"Field Recordings of Icebergs Melting"
Michael Campbell, "Field Recordings of Icebergs Melting," installation view.
MICHAEL CAMPBELL, Field Recordings of Icebergs Melting
Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston, ON
May 23 to August 16, 2009
By Gil McElroy
In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic novel The Little Prince, the title character inhabits a tiny planet the size of a house. It’s difficult not to think of Saint-Exupéry’s children’s story when confronted with a small sculptural metal sphere — clearly a planet or moon-like thing — from which emanates a radio tower that’s bigger than the object on which it sits.
“The Robert Glen Farpoint”, as this technologically unbalanced sphere/tower is called, is part of Lethbridge-based artist Michael Campbell’s large mixed-media installation Field Recordings of Icebergs Melting. It’s one of 27 sculptures (individually identified by a silhouette and title on a chart situated on a wall) that sprout from an enormous metal armature that zig-zags across the floor of one space of the three given over to the show. Campbell’s sculptures are made from detritus: bits and pieces of found metal — rusty or otherwise — and small lengths of weathered driftwood all held together with metal straps, scavenged in Lethbridge or along the shoreline near his studio in British Columbia. For the most part, these things bear some resemblance to ships.
“The Maharrata Run” is a small canoe-shaped object of salvaged metal and driftwood with numerous short sections of hollow copper pipe protruding from the hull. The instant evocation is that of a warship bristling with cannons, and while there’s no attempt by Campbell to actually replicate such a thing, the balance in his work between sculptural abstraction and representation tends to favour the latter slightly.
That small imbalance makes all the difference — it permits those “hobby” traditions of both model-making and folk art to meaningfully factor into considering this body of work. We tend to assign the former to young males of a certain past generation, the latter to cultural and social expressions of regional identity. But Campbell levels the playing field, drawing upon both equally.
These pieces are indeed models — the “Janice May”, a sculptural vessel mounted, as if ready for take-off, on the end of a large sloping ramp set in the middle of the floor of a separate gallery space, denotes that reality via the intricacy with which Campbell renders details like its miniature, greenhouse-like deck cabin complete with interior foliage. But the influence of folk art is equivalently present in Campbell’s choice of sculptural materials and the “rustic” aspects of the ways in which his works are assembled.
And as both model-making and folk art tell of kinds of alternative realities, Field Recordings of Icebergs Meltingspeaks eloquently of such worlds as well. While the fixed constellation of armature-bound vessel sculptures in one room is contextualized by the bureaucratic organizational formality of its wall-mounted identification chart, the “Janice May” installation next door is a thing cinematically framed.
Two wall-mounted wooden disks are screens for a video projection of images that wouldn’t be out of place in a Guy Madden film, like that of a slowly spinning moon, tinted blue and heavily cratered, juxtaposed against hazy, almost abstract shots of a person underwater blurred by motion and streaming bubbles of air. They’re accompanied by a soundtrack of individually unidentifiable noises that, for all we know, could very well be the sounds icebergs make as they die.
In the end it’s unimportant, for Field Recordings of Icebergs Melting points us to larger metaphors and bigger worlds, and Michael Campbell’s sculptures are the perfect vehicles for getting us there.