Time, Travel, and Trial in the Work of Jason de Haan

Sitting down to read an epic novel is to relive an epoch, embark on a long journey – it’s not enough to sit back and leisurely drift through the pages; it is a commitment. Like watching an HBO television drama, one is expected to be proficient with the story, to know the characters and the subtleties of the plot. Much of contemporary art, too, relies on assumptions of viewers’ learned appreciation, complemented by artist texts, wall vinyls, and reams of other data about the framed topic. Yet this background information to the work, which may be effective in building narratives and supporting the artist’s vision, often leads these same artists towards obscure narratives, indulgences with history, and anecdotal references, leaving the viewer outside the story. This tactic provides little contemporary content or insight to the present, and, as Dieter Roelstraete wrote (in a recent e-flux article), provides “much less to excavate the future.”

Jason de Haan’s work, which has been on view concurrently in three Ontario venues this fall – Everywhere Ghostly is Nowhere Bodily at Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery; Free and Easy Wanderer at Clint Roenisch Gallery; and in the group show Somebody Everybody Nobody at Scrap Metal – certainly requires the viewer to be present and alert, so as not to miss important details. Where it might be useful to know that the metallic sphere in Cannon Ball (2012) is composed of coins from all the world’s current currencies, at other points, de Haan uses posters, shoes, humidifiers, and other familiar objects in unexpected ways, making his work seem accessible and somewhat unassuming. Experiencing his work is like picking up a classic novel that one has never (but perhaps should) have read. The series Future Age (2014) brings nursery trees inside galleries: a weeping willow at Clint Roenisch Gallery and a cherry tree at KWAG. Looking up, the keen observer will notice a single gold ring, hanging loose and high on a thin branch. But noticing the ring (which may be rewarding in itself) is just an introduction to the work, for the encounter between the ring and tree has barely happened. This piece occurs in the present as much as it will occur in the future; where the viewer is encouraged to imagine the possibilities of what it is or could be – will the branch grow out, as the ring’s grip tightens? Will the ring ultimately break off the branch, will the bark completely cover the ring, or will there remain a golden glimpse of its presence? How this work will unfold is impossible to predict, and in its slowness it is difficult to project an end point – the few fallen leaves on the gallery floor could be evidence of its demise, but also its natural cycle.

The works comprising Free and Easy Wanderer (Red River) (2014), each composed of a fossil atop a humidifier atop a fitted concrete plinth, also stretch beyond the present. The seven assemblages at Clint Roenisch Gallery stand like primitivist figures, enveloped in their own moist continuous exhales, with their long extension chords, like feeding tubes, draped untidily across the space. The vapor-filled gallery space is reminiscent of an intimate ecosystem (a greenhouse, or a museum) with its climate-controlling devices and strange organic specimens. Fossilization occurs when water replaces buried bone fragments, and minerals carried in the water settle in the cracks. Concrete too needs time to solidify, to set. But here this process is countered by the damp air, which, like gentle waves, will eventually wear away edges and texture, dulling them into generic shapes, like pebbles on the shore. What we are witnessing is impossible to observe in a lifetime; it takes imagination to speed-up this drawn out encounter.

De Haan is interested in unrelenting forces and processes that slowly develop with time. When he brings them into the comfortable, static confines of a gallery, they may at first seem tamed, but actually remain active. Consider his well-known series Salt Beards (2009-13). As if by accident or as victims of a prank, found statues of heads grow salt crystals, often from the chin, like beards. This work deflates the seriousness that artifacts usually embody, re-evaluates the status of historical items, re-imagines their meaning. De Haan’s efforts often exist as part of a series, like rehearsals or trials of the same procedure (after all, no two crystallines salt beards will grow alike). Further, experiencing different iterations of the same bodies of work, at different locations, in different galleries, allows viewers to consider their functioning as moments within time, through travel.

At KWAG, a series Petrify Me (2014), rubbings on paper from different tombstones borrow letters to each spell-out the titular words. Though extracted from multiple names, the phrase speaks with a personal voice. The tombstone, as the last stop, lasting document, is used here to convey a final request, a life longing for continuation albeit in a different form. De Haan also attempts to refashion the perception of a person’s time and place, in another work on paper, the diptych Clay Stealing Clay (Pots Separated From Their Shadow) (2013) made in collaboration with Miruna Dragan. Here, a collage presents ancient pots linked together to form a shape reminiscent of an unidentifiable sci-fi device, alongside a silhouette-like pencil drawing of a confusingly similar composition of shapes, which appears like an alter-shadow of the first. De Haan takes liberties with art history that many would not. There is an amateurish playfulness in his methods, a curiosity and an unsureness as to how things work, how things fit together. He juxtaposes found objects, materials, electric devices or entire epochs, creating oppositions and strange nuanced connections. Once in a while, a work may fall a little flat, as with East Kootenay Shoe (2014) which features an old shoe filled with dirt and growing moss, sitting on top of a marble pedestal. As in Future Age, a precious and common object are paired, but whereas in Future Age, a relationship develops through time, the connection between the shoe and the pedestal is almost random, leaving one to read the work more as a one-liner. De Haan seems content to try things out through trial and error, as if he is documenting successes and failures. In his practice, he proceeds with patience and perhaps expects the same from the viewer.

Moby Dick (2009-), developed slowly, through time. Composed of 23 tightly-packed photographs hanging upside-down in two rows at Clint Roenisch Gallery, this work features de Haan in front of large bodies of water holding a book upside-down (though right-way up for the viewer). He is immersed in a six-year reading of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick upside-down and backwards. When traveling the oceans, one is always a bit more aware of the other hemisphere, of one’s orientation in relation to a compass, the stars, or the horizon. Here, each photograph, like a ship’s log, marks a visitation to the sea, documenting his voyage through the book. It is a personal journey (one never hears de Haan’s voice or the strange sounds that these upside-down-and-backwards words would make). One never feels the passage of time; his face (a reliable indicator of age) remains hidden behind the book. When I attempted reading an excerpt of Moby Dick using de Haan’s method, the words appeared more like images than text. While my eyes coasted over the shapes of words and letters, my mind (in conflict with my eyes) would stop and focus on a word or a single letter, confused by p’s and d’s, knowing the word and yet not knowing how to sound it out in its new orientation. Surely this kind of reading cannot help us extract much content out of the book. Perhaps for this reason de Haan sits on the shore, never truly embarking on the book’s content. He puts himself on the edge of what could be known, approaching the story as closely as possible, but never fully plunging in. For some authors writing from a distance is in fact preferable. In an interview, Anthony Burgess once said, “Probably (as Thomas Pynchon never went to Valletta or Kafka to America) it’s best to imagine your own foreign country. I wrote a very good account of Paris before I ever went there. Better than the real thing.” From a distance, there seems to be many available options, and one can imagine a place a million different ways. But to know is to only know in a certain way. De Haan knows this book through small glimpses, a few words here and there, he may even know the names of the characters, or the plot to some extent, but what he really knows is what it feels like to read a book for six years. He knows its smell, its font. This knowledge is a set of impressions that together form something more intimate than knowledge. It produces an awareness. De Haan’s voyage ends at the beginning, where everyone survives Moby Dick’s wrath. He moves simultaneously into the past and into the future, he moves through fiction as he moves through time, these treks and distances are as hard to comprehend as intergalactic travel.

A series of fingertips carved out of found meteorites are attached at various heights and positions to the walls of KWAG, some of them get lost in the shadows, or the white walls. One searches for them, trying to find their coordinates (as there seems to be one fewer than is listed in the floorplan). Entitled Groper (2014), de Haan leaves our fingerprints on these journeymen of the universe – minerals that may have traveled longer than the Earth has existed. Once they wandered across the galaxy, now they simply point. This is indicative of his practice as a whole; each piece is in the process of becoming, and each one’s gallery stay is temporary. Looking again at the tree and the fossils I wondered, where would these pieces be stored? Would the humidifiers still have to be running? One considers they are (at least to some degree) left to their own devices, and our imagination.

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