John Armstrong

Artes Moriendi: Carlo Cesta, Lisa Neighbour, Fastwürms
Toronto Sculpture Garden

Although the artists in “Artes Moriendi” do not appear to have set out to engage any single tradition of burial, their three outdoor installations are framed by St. James Cathedral, across the street from the Toronto Sculpture Garden. As noted in Dai Skuse's catalogue text, the installations become the cathedral's absent churchyard cemetery. The cathedral, the seat of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto, may be considered emblematic of mainstream western religion in its reluctant decline; it and the King Street East neighbourhood — Little Trinity Church, Enoch Turner School House, St. Lawrence Hall — embody the staid and Anglo in Toronto's history. “Artes Moriendi” replaces the carved-in-stone conventions of burial traditional to such a location with a cobbling together of references that signify and question the presence of absence — call it the soul.

Carlo Cesta has created an open-work, wrought iron cage at about the scale of a modest family mausoleum. The end walls are divided into six panels to form a sampler of elaborate wrought-iron designs. Inside the structure, seven square panels of Plexiglas in a Mondrian palette of red, white and blue are mounted perpendicular to the walls at various heights creating the impression of the modular, moderne design found in post-war trade show or exhibition display. Six seed-filled bird feeders are suspended from the grid across the top and the whole structure is bolted on to a concrete pad set into the Sculpture Garden's lawn.

Cesta's small architecture may be seen as a mausoleum of architectural practice constructed like a babushka doll — in successive, discrete layers: the pan-national, universalizing culture of modernism is enclosed within the neighbourhood vernacular of wrought iron, which is in turn surrounded by a nostalgic reconstruction of civic history in the form of the Sculpture Garden's own twee copy of a Georgian-period wrought-iron fence. Although this could be interpreted as the triumph of a more authentic and populist craft over an oft-maligned modernism, Cesta appears to cast doubt on this. No sooner has the modernism of the twentieth century been put to rest than its squeaky-clean simulacra will rise again — as surely as the Sculpture Garden's reproduction nineteenth-century gate is unlocked every morning.

Lisa Neighbour's human-scale monument resembles a poised and festooned gyroscope. It is composed of two perpendicular steel bands which are bolted together at mid point. The artist has strengthened the structure by further connecting the bands with taut aircraft wire and turnbuckles — perhaps suggesting, in a bricolaged wink, the precarious tension of a Constuctivist-mode sculpture in the order of a Mark Di Suvero. Inside each band, the wire and turnbuckles are again used to create a spoke pattern through which is laced a spiral of tubing containing red or white lights. Pressed-tin rosettes, spatter painted in blue or orange, adorn the outside of each band. The vertical band is surmounted by a cast-metal curlicue.

Neighbour has engaged the sacred through a paradoxical juxtaposition of the secular and religious. She uses the wire not only structurally but also to play out a gesture of elegant sculptural formalism, while the metal rosettes recreate the generous, unsophisticated ornamentation of a folksy side-altar. The bands may be seen as alluding to the Catherine Wheel, with the spikes replaced by flowers. Perhaps allusion is also made to the mystical marriage between Catherine and the infant Christ, signaled in many representations by the wedding bands they each wear. Neighbour's two intersecting bands form crosses, the symbol of Christ's crucifixion. The weightiness, and downright horror, of death and torture chronicled in Catholic mythos are spiritualized by the Catholic Church, raising doctrine to the mystic. Alternately, Neighbour undermines and concretizes Christian iconography each night when the neon transforms the work into two intersecting spirals of light — a fairground ride and neon-bright advertisement.

Fastwürms' prefab greenhouse — quoting traditional French glass and metal sepulchers — contains a pageant of objects associated with funerary ritual. Inside the greenhouse, a cairn of field-stones is connected with a cord to a bronze bell that is cantilevered off the crown of a weeping birch. The birch's root ball is sewn into a red army-surplus hospital blanket that is set into a plastered, partially exposed hole in the ground. Light leeks out from the interior of the cairn and some of the stones are painted red and arranged in a simple pattern. The artists reference a European practice of leaving the deceased with a cord attached to a bell to be able to raise an alarm in a case of premature burial.

The ritual bell and ever-glowing cairn recast the fear of being buried alive as a macabre carnival event. Rather than marking the passage of the soul, the cairn engages our fascination with death as we peer down through the stones into a light that caricatures the afterlife. The cairn's staged sheltering of an incandescent presence is repeated in the greenhouse's protection of the ceremoniously planted birch sapling. The sapling may indicate both nature and theatre. Although the weeping willow is the tree most often associated with burial, the weeping birch suggests the theatre of the Victorian garden where Camperdown elms, weeping beeches and weeping birches were cultivated to impart the melancholy and the picturesque. (Birches have been a sort of leitmotif in Fastwürms's work.) The artists have set aside death and the natural as cultivars of cultural pathos.

“Artes Moriendi” is a vaguely saccharine if not ironic evocation of a cemetery: the birds fluttering about Cesta's bird-feeders touchingly intone a soul's journey; Neighbour's coloured lights evoke the festive, gesturing a less sombre cultural attitude towards death; Fastwürms's greenhouse environment rescues a small, prolific section of grass from the winter's chill. Yet the pigeons and sparrows that scramble for seed on the concrete beneath the feeders are as specific to an urban park as strings of lights or a sodded lawn. The city is insinuated in these works as a palimpsest: layers of transparent facades contain each other in mute cycles of loss and renewal.

C Magazine 38, Summer 1993