One of American poet Wallace Stevens’s best-known poems was entitled “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself.” The poem famously ends with the line “It was like/A new knowledge of reality.”
And when I read that, I think of Adrian Göllner. More accurately, I think about his work. Göllner is an artist based in the city of Ottawa, Canada’s capital, and his work of the past several decades has had everything to do with ideas of things, and the things themselves, and always – always – has to do with shaping a new knowledge of reality.
Göllner accomplishes that by being non-specific. Actually, by being medium non-specific. He’s not a painter, though he paints. He’s not an installation artist, though he does installations. And he’s not a sculptor, though he does sculpture. He does light, too. And sound as well. We’ll get to that, but first some background.
Göllner’s a Fine Arts graduate of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario (and is currently in the midst of pursuing his MFA), and over the course of his career to date he’s worked through and in numerous mediums. In a show entitled No, No Joe mounted in Tennessee in 2004, for instance, he used signage vinyl tape and lettering to visually graph and on a gallery wall a timeline correlating the hit songs of country singer Hank Williams and American nuclear weapons testing done in the 1940s and ‘50s.
Working more ephemerally, he once blew smoke. Handel’s Cloud (2011) comprised a visual and aural installation in an old Gothic church involving puffs of white smoke emanating from high in the vaulted ceiling that were timed to coincide with the enormously slowed-down music of the titular composer’s masterpiece, The Messiah.
And light. Well, Göllner’s worked with it more than once, including an outdoor installation entitled Rain Barrels in the city of Vancouver during the Winter Olympics of 2010, and, several years before that, with a permanent installation, Harbinger, mounted atop a condominium tower in downtown Toronto. It omprised a “beacon” of light that flashed a two-storey high column of colour that was determined by the speed of the wind around the building – blue for calm, deep red for dangerous winds.
Maybe that paints something of a picture of the range of work Göllner does. Or a bit of it, anyway. More recently clay – ceramics – has begun to figure in a fascinatingly conceptual way.
Since 2013, actually. Well, the artefactual, created things of clay date back to then, but the idea of the things dates much further back. To 1982, for it was then that Göllner watched an interview with an archaeologist who put forward an astounding idea: that ancient pottery vessels harboured within them the actual sounds of ancient culture as it occurred within the acoustic environment of where and when it had been made; that somehow, the turning of a clay vessel on a pottery wheel managed also to inscribe the aural world of the time in the wet mud being shaped by a human hand.
It’s an idea that’s long since been dismissed, but it stuck in Göllner’s mind, and in 2013 he finally did something about it. Collaborating with Ottawa-based ceramist Carolynn Pynn-Trudeau, who created the actual vessel forms, Göllner devised a recording apparatus akin to that invented in the late nineteenth century by Thomas Edison. A makeshift cylinder into which sound is fed is attached to a needle that responds to the vibrations, inscribing a track like that on a vinyl lp into the leather-hard surface of an unfired clay vessel as Göllner manually rotates it around its central axis.
And the choice of what was recording ranges from the mundane to the more aesthetically elevated. Titles of works are self-descriptive: Vase with Sound of Child’s Voice, Vase with Sound of Man Coughing, Vase with Sound of Alarm Clock Ringing… All the conceptually mundane on the one side is contrasted on the other with Vase with Sound of Summer Rain, Vase with Sound of Canary, and Urn with Recitation of Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn. .
Just looked upon as visual things, the works of Vase Recordings strongly resemble modernist ceramics of the mid to late-twentieth century: monochromatic in colouration, with bands of inscribed, slightly wavy parallel lines horizontally encircling each vessel. There is the inevitable evocation of, say, the gridded paintings of Agnes Martin that brilliantly epitomized late 20th century modernism. But Göllner’s is the inscribed lineage of sounds, albeit ones unlikely to ever be transposed back into an aural medium. Unlikely, but not impossible.
Vase Recordings is currently an ongoing concern of Göllner’s. Being non-medium specific, though, means clay won’t end up the be-all and end-all of his aesthetic output, for, no matter the strictures of Wallace Stevens, he has some very definite ideas about the thing.
And about a new knowledge of reality.
Just watch. And perhaps listen. And…
By Gil McElroy