Okay, so I start, at the titular level, with a cosmological reference: the idea of the missing mass in the universe, that those all-important galaxies strewn throughout the cosmos (and within one of which we exist) don’t seem to contain enough mass to account for galactic rotation. Herein was born the idea of “dark matter.”
I choose it as a metaphor, as a way into writing about the work of Canadian sculptor Allyson Mitchell (www.allysonmitchell.com). Toronto-based, she teaches at York University there, the same institution where she obtained her B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. She’s shown her work widely (and I’m really doing her a disservice by calling her a sculptor, for her work is truly inter-disciplinary and encompasses performance, film, and video) across North America and Europe. It’s an extensive body of work she’s produced, and I want to focus on but a small slice of it, an installational work, shown in solo exhibitions in Canada and the United States, entitled Ladies Sasquatch.
In a narrow and superficial way, the title pretty much explains it all: the installation largely comprises six enormous sculptural figures (the titular sasquatches, all of them female – as Mitchell describes them, “lesbian feminist sasquatches”), with a greater number of comparatively tiny figurative works. Images of the installation tend not to do Ladies Sasquatch any justice, for the figures are all grouped and arranged around a central fire in various poses, and the subdued gallery lighting, the deep shadows cast, lend great visual drama to the scene.
There is meeting occurring, here, and not merely a gathering. There are narratives in place, stories these creatures tell. Mitchell has written that “Ladies Sasquatch is meant to work as a point of departure for thinking about decolonized, queer, politicized bodies, sexuality and communities,” and that the work is based on such diverse sources as Playboy magazine photographic images from the 1970s, and the bodies of actual living lesbian activists.
All critically important, all meaningful at levels that extend well beyond the aesthetic. And that’s the importance of Mitchell’s sculptural work: it isn’t in a tight, self-referential aesthetic orbit that excludes or minimizes engagement with the real world. Her sasquatches constructed of textiles, appliqué, and even actual taxidermic supplies such as would be typically used in the stuffing and mounting of trophy fish and game – as well the tiny woodland critters that accompany them, some in the most literal way as they roam across individual bodies – are visually expressive constructs, to be sure, “magnifications,” meaningful caricatures, etc. They are truly individuals. And in being so, they carry a hefty load of potential meaning at social, political, and even scientific levels.
No, I’m not a believer in the sasquatch myth (though I will hasten to add that neither am I a believer in the notion that somehow the natural sciences have pretty much gotten a complete grasp of the total extent of what comprises the creaturely world). Rather, I want to suggest that Allyson Mitchell’s sculptural work – intentionally or not – proffers an engagement with metaphors based on large cosmological ideas related to the concepts of dark matter and the universe’s missing mass – oh, and the holographic universe too.
Okay, that sounds a bit weighty, I’ll admit, but bear with me if you can. I mentioned missing mass at the beginning of this blog, and so I’ll come back to it first, the idea that things at a cosmological level aren’t quite what they might initially appear, and that there appears to be stuff missing. And maybe that “stuff” is stuff we cannot see – dark matter.
So Ladies Sasquatch. There’s a working metaphor available, here. At the near level, it suggests that there is of course more to Mitchell’s sculptural creatures than meets the eye. They overtly seem threatening – they are enormous, and they do rather loom – but time spent with them suggests that there is so much more to them than merely that exterior shell of visual identity. Alas, we tend to assign so much to looks, to appearances, that we miss the “dark matter,” the missing mass, of creaturely identity.
But it goes much deeper than this, for every work of art is essentially unknowable in its entirety, isn’t it? Layers of meaning and interpretation accrete around an aesthetic object, sometimes to be wiped away, but always new layers, new meanings inevitably gather. We can consider only the overtness of Mitchell’s sasquatchs – the materials of their making, the frankness of their sexuality evident in their poses, the social interactions of their togetherness – but we can, simultaneously, engage them at even more intense levels for which the aesthetic provides a gateway, dig into the dark matter of this microcosmic universe. It’s there for us to do. It’s available.
And then there’s the other metaphor that I’ve pilfered from cosomology, that of the holographic principle, which at one level utterly upends my previous argument. Born of the unproven postulations of string theory, it suggests that the information of a volumetric space can be completely described within the constraints of a two-dimensional surface. I know, I know – I’m really pushing, here. But I’m trying to suggest alternative paths for fully engaging with a hugely complex work like Ladies Sasquatch. The aesthetic, social, cultural, and political information is pretty much all there, essentially inscribed or encoded within the two-dimensional surface that encompasses each sculptural work; mass plays perhaps no more than a literally supportive role for these engaging creatures, but ultimately isn’t it illusional, just there to carry the weight of surface meaning? Despite everything I’ve previously said, we do after all interpret and find meaning in appearance, don’t we? We create depth and dimension from the skin of surfaces. And Mitchell’s are exquisite surfaces, complex and multi-faceted, rich and fecund with possibilities.
Ladies Sasquatch can exist as something monstrous in our thinking, in our imagination, or it can more as easily take the rich and fecund shape of what Allyson Mitchell herself called “a kind of queer utopian dream world.”
We can ponder long upon its dark matters.
By Gil McElroy