Meaning is messy!
exclaims a haggard old man.
“You look exhausted, what have you been doing?”
says a confused onlooker.
“Reciting the complete decimal expansion of π backward.”
So goes an old joke by Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. A beginningless individual borders on contradiction. Maybe it’s here that one of the oldest paradoxes emerges: an infinite end becomes a permanent coming into being. Embracing the ambiguity of contradiction is what lead Anaximander (ca. 610 B.C.E - 585 B.C.E.) to solving this riddle of origin.1 The subtext of this riddle shows how the anticipation of a beginning is full of possibility. Before the gunshot of a 100-metre dash, even the slowest sprinter on the line could imagine crossing the finish first. This space is generative. Here we observe meaning in the making.
What does it mean to have meaning? It is hard to even think of a way of defining meaning without giving the simple answer of “what something means.” Is meaning simply a product of the human experience that we imbue onto the world around us? After all the human is a relational being. Through this paradigm we find meaning primarily from the relationships between one another and how we are in relation to the objects around us. The idea being that a hammer is only a tool when the carpenter picks it up to use it. I’m suspicious of this explanation.
Conversely, we can also think of meaning and relation on a cosmic level in that we live in a universe where everything, eventually, can be reduced to subatomic particles crashing into each other. In 1969, Joni Mitchell wrote the lyrics “we are stardust, we are golden” for her song titled Woodstock while watching television coverage of the iconic music festival that she was meant to be performing at. Three years later, Carl Sagan riffed on Mitchell’s lyrics and declared that “we are made of star-stuff.” Here we see a synthesis of hippie spiritual existentialism and modern scientific thought. Sagan’s quote is not only unifying for its universality but it also proposes that the timescale of meaning is not necessarily dependant on the human lifespan but rather the cosmos itself.
I wonder if there is a unique element of meaning embedded in the physical material of the earth itself that is not dependent on immediate activation through relation but rather that the evidence of relation incurs in the world over time. Like water slowly eroding and creating striations within rock, this type of embedded meaning encourages a meditation on the accumulation of relation and the potential for its discovery.
For some reason, though, it is easy to get caught up in the results of a pursuit and not the process of pursuing. At the wrong end of intention we find regret in achievements that come in the wake of a loss of relation. The anxiety of running the race comes from fixating on a specific end and not being able to delight in the infinite permutations and combinations of possibility. Internalizing this idea is a work in progress.
This exhibition features work that embodies the accumulation of meaning within the materiality of the work itself. These works oscillate between the human scale and the ecological scale of meaning in order to provide a portal or shortcut for those who come to gaze upon them. In Craig Spence’s sculptural wall works, created from reclaimed housing materials, we see evidence of how childhood memory can be soaked into the drywall and wooden studs of a family home. Similarly, Shannon Garden-Smith’s site- responsive floor installation depicts embedded traces of not only the labour of the artist but also of the local community via cast shoe tread impressions into the gallery floor. Stephane Gaulin-Brown’s works on paper employ a variation of the Automatiste drawing technique where subconscious intuition guides an unfolding composition that, when completed, draws the eye of the viewer through a similar process of discovery. Finally, we see Spence’s endless column, made of construction ducts and inflatable children’s balls, exceed the boundaries of the exhibition space itself. Unsure of its terminus this work brings us back to Anaximander—the riddle of origin riddles on.