Back and Gone (essay)

For some time now Troy Gronsdahl has pursued a sense of vulnerability in his artistic practice, the kind of visceral reckoning that establishes eye contact, and one in which the interlocutor is forced to acknowledge and deal with the compromised state of his subject. the generosity of mechanics (is not well documented), for example, is a short video work from 2008 in which we encounter a man standing quietly before the camera exhibiting forbearance in the face of persistent tremors endemic to Parkinson’s disease. The key word here may well be “encounter”, which generally connotes an unexpected meeting, one that may even entail a confrontation of sorts. The particular character of Gronsdahl’s preferred encounter is important because it is not constituted out of a confrontation with the subject so much as it is an internal confrontation with our own attitudes and insecurities. As we find this man standing before us, with no soundtrack to offer narrative refuge, we must deal with the humanity of the situation in a manner that transfers and thereby implicates our own, human condition. This dynamic resonates in Gronsdahl’s earlier work as well, such as the 2003 video installation We always thought that she would be the first to go, and, in every measure as intimate and direct, the artist’s 2005 hip hop video project under the MC alias soso, entitled hungover for three days straight (don’t matter). These formative projects variously draw the spectator into an unarmed proximity that clearly raises the stakes of our dealings. Hence the vulnerability that is engendered is our own, drafted from a chance encounter with a subject that propels us into unexpected yet deeply reflective territory.

The current project, entitled back and gone, intensifies Gronsdahl’s artistic trajectory along the thematic lines of vulnerability. What is amplified in particular, vis-à-vis the material concerns of the installation proper, is the silence that pervades much of the artist’s work. One only has to have occasion to experience Joseph Beuys’ famous felt room installation Plight, 1958/1985, to appreciate that silence does in fact possess the capacity to be amplified, and here Gronsdahl has deployed similar material concerns to achieve this end. From the start, the sliver of space between PAVED Arts and AKA Gallery, inconspicuously marked on the building’s floor plan as a “service area” corridor, became Gronsdahl’s unlikely selection for his initial “Throughput”[1] proposal. The space itself is barely wide enough to accommodate a standard door frame at it’s opening, and yet two doors have been built into the installation, both with closer mechanisms to ensure a perfect seal. On all four sides around the space a heavily insulated and sound baffled treatment pads the in-between area like a clean, albeit dense, second skin. As with the aforementioned Beuys installation, Gronsdahl’s environment has a palpable impact on the senses. First there is an immediate shift in room temperature, signaling to all concerned that we have arrived at a different place. More significantly, even after the doors have closed behind the solitary participant and all is dark and quiet, it is the ambiance of the narrow room itself which assumes a different tenor. Put another way, the very character of silence changes. Of course, the space is thoroughly material, including the air contained within. As with any architectural proposition, it is the relationship of the body to said matter and space that forms the particular qualities of our interactions and movements. What Gronsdahl has achieved with this sudden, dramatic shift in sensory input actually attenuates his interest in the encounter. We are discombobulated, thrust into an uncanny space that forces the most mundane battery of questions: where are we, what can be assumed? Simultaneous to the heightened awareness of atmosphere that ensues, we are deprived of our usual reliance on sight. The room appears to us as a vague contour, with only the minimal spillage of an already dimly lit video image emanating from the far tapered end of the installation. The scene is nocturnal, with only a patch of oblique ground to hold our attention. For the spectator whose patience is tested by the subtle and immanent dynamics staked thus far, perhaps this momentary displacement amounts to the extent of what the installation will constitute as an experience. For the rest of us the encounter will take yet another unexpected turn.

Finally, the full charge of Gronsdahl’s installation is catalyzed by the appearance of a lone figure inside the terminal frame of the video installation. Consonant with artistic strategies circulating amid such installation practices, the narrative story-world elements of rising action, climax and denouement are the first structural attributes to be dispensed with. With back and gone the video itself has no beginning or end, and in this way the work is activated by the spectator’s engagement. Gronsdahl consciously forgoes an “entertainment” sensibility in deference to a situation that each viewer must construct, inevitably with varying degrees time and engagement. As the slender, vertically oriented video projection continues to unfold near the opposite end of the corridor, an unannounced, solitary male figure lurking in shadows comes forward, establishes contact, and recedes. This simple action recalls the artist’s chosen title, contrasting with the assumption of “back and forth” by evoking notions of impermanence and mortality. back and gone: the figure is merely passing through time. Paradoxically, no matter how long one holds to this silent duration it is always fleeting, which in turn reflects upon the ephemeral nature of life itself. Herein lay the existential thrust of Gronsdahl’s piece; as the figure recedes so must we, there can be no “holding on”. Of course, for those viewers who are drawn into a longer interaction repetition is inevitable, but as with the “eternal return” the seemingly identical encounter changes emphasis in each instance. Once again, it is the spectator reflected onto the subject that changes. Cocooned in a strange sensory field, and repeatedly visited by a stranger, it is the complex implications of time itself that forms the ultimate basis of Gronsdahl’s rumination. In the moment of this self-constructed encounter time enfolds past, present and future. The past persistently haunts the present as the shifting ground of memory, just as the future preoccupies the present in the form of anticipation, and from this apprehensive melange of dynamics all security is lost to the chaotic, unknowable complexity of becoming.

David LaRiviere, 03/25/10.

[1]    “Throughput” is the moniker adopted by PAVED Arts for the media production program underwritten by the Saskatchewan Arts board New Media Initiative.

David LaRiviere received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Alberta in 1989 and later, in 1996, an MA Fine Art degree from Goldsmiths College, University of London in London, England. After returning to Canada, LaRiviere taught Contemporary Art Issues as a sessional instructor at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton while serving as the President of Latitude 53 Society of Artists. In 2000 LaRiviere moved to Peterborough, Ontario to become the Director of Artspace, a position that extended to five years when the centre was destroyed by floodwaters on the eve of his original departure date. After re-establishing Artspace through a successful insurance claim, LaRiviere left Peterborough to live and work in Montreal over the following two years. The abiding interest of his multimedia practice is nothing if not critical, but a critique taken up with a philosophy of immanence and therefore concerned with an affirmation of existence. David LaRiviere is currently the Artistic Director at PAVED Arts in Saskatoon.