Around Wavelength (1994)

This is actually a book, but the three texts by three different authors were amalgamated into one volume.

The Michael Snow Project: Visual Art (co-curator and co-author with Dennis Reid and Louise Dompierre), Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, The Power Plant and Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 1994.

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Design: Bruce Mau

Design: Bruce Mau

Side Seat: A Retrospective Look at Michael Snow

In late 1969, stimulated by the occasion of a retrospective of fifteen years of his work at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Michael Snow reviewed his career by producing the catalogue as an artist’s book. Michael Snow/A Survey “was an attempt to use the records of my life and work which I had (in the form of snap-shots, family photos and photos of and texts about my work) to compose a new work.”[1] This notion of a retrospective look using the materials of past productions was further playfully exemplified in Snow’s 1970 film Side Seat Paintings Slides Sound Film as a complement to the catalogue.[2] The film “reproduces” a typical artist’s slide lecture on Snow’s paintings from 1954 to 1965, which one sees as if arriving late (one always arrives, historically, late) and so is afforded only an oblique view—the “side seat” of the title. The film, of course, is not only this dry review; it is a transformation of one medium and set of works into another made of the elements composing the title: “What especially interested me was the transformation of media: painting to slide projection to sound-film and that the core ‘raw’ material was something that I had already ‘personalized’ for another purpose. The intention was that the transformation should put the spectator in the present experiencing the sound-film ‘through’ the past of the paintings and slides.”[3]

The intervening period between Snow’s last “painting” of 1965 (the quotation marks are his) and its duplication in Side Seat Paintings Slides Sound Film is the subject of this exhibition. The film exemplifies two concepts operative in the present exhibition and catalogue: the retrospective look of Side Seat is not only a looking back, it is also a looking through one medium into another, which already individually interweave levels of presentation and representation. In the present case, the look back is ours, not Snow’s, but we reproduce that initial gesture of Snow’s at a greater distance; and the looking through is not the transformation of one body of material into another, but a retrospective seeing of works through each other’s shared structures and mutual influence. (Our looking back is different still in that the presence Snow writes about—experiencing the past through images in the present—cannot be recreated here simply through the offering of past works to our current view, for there is no actual transformation of medium here. Representation in writing is one thing, which the catalogue attempts; re-presentation in exhibition is another. In the latter, we are dealing with the presence of the original works outside of their own time of making and first presentation. This complicated play of presence and absence, though, makes up many of the challenging dilemmas and subjects of Snow’s works and writings.)[4]

Looking is circumscribed, nonetheless. While the 1994 exhibitions at the AGO (apart from that at The Power Plant) virtually replicate the one of 1970 in terms of the period of the works, if not number, shown, those specifically from 1967–69 are now separated from the presentation of the earlier works by the very gestures we find in the sculptures, films and photoworks of that period themselves.[5 ] In its narrow scope, Around Wavelength functions as an aperture to separate its works from the wide concerns featured in the comprehensive exhibitions that bracket it, while acting at the same time as a hinge between them. Focusing on its moment then, the current presentation narrows attention to the limiting conditions of work produced by Snow for his 1968 exhibition at the Poindexter Gallery in New York and his 1969 Isaacs Gallery exhibition in Toronto where new works supplemented those of New York. (The 1970 AGO exhibition added the rest of the sculpture, photographic works and films of the current exhibition.)

This notion of the aperture defining the exhibition within the Michael Snow Project as a whole mirrors what took place in Snow’s work of that period. These works concentrated their apparatus on the function of viewing in order to make sight visible. They effectively put an end to the images of the Walking Woman, filtering perceptual and conceptual themes to their more purified essence, before Snow’s themes broadened out again to wider image practices during the 1970s.

Sculpture played the dominant role in these commercial exhibitions, but while those two exhibitions are the core of this one, sculpture was not conceived apart from Snow’s concurrent work in film and interest in photography, which themselves defined the shape sculpture would take. Prior to Snow’s main activity in photography evident during the 1970s, sculpture assumed the role of perceptual investigation. At that time, Snow focused the apparatus of his work on the actual acts of viewing: reducing the figurative element (yet actively incorporating the body of the spectator) by using the camera as a model and the frame as a principle device. This was sculpture to be seen through as much as to be looked at.

While the camera and its framing device offer the model for sculpture, the camera’s product—the still or “moving” image—found its analogy in the viewing experience of the spectator. Photography proper was not part of these exhibitions in 1968 and 1969, with the exception of that integral to the sculpture Atlantic. In our case, each photographic work has been chosen to indicate a type of investigation consistent with Snow’s sculpture of 1967–69 but which differs from his subsequent investigations initiated from 1970 on.

The absent presence in the space of exhibition here, and speculative hinge of the exhibition, is Snow’s filmwork, particularly the film that made his fame, Wavelength. The planning of Wavelength during 1966 signalled the Walking Woman’s demise (although Wavelength could be thought the last Walking Woman work) and set out the complex themes that would be explored, in the cases where they were more apt (or perhaps led to more interesting transformations), in the specific media of sculpture or photography. While the original exhibition contexts seem to highlight sculpture in the concept of this exhibition, film is integral to it: hence the title Around Wavelength. This title can be read as what spatially, in the case of the present exhibition, groups itself around Wavelength or as what sets the historical context (“around the time of Wavelength”), even as what succeeds it in time, as if influenced by it as well.  Around the time of Wavelength, moreover, should remind us also of the durational effects Wavelength introduced to Snow’s work.

If Wavelength is the key to the demise of one body of work, and the initiation of another, an artist’s thinking is too complex to let one work stand as the determination of all that follows. Working in a variety of media, Snow was enough of a modernist to let each medium determine its own effects. Nonetheless, Wavelength, in its devotion to the insubstantialities of time, light and sound, plays an inordinate role in this catalogue and exhibition in that it is the counterpart to everything that is stable and static in museum presentations.


1. From the manuscript “About Side Seat Paintings Slides Sound Film” dated 1978 in the Michael Snow Fonds in the E. P. Taylor Research Library of Art Gallery of Ontario.  All references to Snow’s notes and sketches in the text pertain to this archive. The catalogue referred to is Michael Snow/A Survey (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario and The Isaacs Gallery, 1970). The exhibition took place Feb. 14 – March 15, 1970. Also see the print Manual, 1970, which uses the1970 catalogue as a physical object to transform photographically into another work.
2. A Casing Shelved, an autobiographical “talking picture,” also from 1970, has a retrospective structure.
3. Snow, “About Side Seat...”
4. On the notion of a retrospective look for curatorial practice, see Philip Monk, “In Retrospect: Presenting Events,” Parachute 46 (March-May 1987): 11–13, and the Preface to Philip Monk, Ian Carr-Harris: 1971–1977 (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1988), 6–7.  Around Wavelength continues the curatorial conjecture set out in that earlier exhibition.
5. While the present exhibitions survey the same period, needless to say, they are separate and operate under different curatorial criteria.  Together, though, Exploring Plane and Contour, Around Wavelength and The Power Plant’s Embodied Vision provide a “retrospective” survey of Snow’s work, without following the retrospective format.