Here and There, Then and Now
30 October 2004 – 2 January 2005
in Gairloch Gardens
Curated by Marnie Fleming
Generously sponsored by:
We all have time machines. Some take us back, they're called memories. Some take us forward, they're called dreams.
- Uber-Morlock: from the 2002 movie Time Machine, based on the novel by H.G. Wells
British artist Janet Hodgson is intrigued with notions of copy and displacement in architecture. In her preliminary research, begun in 2001, Hodgson learned that Oakville Galleries in Gairloch Gardens (built in 1922) was actually a copy of a home in Toronto – both homes owned by Lt. Col. W.G. MacKendrick. MacKendrick modelled these homes on plans quite similar to those designed by the 19th century British architect C.F.A. Voysey. In particular, one Voysey home in Surrey, England, bears a remarkable resemblance to the two Canadian homes. Called Spade House, it was commissioned by the author of The Time Machine, H.G. Wells.
What Hodgson finds so fascinating is the obvious "wrenching of one architectural context to another" and how it creates tensions between different circumstances, traditions and assumptions. So, too, the shifts of time and space inherent in the copying of these buildings are, coincidentally, central to ideas also found in Wells's The Time Machine.
For her exhibition at Oakville Galleries in Gairloch Gardens, Hodgson confuses time, location and history of the three homes in Oakville, Toronto and Surrey. Using a combination of projected video, sound and sculptural installation, she conflates and layers one home on top of the others. This approach reveals the built environment as a series of interwoven relationships, rather than looking to the traditional discourse of form and function. By opening up the ability to view the homes in multiple ways, Hodgson, like Wells, also lays bare ideas around social issues and class.
The central figure who strolls through Hodgson's video operates in many ways like Wells's Time Traveller, who can transport himself back and forth in time with the aid of a machine. The artist uses innovative jump cuts and the properties of film to "defy" time and space. Like The Time Machine, Hodgson's work oscillates between different temporalities and spaces – creating a reactive experience brought about and mediated by the very walls of Gairloch.
MF Your new work for Oakville Galleries seems to have its origins in much earlier work. Would you agree?
JH Yes. Most of my work is site-related. I used to think there was no connection from one site to the other, but then I realized there was a consistent interest in the history of the site, its time and place, and it was about examining what is already there and reinserting the absences. Often I deal with nothingness and a lack of physicality – almost a lack of importance – looking back to history but to nothing real, nothing permanent – ghosts of nothing in the history of the place. That may seem incoherent but that's how I tend to look at it. I guess what I'm trying to say is history doesn't seem that important while it's in the making, it's only tomorrow, or later, that it becomes interesting. For me, the more ordinary something is, the more fleeting it is to capture.
MF This is exactly what you are doing for your project in Canterbury, in dealing with the archaeology of the rubbish pits.
JH You're referring to a project where I carved in lasting stone the vacancies that were left by the rubbish pits. When people go to Canterbury, it is the pomp and ceremony that interest them. But for me, it's the refuse of the common man who lived there that is more interesting. We can tell so much about how people lived through looking at what they threw away and what they ate. So it's in what is nothing, or what is insignificant, that there is something that can offer quite a bit of information.
MF Well, in a lot of this "nothingness" there is a great deal of serendipity or happenstance. Can you explain how this operates in your current work?
JH I'll try. Something else that I am interested in is the idea of the copy. A very early project I did was to look at a copy of the Parthenon in Edinburgh and then I copied it again. I'm quite interested in how something is copied over time and how time then changes things. The Parthenon is a building from ancient Greece – a canon in architecture. You can't copy it in Victorian times and have it mean the same thing, nor could I copy it with the same meaning. Displacements in architecture are never easy; the wrenching from one context to another creates tensions between different ideologies, traditions and assumptions.
So, when I came to Oakville and found out that Gairloch was a copy of another house, I was fascinated. Why was it copied? Why would somebody do this? And then, when I found out the style of the house was a copy of something else again – and that something else was the Voysey style of architecture from England - I became further intrigued by what happens in the translation. What happens when this English Arts and Crafts Movement style and the accompanying set of ideas are translated into a Canadian environment? It's like taking an idea and then you copy it here and then you copy it there. It was copied in England, copied in Toronto and then copied in Oakville. The meaning of the homes is transformed in such a way that the resulting relationships should be questioned. This furthered my interest in shifting time and place around. Really that's all I'm doing – taking the structure of the process that brought Gairloch into being and applying it to my work.
MF But it is precisely this "shifting of time and place around" that led you to a very unique happenstance with Spade House in Surrey, England.
JH Yes, it was while I was researching Gairloch and also working on another project around the time machine that I discovered that a house with remarkable similarities to Gairloch was commissioned by H.G. Wells when he was successful later in his life. It was a place in Surrey that British architect Charles F.A. Voysey (1857-1941) built for Wells when he was an invalid. It is now a home for seniors. I have always been interested in Wells and his novel The Time Machine, precisely because of how he dealt with time shifts. It was because of these coincidences that I decided to bring the two works together.
MF It must have been incredibly exciting for you that this Surrey house was, indeed, owned by Wells.
JH It was! Sometimes, in working, I say these things are meant to be and you just have to go with it. These copies – the copies of Wells's house and the notion of the shifting of time – well, I felt that there just had to be something here for me in examining temporal disruptions of space and time and conflating the imagery of all three houses.
MF In the middle gallery you have placed an object – obviously a replica of a time machine. Just looking at it, the imagination immediately bubbles with possibilities.
JH It is a copy of the time machine from the George Pal film made in 1960 (the year of my birth). Time travel is really only possible in the mind. I don't think anyone will ever time-travel because it is just too difficult. In theory it is possible, but I don't think any one person is going to do it. Scientists can make particles known as "muons" travel in time by shifting them to 99.7 per cent the speed of light in the super Hadron collider at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), but the amounts of energy required, the physical pressures on the body, and the fact that once you've gone into the future you could never come back to now, mean that the best and most accurate way to do it is through film, or in our imaginations. We construct our idea of time travel in the way that H.G. Wells described it for us. And we have to keep in mind that he was far ahead of his time. For instance, it would be another ten years before Einstein wrote his Theory of Special Relativity in 1905. Wells was able to create quite a breathtaking vision of how to travel in space-time. This was, of course, all pre-film, but it is exactly how film does it. The idea that time is a linear sequence of smaller units is the classical conceptual foundation of the film medium; a series of successive images create the illusion of the passing of time. You stay still but time moves around you, whereas, in fact, time is relative, as the old saying goes, and different times can and do exist in the same place.
MF And certainly the way Wells writes is just like time-lapse photography. I'm not sure any time-lapse experiments had been done by the time he wrote this book, so his description of the world in a speeded-up form is more than likely his sheer imagination. I think we also have to keep in mind the impact this would have had on a 19th century audience. We are familiar with these ideas now, but a century ago, treating time as a physical dimension was a new and innovative concept. Wells is also very visual in terms of describing the kinds of feelings a time-traveller would have - almost convulsing through the process of going forward or backward in time.You make no attempt to hide the fact that your Time Machine is made of cardboard covered with product branding. Why did you choose this material?
JH I think it is important to recognize that my Time Machine is a copy of the film prop. It is not a real time machine and never was, and the film prop was made from an old barber's chair and from rotary gears of old barbecues. It is the idea of what a time machine would look like. My Time Machine is made out of cardboard boxes produced by those multinational companies that produce digital equipment cheaply. The cardboard is printed with their logos, such as Sony, Hitachi, etc. These boxes once contained equipment that people use to listen to sound and watch video and film. They represent a time of digital production manipulation.
In Wells's novel, the Time Traveller discovered that, in his future, the class structure of his own time developed and diverged into two branches. The wealthy, leisure class evolved into the ineffectual, not very bright, Eloi, and the once-downtrodden working class evolved into the more bestial Morlocks who toiled underground maintaining the machinery that, in effect, kept the Eloi alive and plentiful. The story reflects Wells's political views that these races were the ultimate outcome of a capitalist class structure.
Today we have a different kind of division from the way Wells imagined the future, due to the explosive evolution of communication technologies. Multi-national corporations control a large share of the world's economies. Wells's future didn't come true - but we live in a different future in which international capital is concentrated. Further, leisure activity is no longer gazing at natural beauty but, instead, gazing at flatscreen televisions and digital gadgets. This is certainly a different future from the one he envisioned.
MF There is a phantom character who weaves in and out of the installation - who is he and what does he represent?
JH He is an unspecified character that comes from the turn of the century. His costume is very much like the one that Voysey was wearing in a photograph. He could be H.G. Wells himself, Voysey or simply the owner of the house. He could also be seen as a time-traveller, the person who has arrived on the machine. I have filmed a scene in which a flower is exchanged with a young woman not unlike Wells's version of a similar exchange with Weena, a female Eloi. The strange white flowers that were found in his time-traveller's pocket were the living proof that he did, indeed, time-travel. Yet, the way my character examines the architecture, a picture, the clothing of additional contemporary figures – the way he inspects the grounds – could equally be Voysey or Wells.
MF Perhaps we can talk about the three homes that are conflated here in your work?
JH Well, they are all based on English Arts and Crafts architecture and a very similar ground plan. Arts and Crafts style is based on a return to nature and an escape from industrialization. The Roxborough house is situated on a ravine in Toronto, while Gairloch and Spade House are close to water. I think it is significant that Wells placed the Eloi in an idyllic pastoral environment. Nowadays all three houses are really quite suburban, but they were initially situated with ideal views. The people for whom they were built were lucky to have enough money so that their views could be made to look out onto wonderful settings.
Meaning is very much embedded in this kind of architecture, but is not immediately apparent. These homes were built for a middle class who had servants, but an important innovation in this architecture was that the servants' quarters, while hidden away, were not accessed by the back stairs but rather by the same staircase used by the owner. The relationship was unequal but openly acknowledged. This of course makes links with Wells's The Time Machine and class division – he wrote about a dystopian future where the classes were so divided. However, these buildings look forward to a future that says, "We're content in this division." These buildings are about pleasure, and, now that Gairloch is a gallery, that too is arguably about pleasure.
With the homes that were built on water, the sense of time seems more acute with horizon lines that have always been there and probably looked the same to a Stone age man. Like Sugimoto's photographs of seascapes, there is a built-in preoccupation with time and its passage. Spade House and Gairloch look onto these timeless waterscapes: one the sea, the other a lake. I use their horizon lines to cut in and out of time in my film. My film is about film itself and how we move through time. It is not trying to trick the viewer but to reveal its process and make filmic time obvious, and that's the time-travel.
MF Well, it is this perception of time in film that I'd like to discuss further with you. There are contemporary artists, such as yourself, who are seeking ways in which to express different experiences of time - such as the acceleration and deceleration and the expansion and contraction of time. Who are the artists you look to for inspiration?
JH There are three major influences. Probably the earliest influence in my work is the film by Maya Deren Meshes in the Afternoon (1943), in which a dancer moved across space. By cutting the film the way she did, the dancer moved from one place to the next. Deren employs an innovative style in cutting on action where the dancer steps over disparate terrain such as sand, grass, soil and concrete. It is a very simple and creative exploration of temporality in film and what you can do with cutting. Meshes is a fine example of dream cinema's experiments in time, space and subjectivity.
In a more prosaic way, the early Bruce Nauman works (1967-68), where he walked around his studio space, are also inspirational to me because a lot of the action in my film is like his – simply walking around a space. He used duration and repetition to create an examination of his body in relation to the architectural space of his studio, bringing the viewer into the privacy of the studio space and rendering it public. The video takes you from place to place and from time to time. There is an unpacking; video and film are odd things – no matter how much you reveal of the process, its illusion is still very seductive. Like Nauman's experiments, the construction of my film is obvious and laid bare. It is my hope that the illusion will be overwhelming.
I guess this is a bit like the work of David Lynch, as well, in Mulholland Drive (2001). In this film he reveals the process of how the film is constructed. It is a movie about the movie business in that it puts film itself under a microscope. Lynch uses camera motion and technique to further the story and he does so visibly rather than invisibly. He rejects passivity and is concerned with façade and what lies below the surface. In terms of how I would like to move people through time and space and change where they are – and further, how I would like to unpack an illusion – these three are very significant influences for me.
MF What has it been like for you to work with the time-space of Gairloch in Oakville?
JH Coming from England I found Oakville so rich, so comfortable, so quiet and so numb. I kept thinking about the Eloi, who lived off the fat of the land, and it didn't seem far off from those living in comfortable situations along the lakeshore in Oakville. Every car seemed so new to me that it hardly made any noise on the road. And, of course, there was that eerie night of the power outage in August, 2003, which seemed to emphasize all this. This could have been the past! This really was time-travel because nothing worked – telephones, running water, television, no lights, no computers, no traffic and no petrol for close to two days. It was a window into another world.
MF So, where do you want your Time Machine to take us?
JH Round and round, really. I want to see what comes of this collision of copies. I want to explore notions of the past in terms of the 'where' that architecture came from and where the book came from and the kind of future it revealed as a utopia, and the present we are in. Now, the Toronto house is the home of a businessman and fairly altered, Gairloch is a public gallery and H.G. Wells's home is a private nursing home. Where do we fit – are we the Eloi or the Morlocks? Of the three homes, I wasn't able to access the interior of Spade House, as the seniors' privacy rights must be respected. Spade House has had very little alteration from the outside, but on the inside it has been extensively cut up. The seniors are in little cubicles – just enough room for a bed and the telly, (which is constantly on). This is what I mean when I say that the medium of the television has become the anaesthetic. The gaze of the inhabitants isn't out onto the sea anymore but onto the television – the escape, the travel, is now through this box.
Janet Hodgson: Here and There, Then and Now is supported by the British Council.