Catherine Bodmer

CATHERINE BODMER: Déplacer des montagnes

Text written for the series Déplacer des montagnes presented at Expression, centre d'exposition de Saint-Hyacinthe, 2004

Five large colour photographs of back lanes and urban underpasses feature big, dirty, melting piles of snow: residue of a winter’s worth of garbage, automobile exhaust, oil and dog shit. Their banality verges on contrivance given the current obsession with things ‘everyday’. But these pictures, like the best work in the genre, surpass their aesthetic loyalties by unearthing rich deposits of imaginative and cultural material embedded in the things we deem waste.

Each snow-pile is given the name of a famous Alpine mountain, and each picture (4 X 6 ft.) has a corresponding legend or historical account reproduced as a block of 12-point text in the bottom corner. On one, a legend has the ghost of Pontius Pilate reeking havoc around a small mountain lake near Lucerne in which it is said his putrefying body was thrown. Another recounts the events of an ill-fated 19th century climbing expedition. Another discusses the 20-year existence of an Alpine commune founded on the principles of anarchism. Considering their bifurcated origins at the emotional extremities of rapture and boredom, the large digital prints are both formally elegant and surprisingly sedate.

In the early 1980’s Toronto artist Stan Dennison produced a series of photographic diptychs entitled Reminders. Basically he took pictures of places that reminded him of other places, and then he went back to record the first reference-places. Small black and white landscapes, they are always exhibited together. The hook was that the photographed scene didn’t necessarily look like the reference-place at all. I guess it’s like all pictures: you really did have to be-there.

Almost 25 years later, Bodmer’s pictures, in spite of their updated exhibition technique (museum-scale, colour/digital, mounted/installed) nevertheless share this sense of explicit inadequacy. The implicit apology (‘you had to be there’) behind photographs that can’t possibly contain the magnificence and profundity of the moment they allegedly capture is addressed in these two works and, so to speak, put up front. ‘Being-there’ according to these two artists has nothing to do with clearing the mind, casting aside worldly concerns, or revealing singular, flaming presences. No, in both Déplacer des montagnes and Reminders, ‘being-there’ or beholding anything in its richness is a cumulative process of supplementation. Rather than an emptying out, it is an overabundance: a profusion of past and present experience, acquired knowledge and proclivities. Ultimately inscrutable, the values and significances we ascribe to places and things are modulated as much by their materiality as what others have said about them, and sometimes no less by the digestive progress of a previous meal.

While ‘bored’ may be the appropriate attitude toward much of the work aligned with the discourse on the ‘everyday’, and detached coolness may seem like a good fit regarding pictures of dirty snow mounds, a decidedly engaged, even passionate response is clearly in order here. With Déplacer des montagnes Bodmer is far too concerned with evoking sublimity and ecstasy to respect her viewers’ cool. Both the emotional tenor of this work and the high contrast of its subjects correspond to the artist’s overall concern with the function and mechanics of value and waste. Who would have thought that the boundaries separating clean from dirty could be so volatile? But previous works, seemingly innocuous, addressing these concerns more directly, did actually elicit resistance and real conflict.

Consider Or, a site-specific work installed in most of the bathrooms of a special exhibition held in an abandoned hospital. Toilets, sinks and baths were half-filled with water, and covered with a thin, floating plate-like film of metallic dust. A quote taken from a 19th century alchemist was made available to viewers who read that the elevating and purifying effects of gold were being proposed as a kind of orally-ingested (and normally expelled) enema. “I imagined that once in the stomach, this Gold would penetrate the whole of the body, attaining the remotest passages, regenerating all the parts; and provoke a natural crisis followed by copious sweating, purifying the blood as well as the body […].” The idea was simple: a noble material would ennoble the body, and help it to expel the impurities of the world. Alas, not all the bathrooms available to viewers of the exhibition were available to the artist to intervene for fear her work might distract from (re: taint) other artist’s works.

Another work evoking the instability and ultimate permeability of the separations erected between clean and dirty met with similar but even more pronounced responses. When Bounce, (the title taken from the brand name of its chief material) was included in a group show at an Ottawa artist-run centre, it became the focus of a bitter internal debate on environmental purity and control (see Fluid, Jun 13/04).

While it’s true that toilets and fabric softeners are both commonly overlooked objects of aesthetic attention, Modern art history clearly privileges the toilet (cf: Duchamp). Moreover as a repository and symbol of primal waste, it is an extreme subject, and tends to evoke disgust rather than indifference. As such it may be considered within the purview of Romantic subjects. For Catherine Bodmer, romance clearly holds sway, and in Déplacer des montagnes she returns to sublime subject matter again and again. Here it is not toilets and gold, but rather heroes, mountains, utopias, and putrefaction.

Often, one thing sheds light on some other, seemingly unrelated thing. Accidents happen, and even the most faithful translation is at best, a reinvention. I may misconstrue the particular object of our conversation and respond to one of your comments inappropriately. My bizarre utterance may or may not expose the mistake, perhaps there is laughter, apologies - I get back into line and we move on. Astonishingly however the mistake might not be caught until much later, if at all, and very often, it just doesn’t matter. In fact the integrity and logical progression of our conversation, even its summary or conclusions do not necessarily suffer for lack of a clear and stable object.

If this phenomena of shifting, mutating significances, and faulty communications is a regular feature of social interaction, then it comes as no surprise that solitary experience (with no outside checks or balances) might also be conceived in layers and nuance. Me, I see Catherine Bodmer and I’m reminded of Stan Denniston.