I first encountered the work of Canadian artist Ilan Sandler in the summer of 2004. By “encountered,” I mean the experiential thing, not the second-hand meeting of a sculptor’s work – the mere seeing of it – in an image. This is an important distinction at so many levels, but for me it had to do with a meaningful encounter with scale. With big.
Sandler was showing a single work at the Toronto Sculpture Garden, a site that for decades typically programmed a couple of exhibitions a year on a tiny parcel of land (once a small parking lot) in the heart of downtown Toronto that comprised a grassed area, a walkway, and an artificial waterfall in one corner. Double Storey sat on the lawn facing the brick walkway and an adjacent building. “Facing” too is an important distinction to make, because Sandler’s piece was a chair. A really really big chair.
It was a lawn chair, to be more exact – or the metal frame of one, to be even more precise about it. And to be perfectly precise, it stood 18 feet high and was created from stainless steel tubing. It made for a kind of ungainly, even awkward presence in the garden, despite the pointed link between lawn chair and, well, lawn. It’s a “backyardy” sort of thing, a relic, actually, of an earlier era, one that’s been supplanted, by newer, cheaper technologies. But they were ubiquitous things, these folding metal-frame chairs, and are still kicking around in large supply. What was missing from Sandler’s outsized sculptural iteration of a cultural icon was the woven webbing that formed the (uncomfortable) back and seat of the chair. It was always the first thing to go on the real thing anyway, and so here Sandler proffers it barebones, as something skeletally akin to a sort of aesthetic fossil, looming over the street just beyond the confines of the garden. Giants may have lived here. More precisely, sat here.
Sandler has worked with sculpturally enormous chairs since – on a beach in Denmark in 2011 (where the metal tubing was encased in see-through polycarbonate sleeves into which sand was packed, allowing tiny beach critters to worm their way within and utilize the sculpture for home, work, or, presumably, play); and with School Chair, a 2013 public art commission done just across the harbor from Halifax, Nova Scotia (where Sandler now lives) for a former school transformed into a residential building in downtown Dartmouth.
So not surprisingly, scale tends to be a major factor in Sandler’s work. So too, it turns out, is language – or text, to be yet again precise. The Book is a permanent installation Sandler undertook for a downtown public square in the city of Mississauga, Ontario, adjacent to the municipality’s library in 2016. There’s a slight bit of a kinship to sculptor Richard Serra’s work, here, for Sandler utilizes heavy-gauge sheet steel for the work’s vastly oversized pages, steel that evokes a pliancy. There are two components to the piece: the titular book itself, its pages ruffled (that material pliancy coming through) as though being turned or blown about by wind, set balancing on the bottom edge of the back cover, and the oversized single sheet of a page several feet across from and facing it, as if torn from the book and itself somehow positioned standing upright. So there’s naturally a dialogue between the two components, facing off against one another, and (as Sandler himself notes), a kind of anthropomorphized duet in progress. And being a page and a book, naturally words, letters and even symbols come into play, cut into the steel so that light passes through, shadows can be cast, meaning can be had for the cost of attention. “The steel book,” Sandler writes, “is a monument poised between eras in the evolution of thought.”
What’s Your Name? is a piece that’s five years older, a precendent work with text cut into sheet steel, marking the real beginnings of Sandler’s aesthetic engagement with language. It too was a commission, one done for a school board in Ontario and installed at the North Toronto Collegiate Institute. It’s a kind of sculptural lean-to made of two books forms set spines downward, their pages splaying out above creating a space between through which one can walk (and, of course it’s big – like The Book, it towers at over 13 feet in height), it comprises pages of the printed names of the students who attended the school over the years, as well as signatures in cursive of current (at the time of the sculpture’s creation in 2011) students and faculty.
As the scrawl of cursive writing is unique to an individual (for those still able to write that way, anyway), so too is the human fingerprint. A singular signifier, cut from a single large sheet of steel, The Left Index rises up, almost tree-like from its source, inscribing identity via an enormous and almost abstract whorl of patterns readable (and hence utile) in biometric identification. It’s part of a larger series that will, when complete, comprise Sandler’s ten fingerprints.
This is work a long way from Double Storey; seeing it in relation to The Left Index, there’s a kind of innocence in it that is lost as we move into issues surrounding personal identity. Handwriting may have once formally denoted it, and, oh sure, fingerprint identification has been around forever, long predating the Cold War technology that gave us the folding lawn chair. But now it’s becoming socially and politically ubiquitous – as was the lawn chair to mid-20th century America, it seems, so too is biometric identification to this, our still rather brand-new 21st. Ilan Sandler would have us note the correspondences, for they are meaningful.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
By Gil McElroy