New Body

Interview with Michael Dumontier

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By Rob Wakshinski

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Rob WakshinskiOne of the things I like about your art is its openness—you leave a lot of room for the viewer to discover what these things you make are trying to communicate.  There doesn’t seem to be any heavy handed messaging going on.  It almost seems like we are discovering what these objects “mean” right along side you.  Is that a fair assessment?

Michael Dumontier:  Openness is a nice way to put it. I found a quote by Louise Bourgeois recently that gave me great relief---She said “I do not know the why and I do not need to know the why, to do my work”. I think most artists probably work this way, but it’s an empowering affirmation. There is so much unexplained about the process of making art, and more and more I’ve given myself over to that mystery. I’m often left with things I’ve made that I don’t completely understand. I am standing outside with you, as you say. When I collaborate, or work with a fabricator, or go to the studio when sleep deprived, I am giving up some control. If I’m lucky, the result is that I can look at the finished work with some objectivity.

I think you can have intention as an artist, but the meaning, and what the work is actually communicating, isn't really in your control. Meaning will reveal itself over time, and change. The goal is to be surprised---to surprise myself, and maybe learn something.

RW:  This “openness” seems to extend to the title of the show.  “New Body” works on a bunch of different levels.  Obviously this is a “new body” of work, but it also seems appropriate in the sense that one of the things that appears to be missing from your work, and I think intentionally so, is the depiction of the human form, the body itself.  In focusing your work on the depiction of every day inanimate objects, it seems like you are giving voice, or a “body,” an essence, to things that we don’t generally think of as having one.

MD:  I have consciously removed the figure from my work---there is no flesh---but the body is often present through its absence or through the anthropomorphization or activation of those inanimate objects----A chair, a shirt, eyeglasses----Holes in the walls as tired eyes. I’m also thinking more these days about the viewer’s body in relation to these objects.  Though it hadn’t occurred to me until you asked about the title, the eggs and sprouts that are in the show quite literally represent new bodies---new life.

RWThere is a lot of transformation going on in your work—things are never as simple as they appear.  What appears to be a piece of paper turns out to be made of wood, or a red sock lying on the ground is made out of metal.  I also like that these “things” you are making aren’t mere depictions, but instead exist in our world, in a way that a painting or a drawing does not.  Is this transformation an important part of what you are doing?

MD:  I’ve become less interested in making drawings and paintings as I’ve become more interested in material and scale, and how these things can exist physically in the world. To think my cast iron sock could sit on someone’s floor beside a real bit of laundry makes me happy.

Material transformation is just another strategy to transform or energize the object. Cast iron, or steel, or brass, or wood, or fabric, all have different properties and energies that I can play with. When I make a nail out of aluminum, I can easily bend it, and that bending becomes a new kind of mark making for me.

Now that I’ve started to fabricate things, I work with people and machines that might normally be making tractor parts. I love the connection between those objects and processes, rather than a hermetic studio practice---even though I’m way more comfortable hiding.

 RW:  I know you have a pretty extensive collection of books, particularly children’s books.  What about them interests you, and how does that inform your own work?

 MD:  I started collecting kids’ books for the artwork. At first, I was mainly into books from the 1950’s and 60’s. Modernism’s influence and the printing limitations of that period lead to some beautiful and surprising graphic decisions. Sometimes I’d isolate a tiny detail found in an illustration and use it as a starting point for a work of my own.

 When I had kids, and started really reading these books, my priorities changed. It wasn’t just about the art anymore. I would have to return to these books over and over again and I became really aware of the form. A children’s book has fixed parameters and that makes every small decision important. For me, the best of these books combine love, humour, graphic simplicity, and maybe a bit of melancholy.

 RW:  What about music?  I know you like a lot of different types of music, but one of the interests we both share is an appreciation of Gospel music.  I’m not a very religious person myself, but there is something very powerful about the devotion and faith expressed in this music.

 MD: I think it’s the same reason I’m attracted to a lot of devotional or visionary art. Faith and purpose become tangible through art. That focused intention creates a real energy that I admire, and desire. I am not a religious person either, but the music is undeniably transcendent for me.  I once titled an exhibition The Middle of the Air(MKG127, 2012). It’s a cropped lyric from the gospel standard Ezekiel Saw the Wheel. In the song, the reference is to the sky where a vision took place. Taken out of context, those words refer to an impossible space, an unknowable thing—maybe isolating that detail gets me closer to what I’m looking for in the music to begin with.

 RWThese new kinetic pieces made with clock motors are quite calming/ hypnotizing.  You have a history of making kinetic art/sound sculptures, and from the videos I have seen of your early installations, they were quite chaotic, and gloriously so.  These seem much quieter, more pensive but equally powerful. 

MD:  Those earliest machine installations were made with my friend Tom Elliott. That work was my first real collaboration and it was about discovery through experimentation and improvisation. We were working with found objects and combining them in whatever way we could to create sound---any sound---A joyful noise.

Those installations were like gardens that needed to be constantly tended to, to keep them alive, but it could be frustrating for that reason, to keep fixing and rebuilding, and to worry about fires.

I continued with this work on my own, making instruments and sound-machines, but that work fell away over time as I focused on other things. These new clock pieces mark a return to kinetic work. I missed it. Now, it’s controlled. The clock movements I use are silent and reliable. For me, these pieces do have a calming effect. A clock would normally make me anxious.

It’s kind of like I’ve transitioned from punk to new age.

RW:  Okay, one more question.  There are a few things that seem to reappear in your art, themes if you will.  I won’t ask you about all of them, but two that seem really important, at least to me, are Eggs and Clocks.  Actually, if you think about it, they are sort of connected.  Are they connected?  I mean, I guess everything is connected.  Actually, that seems to maybe be one thing your work is “about.

MD: The egg is a perfect form. It’s an object that can be represented by its shape alone. No other information is required. And everything is there already in terms of meaning, so it’s a perfect starting point. A clock is similar in terms of inherent meaning. In my life, time is at the center of everything, causing all sorts of problems. I guess that’s the case for everyone.

Rob Wakshinski is an artist who lives and works in Winnipeg.