994 about re-enactors. The re-enactor photographs bridge two bodies of sculpture (earlier work ending in 1986 and recent work commencing in 1996), lending thematic support for the sculpture and installations of the middle period. For a sculptor to become so indebted to another discipline (devoting a decade to photography, after all) makes us wonder how this practice has inflected the sculpture with which she is identified. [3] Immediately, there seems to be no relationship between, say, one of Magor’s photographs of campfire cooking and the vacant hideaway of the sculpture Hollow, other than perhaps one of rustic content. Could there possibly be a formal association, save that of realism?

Coincidentally, Krauss’s article asserts a period collusion between casting posthumous Rodins and the then current photography market where “this culture of the original—the vintage print—is hard at work. The vintage print is specified as one made ‘close to the aesthetic moment’—and thus an object made not only by the photographer himself, but produced, as well, contemporaneously with the taking of the image.” [4] Magor’s prints obviously fulfill these conditions for their own time, but in no way, following on their subjects’ historical re-enacting, do they seek to mimic photographs from another era. The artist does not attempt any historicizing dissimulation: she neither stages the photographs nor fabricates an antique print quality. [5] In fact, the photograph itself unstages any dissimulation that the subject, not the artist, intends. In that they signal the surface as the site of a simulacrum, these photographs obliquely suggest the concerns of the sculpture that followed.

This simulacrum is not malevolently deceptive. Rather, it expresses an honest individual need—at least, as demonstrated in the photographs—to participate in the collective memory represented by this group play-acting. Yet the photographs, abetting the illusion, also sunder it. The photographs register an unbridgeable breach between interior and exterior. The surface of the photograph is both the mark of authenticity and inauthenticity, because what it records—the detail of costume—is inevitably detached both from historical context and any lived subjectivity, no matter the desire of the participant. And it shows. As Magor writes of re-enactors’ scrupulous attention to historical detail in their costuming and appurtenances, “But for all the attention, it is detail that ultimately undoes the illusion. Some things about the body itself are either overlooked or unchangeable—the softness; the overweight; the white straight teeth; the intact limbs and organs.” [6] The discrepant play between surface (costume) and interior (the subject) is the sign of an unavoidable falsehood. The photograph does not lie, but it reveals a lie. One surface—the photograph—remarks the inauthenticity that another surface—the costume—attempts to be the authentic mark of. The simulation of the second is benign, though; it is not really intended to fool anyone, only to support the fiction of a collectively agreed upon drama.

The intention to deceive is reversed in Magor’s sculpture from 1998 on—yet the surface remains the source of its effects. The sculpture seals the surface in a deceptive act. Unlike in the photographs, no visible body manipulates the illusion, though. Nevertheless, from the construction of the sculpture, we infer an absent interloper. What this participant leaves is only meant to trick us insofar as it is supposed to hide itself from view.

What accounts for this reversal in Magor’s work where dissimulation seems to figure? Is deception merely manifested as content, or does the relationship between photography and sculpture also have a role to play in its devices? Can the reversal, therefore, explain a continuity of artistic intent between such divergent media and practices as photography and sculpture?

First we must delve into the psychology that these works express. The thematic route we initially must follow is that which the exhibition itself charts. Emblematic of this is a work that the artist has created for the exhibition, Camping Portfolio (2002), a series of photographs related to her other re-enactor series, Civil War Portfolio (1991), Fur Trade (1996), World War I (1996) and drawn from their repository of images, except that contrary to these others, it emphasizes the domestic over the belligerent, the bivouac over the battle. These scenes depict the downtime between battles, when the participants, still in character, enact the rituals of an imaginary daily life under the conditions of idleness enforced by warfare. In retrospect, two other photographic series, Field Work (1989) and Deep Woods (1999), can be seen to mark the outer borders of this retreat to the domestic. Field Work was culled from photographs Magor made in 1968 of her and her hippie friends’ naive utopian retreat to nature, playing at re-enacting avant la lettre. Deep Woods recounts a later sinister return evidenced in only the slightest of arboreal traces.

Aside from the sculptures and installations of 1991-94, which concretize and contextualize the re-enactor themes, Magor’s later sculptures pursue this impulse toward the domestic by burrowing more deeply into it, so to speak. Although of a completely other appearance, the sculptures do not so much deviate as derive from the re-enactor series of photographs by intensifying a tendency to retreat. They pursue the trajectory of a mania that perhaps had its origins in the psychology Magor observed in nucleus in the re-enactors. In her sojourns among re-enactors, Magor had noticed a common characteristic—an instinct, really—not just to keep the powder dry in order to participate in the game but to maintain the body secure and intact. “It was as though they used historical personae as a sort of body armour,” she said. “A psychic body armour.” [7] A secret regressive rather than aggressive drive suggested a psychological need at odds with the overt and necessarily collective nature of the endeavour. The drive to protect the self was revealed through the attention to the provisioning of food and shelter. The domestic was the first line of defence. Self-sufficiency transcended historical context: above all, just like the military costumes and appurtenances, it could be purchased.

One Bedroom Apartment and Messenger (both 1996) expose this obsessive theme at its fullest by presenting two moments of its consumer/survivalist mania. [8] One Bedroom Apartment is composed of all rental items (from dishes and sheets to furniture) necessary to set up a habitation. But it is displayed as unlivable, with boxes and furnishings crammed together and piled up to form a barricade against the space around it. This accumulation of things is built to buffer identity. The encrustation of its hard shell is meant to protect the fragile self represented by the tucked-away, plaster hairless dog. No knick-knack, this soft centre seems the defensive keep of Messenger as well. [9] Nestled in the midst of its obsessively hoarded stores—a year’s supply of food and military paraphernalia from the Middle Ages to the Vietnam War, commissioned by Magor: helmets, broad swords, battle-axes, ammunition and hand grenades—we discover a dog again. This oblivious dog is protected by the armoured shell of timber; it is ensconced so well that it sleeps securely. The anxiety of the city dog of One Bedroom Apartment, semi-alert as if roused from sleep, is not repeated in deep-country dog. Rather, an escapist paranoia seems fulfilled. The impromptu barricading of One Bedroom Apartment gives way to the orderly and provident provisioning of stores of Messenger. While the two works occupy different points of the same obsessional trajectory, the agoraphobic impulse to cocoon in the apartment has been exacerbated and supplanted by the bunker mentality of Messenger. The isolated cabin is now home to a misanthropic Unabomber-type recluse. Although distantly related as the two are, we are far from the revivalism of re-enactors; we are dangerously deep in survivalist territory.

Rich in realist content, Magor’s works obviously lend themselves to thematic interpretation, so much so that we sometimes get lost in the bric-a-brac of the story and forget the sculptural substance of the work. As the themes of the body of work in the exhibition has been so well discussed elsewhere, [10] I will continue to repeat them here only insofar as the content of these sculptures, henceforth, will derive from specific sculptural tropes. Thus the need of Magor in subsequent sculpture to dismantle the panoplied constructions of One Bedroom Apartment and Messenger in order to reveal something more essential—to reduce sculpture to the merest shell, to its signifying skin. The figure of the dog is at the heart of this return. [11] The dog is a contradictory object. It is the soft protected core of both works, but also, made as it is of plaster, in itself a hard shell. White, smooth and lacking detail, it is a blank cipher. It easily stands in for the self hiding in its defensive redoubt. But could we not also take the dog to be the unconscious of sculpture, a sculpture still to be realized after the long photographic digression from Magor’s métier? One Bedroom Apartment and Messenger only partly realize a return to this sculpture. The sculptural potentiality represented by the dog is juxtaposed with the ready-made sculpture of the cabin and provisions and the surrogate sculptures of the re-enactor gear that the artist commissioned from artisans who specialize in such fabrication. Both realist mimicries and ready-mades are of interest to Magor as they relate to contemporary art strategies, but they partake too directly of the discourse of realism without the inflection of a deception necessary to carry out her aims. Sculpture must mime realism only insofar as it produces a simulacrum of realism, not the thing itself. The cipher is the proper ground of such a disguise.

To expose this cipher to view meant dismantling the apparatus that was its protective barricade. (It was, at the same time, too much the architectural complement of the living history of the re-enactors.) Magor chose, nonetheless, to explore other aspects of shelter uncovered within this “dismantling” of Messenger. To expose these to view meant developing another protective shell around them.

Already this thematic narrowing and sculptural refocusing started in the works Magor immediately produced—Sleeping Pouches (1997-98) and Sleeping Bag (1) and (2) (1998). Sleeping Pouches is a grouping of hollow, gun-bunker-like baskets, their hard shells wrapped with the contradicting softness of flannel sheeting. These shells are protective but not deceptive. Although each pouch is empty, we can imagine the uncanny sensation of eyes peering through their slots. Yet perhaps this sensation is too uncanny; it draws too much attention to this sleeping device. Better for the occupant that we overlook what is in front of us, that it be disguised as something else.

Hiding within the visible—such will be Magor’s deceptive trick of realism. Henceforth, the theme of survivalism will be reduced to the most basic needs of the fugitive: sleeping and eating. Or rather, the theme will be reduced to the disguising of those needs, for the fugitive, unlike the survivalist, has no shelter or home of his or her own. Everything takes place in the open, even if deep in the woods. Everything—the place of sleep or stock of food—must be hidden from view but within it. The problem: the human is hard to hide, and the products of commercial culture are made to be visible.

Sleep and shelter: such are the themes of the works that first begin to be fully realized in Magor’s new sculptural ambitions. Hollow (1998-99) and Burrow (1999) had other origins, though, much more referential to stories of fugitive flight and going to ground in the British Columbia wilderness. [12] Without the foresight of survivalists’ provisioning and with no more resources than animal instincts offer, the fugitive must precipitately flee and hide himself in the woods. He mimics the devices of animals, burrowing into trees, becoming one with the woods to avoid discovery. Roger Callois has written of insect mimicry that, as opposed to any defensive or offensive adaptation, it reflects a regressive pathological need to assimilate to its surroundings, to merge with the immediate space around it. Mimicry is the original going to ground. “This assimilation to space is necessarily accompanied by a decline in the feeling of personality and life,” a death instinct that sleep itself mimics. “Life takes a step backwards” to a more primitive state. [13] In deep retreat, sleep and shelter become almost one, as if, nearly dying, the human animal has fashioned a crypt around itself . [14]

To replicate this assimilation to milieu, Magor made a living into a dead thing. She took an imprint from nature in order to make a sculpture that mimicked fallen logs. Hollow and Burrow were life-cast from a Cortes Island cedar. Seen from the side, each sculpture gives the detailed appearance, texture and colouration of a fallen log. However, when we examine the ends, we are surprised to find that the log is a hollow shell in which a sleeping bag has been casually or hastily abandoned (Hollow) or carefully rolled and stuffed for future use (Burrow). As a hideaway, the camouflaged interior of Hollow gives the lie to the surface and its deception; the form is completely artificial, made of polymerized alpha gypsum, lined with the coloured, speckled foam used to panel the interiors of crates in which artworks sleep in storage. With a thickness of a couple of centimetres, the sculpture is less a solid object than a folded, furrowed surface, as if a sheet of crimped heavy paper was joined at its ends. Drawn directly from nature by the imprint of moulding, its mimicry is of the order of an index, a classification of signs that includes the two-dimensional medium of photography. (An index is a type of sign that refers to its object by having actually been affected by it, sometimes produced by having been in direct contact: a footstep in the sand, for example, is a sign of someone having passed this way before me.)

Pointing to the absent thing as if with a forefinger, the index would seem to be an unlikely ally in deception, but sometimes it can be turned to advantage, such as when a fugitive in the snowy woods wears his snowshoes backwards to foil his police trackers. If one could substitute a likeness or an image of the thing for the thing itself (even as a type of object), one might fool the eye. Callois has already anticipated this relationship of dissimulation that sculpture might have to photography:

Morphological mimicry could then be, after the fashion of chromatic mimicry, an actual photography, but of a form and relief, a photography on the level of the object and not on that of the image, a reproduction in three-dimensional space with solids and voids: sculpture-photography or better teleplasty. [15]

The falsifying (tele)communication of this mimicry uncannily parallels a cast and its mould in sculpture. Sculpture and photography are intrinsically related because both are engendered from an internal association of negative and positive elements: the print is taken from a negative, the cast is made from a mould. Indeed, sculpture and photography are inversely figured in each other. We are all familiar with the phenomenon of a cast under the right light turning its negative imprint to a positive image, offering the appearance of a photograph; whereas photography is kind of sculptural moulding, as French film critic André Bazin has suggested: “The photographer proceeds, via the intermediary of the lens, to a point where he literally takes a luminous imprint, a cast.” [16] They differ in that while the photograph has an indexical connection to its source, as well as to its negative, a sculpture has only an indexical relationship to its mould and a representational association with its subject. A realist sculpture need only look like, not duplicate, its subject. With their life-casting, however, Hollow and Burrow retain, like photography, an indexical connection to their source. With subsequent sculptures, for instance the Double Cabinets (2001), the relationship is more teleplastic than it is indexical, because the mimicry disguises its origins and cloaks itself as the thing itself. Attention is weighted to the sculpture’s mimicry, not to its making, because the mould seems to have disappeared altogether in the process. However, as we shall see, it is the cast that has retreated into the mould.

I stated above that the mould-cast relationship is at the crux of Magor’s work. The artist has made the material dependency of form and matter in the sculptural process into a figurative trope. Form and content derive from and reproduce the relationship of mould and cast. [17] The content of Magor’s early sculpture centred on this identity and the unease, or at least the questions, that the equivalence of mould and cast provoked in the subject, even as the sculpture became a figure detached from its ground. The pure instance of reproducibility substantiated in Production (1980) obsessively masked that found in the genetic world: for instance, the difference within repetition of the five casts of Four Boys and a Girl (1979). (The title of the latter relays the work’s subject and autobiographical reference.) In these two early works, both moulds and casts are evident parts of the process, and we observe a clear, teleological link between form and matter, even though the resulting cast, organic objects might be frayed and crumbling at their edges, which takes the idealist sheen off reproduction and lends this work its humanist warmth.

In Magor’s more recent sculpture, the mould is absent from view. But in some cases, we can read the cast sculpture itself as a mould too, to which an unrelated interior matter, a vulnerable body, seeks to conform as if to a protective shell (Hollow). In other cases, as in the liquor-stashing Double Cabinets, it is almost as if the mould and the cast have become one. So perfect is the dissimulation of Magor’s casting technique, which captures the texture and tone of piles of coloured towels, that, from the front, the sculpture seems the thing itself. From behind, where the liquor is stashed, the sculpture reveals its exterior as all surface, an illusion sustained by its physical support as the merest shell. The space between mould and cast has almost evanesced, as if the sculpture had merely been laid over the actual object to achieve a teleplastic resemblance. If the mould is absent, the sculptural object is referential all the same in its very image and form, indexical to its subject—the pile of towels—from which the mould itself was originally cast.

Dissimulation turns sculpture into its seeming opposite—an image, but this image is of the order of a sign. The surface of sculpture is the site, sign or symptom of an obsession; but the obsession is disguised in an operation that the artist repeats as an accomplice, as if she wants to hide something of herself, too. The work is a mask with, at least, a double aspect. From its outer face, it is a cast; from its interior, it is a mould to which a face conforms. Replication is endless, however, because behind every mask is another mask, and behind every originating mould another cast, à la Rodin.

The double face the sculpture presents, being a simulacrum, not the thing it appears to be, is different from the views that the sculpture offers from the front and rear, however. The latter correspond to the narrative order of experiencing the work, where the beliefs we possess in front (that of realism, for instance) are not met in the rear. The rear exposes another story that accounts for the dissimulation in the first place, and for the dishonesty of its subject. Alcoholics attempt to disguise their addiction as they hide their stash of alcohol (Double Cabinets). For others, the obsession is not so clever in its deception. The selfish impulse to hoard sometimes exceeds its disguise, so that the fluorescent, unnaturally orange foodstuff of Chee-to and KD—the Original (both 2000) spill out of their hideaway.

As photography abetted and sundered the illusions of the re-enactors, so now mimicry, intervening into the form-matter schema of sculpture, disturbs the mould-cast connection of Magor’s early sculpture, throwing the relationship into a bottomless abyss from which figure no longer surfaces from ground. Thus, as it progressed, her work played out the dilemmas that the issue of posthumous castings of Rodin’s sculpture breach, passing as they do from the question of an original reproduction to one of its simulacrum. Of photography and sculpture we mutually ask, What in the surface sealed either by the play of light on emulsion or the flow of bronze into a mould captures the interiority of the subject or its surrogate, the hand of the artist? Photography and sculpture are marked by the same unanswerable questions that the abyss of the simulacrum poses. Coming between these two bodies of Magor’s sculpture, the photographic inflection of her project is no more than a piece of paper slipped between cast and mould, which registers that the resulting sculpture is not so much a solid cast as a membrane of an illusion, the dissimulation of a skin.


1. Rosalind Krauss, '“The Originality of the Avant-Garde,” The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1985), 152, 154, 153. Also see "Sincerely Yours," 171-94.

2. “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great events and characters of world history occur, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” How interesting, in relation to Magor’s project of re-enactors to be discussed below, that this remark by Marx prefaces his comments on world-historical necromancy. Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” Surveys from Exile (London: Allen Lane, 1973), 146.

3. Nonetheless, photography recurs in Magor’s early work, for instance, Eighteen Books (1981-82), Four Notable Bakers (1983) and I have always weighed 98 lbs. (1983-84).

4. Krauss, 156.

5. See Grant Arnold’s essay in this volume, “Nostaglia Isn’t What It Used to Be: Liz Magor’s Field Work, Civil War Portfolio and Camping Portfolio.”

6. Liz Magor, unpublished notes to Military through the Ages, 1994.

7. Nancy Tousley, “Liz Magor,” Canadian Art, spring 2000: 71 (interview).

8. The two works were exhibited simultaneously in Toronto in 1996, One Bedroom Apartment at the Susan Hobbs Gallery and Messenger at the Toronto Sculpture Garden.

9. There have been two versions of Messenger: the 1996 log cabin version exhibited in the Toronto Sculpture Garden and the West Coast version premiered in this exhibition.

10. See Nancy Tousley, “Into the Woods,” Liz Magor (Toronto: Art Gallery of York University; Vancouver: Contemporary Art Gallery, 2000), 21-48.

11. The dog also appears in Siberian Husky (1990) and Willy and the Wall Spider (1996). For a discussion of sleeping and armoured dogs in her work, see Tousley, “Liz Magor,” 73. “The dog came directly from something I saw at a Celts re-enactment. They had a king. I think his name was King Brian. He was a huge guy with long hair and a beard, hair everywhere, with furs and skins draped over him. He had three skinny little whippets on his lap, all tangled together, trying to get warm. It looked literally as if his psyche had dropped out and fallen on his lap, incredibly bare and vulnerable. After that, for quite a few works, I used this bare white dog as the soft centre, as the thing that's being protected.”

12. “[Hollow and Burrow] come from seeing a wanted poster for a guy named Kevin Vermette, who was suspected of killing three young men in Kitimat, B.C., in 1997. He disappeared into the woods and he's still at large, or dead; we don’t know. For me, it’s counter-intuitive to feel safer in the woods. A human in the woods is a very anomalous thing, so to hide there seems bizarre. The tree pieces come from thinking about how he disappeared, how he might be hiding. . . . I did a lot research on other fugitives who had gone into hiding in the wilderness and I choose three (Vermette, the Mad Trapper of Rat River and Mike Oros). There were certain things they had in common. I was going to make a piece for each one. The three pieces were going to be very specific habitats for these guys. Eventually, I gave that up; it seemed like more information than I needed.” Tousley, “Liz Magor,” 73.

13. Roger Callois, “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia,” October 31 (winter 1984): 30. After appearing in the Surrealist journal Minotaure in 1935, the essay was published as “Mimétisme et Psychasthénie légendaire,” in Callois, Le mythe et l'homme (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1938).

14. “What is a crypt. No crypt presents itself. The grounds [lieux] are so disposed as to disguise and to hide: something, always a body in some way. But also to disguise the act of hiding and to hide the disguise: the crypt hides as it holds. Carved out of nature, sometimes making use of probability or facts, these grounds are not natural. A crypt is never natural through and through, and if, as is well known, physis has a tendency to encrypt (itself), that is because it overflows its own bounds and encloses, naturally, its other, all others. The crypt is thus not a natural place [lieu], but the striking history of an artifice, an architecture, an artifact: of a place comprehended within another but rigorously separate from it, isolated from general space by partitions, an enclosure, an enclave. So as to purloin the thing from the rest.” Jacques Derrida, “Foreword: Fors: The Anglish Words of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok,” in Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, The Wolf Man's Magic Word, trans. Nicholas Rand (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1986), xiv.

15. Callois, 23.

16. Bazin is quoted in Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1986), 24.

17. The form-matter dichotomy is, of course, a founding idealist philosophical gesture that dissimulation unfounds and ungrounds.