Closing the Circle: Ernest Daetwyler


Ernest Daetwyler, Ice Bubbles

You can blow soap bubbles in the wintertime, and do it outdoors; it’s not just a summertime, outdoors thing. If you do it carefully enough, you can watch the completed bubble begin to freeze. But there’s a catch: the bubbles, alas, don’t last very long. Freezing creates cracks, and cracks allow trapped air to escape, and, well, you can figure out the rest.

I first encountered Canadian artist Ernest Daetwyler’s work, in the form of his bubbles, in 2004 on the frozen surface of a lake in northern Ontario (while he maintains no website of his own, examples of his work are easily found via a Google or here. It was the first iteration of the biennial “Ice Follies” exhibition in which a number of Canadian artists are invited to respond to the seasonal challenges and promises, and the geography of a large, shallow (and incredibly scenic) lake around which the small city of North Bay has grown. Until this series of exhibitions began, the only structures that might be found strewn across the lake’s icy expanse would have been fishing huts, small shelters resembling outhouses usually mounted on skids so as to facility easy and rapid movement from one spot to another as well as removal.


Ernest Daetwyler, Time Bomb

Some of the sculptural work shown that first year was clearly and directly based on this ubiquitous winter thing. Daetwyler’s contribution, Ice Bubbles, made for an interesting variant on the theme: a series of five bubbles, all made from skins of translucent bubble wrap with shape provided courtesy a series of curved steel ribs rising from small wooden bases. One was tiny, the others only just big enough to crawl into (the bubble wrap could peel away in one spot to allow entry)–ice huts, of a sort, providing some shelter from the harsh winds scouring the broad surface of the lake, shaking and yielding somewhat to its icy gusts (but holding fast).

But shelters they were not. Dream Catchers – a First Nations creation, a wooden hoop within which a web is woven – hung suspended within. These were spaces to dream in (or about), little more than actualized translucent membranes for the making of metaphor. I consequently tend to think of Daetwyler’s work in terms of closing the circle, both literally and metaphorically


Ernest Daetwyler, life is but a dream

Ernest Daetwyler is a Swiss-Canadian multi-disciplinary artist who studied sculpture in Italy and Switzerland before moving to Canada two decades ago. His work is exhibited regularly across Canada, and he has shown internationally. He is one of the founders of CAFKA, The Contemporary Art Forum Kitchener and Area, a biennial exhibition in southern Ontario (

When I summon forth the notion of the closing of the circle as critical in his work, it has pretty much everything to do with the fact that the bubble – the orb, the sphere, the three-dimensional iteration of the circle – figures centrally in a number of his works. For the 2006 exhibition “Your Place or Mine?”, he installed a series of bubbles in the proverbial white cube of the Durham Art Gallery, all of varying sizes, some at floor level, some at the ceiling as if they’d become unmoored and drifted off. life is but a dream is another variant on the bubble: a piece that could be likened to an early satellite, a version of Sputnik, comprising a small central sphere sprouting numerous arms going off madly in all directions, all of which collectively manifest the circumference of a bubble, and each of which ends with a small electronic component that responds interactively to the presence of gallery-goers. Outside, he’d strewn his bubbles in a forested landscape at different heights), one suspended from a single long cable so that it swings, articulating space with a ride-along passenger ensconced within.


Ernest Daetwyler, Forest Cell (installation detail)

These are all spherical works with an aesthetic and structural lightness to them, in keeping with the dream aspect of his Ice Bubbles. Weight and mass are to be found elsewhere, in a work called Time Bomb, a spherical sculpture he constructed for an exhibition in Germany that is almost 4 meters in diameter and composed of thousands of individual pieces of discarded wood. Situated outdoors, it rises from a single point of contact with the earth (and so seemingly about to topple from the hillock on which it rests, ready to roll away in one direction or another), one of the few such works he’s done in which a foundation is aesthetically fundamental. Daetwyler’s bubbles are, with a rare exception, foundation-less, and lack an aesthetic sense of permanence, of rigidity and lastingness. Bubbles, after all, tend to burst. They aren’t here to stay.

Time Bomb is (clearly) no bubble. It’s a sphere of an entirely different order. It’s in-your-face threatening and devoid of the quietness, the stillness of Daetwyler’s smaller, translucent bubbles. Despite its elemental geometry, it is visually shaky, unkempt, incomplete, and really rough around the edges. It is noisy and disruptive. In virtually every way, it is counter to his bubbles, their utter antithesis. The circle closes, here, in an entirely different way than it does in Ice Bubbles, shutting out and excluding reverie. It’s aesthetically authoritarian, brutally imposing itself upon its landscape rather than gently alighting upon it.

Daetwyler is currently at work on The Boat Project, a site-specific permanent sculpture commissioned by McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario for the McMaster Museum of Art’s Artist Garden (see It’s a piece that employs large pieces of scavenged driftwood transformed into a vessel form.

Shades of Time Bomb.
But aesthetically unmoored. Like Ice Bubbles.

By Gil McElroy

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