Let’s be entirely honest, here: our aesthetic experience of sculpture, of work that moves through our world in the time-space continuum of four experiential dimensions (one of time, and three of space), by and large has little to do with the experiential at all. It’s arguable that we rarely actually experience sculpture as it was intended to be.
What we typically encounter in its place, then, is the primacy of the image. Like just about everything else in our world (including our world itself), we experience sculpture second-hand. In books, exhibition catalogues, magazines and journals, on screen…. But right in front of us? Not so much. I mean, really, how many of us have ever experienced/walked upon/touched/tasted Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty? We know it purely photographically. Or Richard Serra’s Shift, located just north of the city of Toronto and one of only two works he did in concrete rather than the Cor-Ten steel that has become his trademark medium. How many of us have trespassed on the private property of the site to go and find it, to walk it, feel beneath our feet its relationship to the landscape of its environment? We know it from its images in books, magazines and blogs – visual reports from the rare few who have sought out an encounter with it.
Or pick any sculptural work – period. Odds are we know it only through the photographic image, the two-dimensional reproduction.
That of course isn’t unique to sculpture. Any work of art at all is usually experienced thusly. And, really, sculpture gets a better crack at things than does, say, painting where thorny issues of correct color reproduction often arise, or a work becomes reduced to little more than a graphic (as could be argued has long been the case with the work of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings).
All of this preamble is by way of talking about the work of Canadian artist Carl Zimmerman. He’s chosen this central issue of the visual availability of sculpture to be the primary pillar in his aesthetic. Zimmerman, in effect, is a sculptor who largely (though not exclusively) works at it once-removed, who cuts to the proverbial chase – to the dominance of the image of the thing, rather than the thing itself.
Zimmerman lives in a relatively remote part of Nova Scotia on Canada’s east coast where he moved after having studied at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax. From the remove of his studio, he’s been generating a series of gallery installations and photo-based works that have absolutely everything to do with the sculptural, and with our experience of space and how it is shaped. A good chunk of that has to do with the aural; with the installations Beach (1997) and Interior with Musical Excerpts (1996), Zimmerman reshaped extant environments – the former a gallery space, the latter an empty office – with the sound of waves crashing on a beach for the one, and brief snippets of Ralph Vaughn Williams’s Symphonia Antarctica for the other. With little visual information to work with (a pair of handmade Art Deco speakers for Beach, and general construction detritrus, including a rolled-up carpet, for Interior…) aural signifiers became enormously important, aesthetically subverting expectations that might have assembled around the few visual cues Zimmerman made available. He was sculpturally shaping space with sound.
But his major bodies of work are built around the visual image. Photography. Lost Hamilton Landmarks (1997), Landmarks of Industrial Britain (2006), and Cold City (2010 – present) each comprise a series of photographs of unbelievably epic architectures, images of the interiors and exteriors of immense structures drawn out of some weird, parallel universe. They’re akin to the kind of mind-bogglingly vast structures envisaged by French architect Étienne-Louis Boullée in the eighteenth century, or what Albert Speer had planned for the triumphant Third Reich in the twentieth. The few figures in them are dwarfed by the vast and cavernous spaces of these Art Deco-inspired structures.
And none of them exist. These are unbuilt edifices, the product of Zimmerman’s imagination and aesthetic inspirations. They exist only as painstakingly created sculptural maquettes and models he has constructed for the sole purpose of their photography, moving them out-of-doors to expose them to natural light and backgrounds. Lost Hamilton Landmarks, documenting a fictional, alternative history of Zimmerman’s industrial hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, was strictly a photographic project – framed and wall-hung images. Landmarks of Industrial Britain was more installationally oriented; Zimmerman included four of the sculptural maquettes he used to create images of a parallel universe version of a nineteenth century London, England comprised of empty, monolithic structures. And instead of mounting the photographs of these maquetes traditionally on the wall, he constructed special tables for the gallery spaces in which the exhibition was mounted, and upon which images were laid out flat for viewing. Subversion of another convention.
Zimmerman’s current body of work, Cold City, deals with another semi-imaginary architectural landscape, a possible cityscape that twentieth century Cold War America had little exposure to: the “secret” cities of the Soviet Union, highly restricted places of military and technological significance that were situated in remote regions of the country. Again, this is maquette-based work, sculpture built so as to generate photographic imagery of Brutalist concrete structures of an unimaginable size and scale, places where the human scale – the human being – is utterly evacuated.
And it’s all sculptural – or sculpturally based – in any event. So while Carl Zimmerman may destabilize some conventions, his work actually fits right in with “tradition”. After all, aesthetic experience of sculpture has predominately been via the image. Zimmerman’s work just makes that a front and centre issue.
By Gil McElroy
More information at www.carlzimmerman.ca