End Game

by Kenneth Hayes

The end – the point at which things spiral toward stasis, melting away, or collapsing in exhaustion – is the place to start; after all, it’s only when the work is finished that the critic has something to say. The end is also the point at which Corwyn Lund’s text, installed on the hoarding surrounding the construction site at 48 Abell St., goes strangely awry. The artist maintains an earnest and reflective tone for almost the whole of his long, detailed account of an unrealized video project featuring a solitary ice skater on a rink once spontaneously formed in the pit excavated at this site, in which a large condominium is now being erected. He concludes his text, however, with a reference to the hackneyed notion of the relative worth of words and pictures (the old 1000-to-1), and bluntly asks if the video he has described would be worth the number of words (5778) he has devoted to it. The matter must be of some importance, given the work’s title: Word Count.

Corwyn Lund, Word Count (installation view), 2013. Photo: Nick Kozak.

If this discordant end to an eloquent text is not to be dismissed as a jest or, worse yet, as a lapse in judgement, then it must be read as a coda of sorts. Indeed, the abrupt termination effectively desublimates the preceding text. It dissipates the air of delicate rumination that the work, at its outset, seems to invite, and, as it progresses, sustains and encourages. Rendering the word count of the text introduces other, purely technical, questions about the design and production of the hoarding panels – for example, how much of the perimeter of the site was available to the artist, why he chose that particular font, how he determined its size, why he failed to hyphenate words that broke across line breaks, etc. Questions of content soon follow, questions that can, perhaps, best be called editorial. What, for example, motivated the artist to compare his unrealized video project with other works of contemporary art? Did he merely want to appear au courant, relevant, “informed”? Why did he elaborate his personal history of being repeatedly displaced by post-industrial gentrification? And what is to be made of his repetition of the words “unrealized” and “unrealizable” to describe his project?

By concluding with the measure of the text, the author reveals (at the last possible instant) he is aware that his readership comprises at least two audiences, one of which will recognize the form and style of this text as those of an artist’s application to a governmental funding agency or private philanthropic foundation. Such texts aim to persuade a jury or selection committee of a proposed work’s feasibility and relevance, in part by relating the project or artistic “idea” to the applicant’s past work as well as to other contemporary works. Such a text might conclude with a statement of its length. The word count, which serves as proof that the prescribed limits have been observed, functions to ensure equal treatment by the jury and facilitates the management and evaluation of artistic propositions en masse. Lund’s installation appears to be a public presentation of a type of text that many artists write regularly (often at great pains), but which few people have the opportunity to read and the public almost never sees. Artists are, naturally, often reluctant to reveal their application texts, usually showing them only to sympathetic friends, mentors, or, if possible, to previously successful applicants.

Lund, however, has chosen to expose to public view a more-than-a-decade-old idea, and doing so in the form and language typically used to manage contemporary art, he presents the text at a large scale in the city, as a work in itself. But the key to understanding this loquacious installation is the fact that the text does not describe the actual conditions and intentions that gave it form as an artwork. By omitting all reference to his immediate ambitions in making Word Count, Lund implicitly directs the reader to imagine another text entirely, a text proposing a work to be mounted on the hoarding surrounding 48 Abell. This phantom text, existing only by corollary, would lay out all the aesthetic, ideological and pragmatic considerations involved in producing Word Count. It might, for example, situate such a gesture in contemporary art practice, locate the proposition in the artist’s evolving work, and seek to legitimize the work by reference to the impact of urban gentrification on communities of artists. In effect, Lund has made a work whose content is the proposition for an unrealized work, which, due to the construction underway, is now definitively unrealizable.

And maybe that unrealizability is a good thing. Had Lund been able to complete his video as conceived, his work might have been labelled excessive; the proposal, after all, called for fifty-five camera locations, most of them on private balconies. Aspiring to capture an overt “beauty” that is no longer assured of a positive reception, the video project risked being regarded as an epigone of Rodney Graham’s film Torqued Chandelier Release (2005). Artists, critics, and curators schooled in the gender dialectics of Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” could be expected to denounce the spectacle of a lone female skater made the cynosure of all eyes as an expression of unreconstructed male voyeurism; Foucauldians would recognize the panoptic phantasy within the first few frames.

It can only be assumed that the artist is well aware of the regressive aspects of his proposed video, but all debate on the work’s merit is moot, for the video described is not the work presented. There is no image of a woman here, no casting process to critique, no costume, no gestures, no scopic drive sated through technology. Lund, resigned to the impossibility of making the ideal, imagined work, offers instead a text-based, conceptual work. In short, he makes a constructive displacement. The actual work, which is premised on the demise of his earlier ambitions, is suffused with a sense of loss. This sense is prominent in the sombre black ground of the white-print text, which distinguishes the panels from the scattered materials of construction and infuses the installation with a generally funereal tone. The restrained font affords the installation the dignity of a monumental civic inscription, despite its inherently temporary materials and condition. This sombre mood counters the festival atmosphere that posters on hoardings normally project. The contrast between Lund’s work and the Will Alsop-designed condominium showroom immediately to the north could not be more extreme.

Corwyn Lund, Word Count (installation view), 2013. Photo: Nick Kozak.

Resigned and elegiac, Lund’s work mourns the loss of yet another instance of a sort of spontaneous or accidental urban experience that he refers to, in the tradition of Bas Jan Ader, as the miraculous. Lund often works with the quotidian marvels of the city, as he did, most notably, in Swingsite (2003–2006), a fully functional swing that he installed in a narrow, wedge-shaped gap between two buildings a dozen blocks east of Word Count’s site. In their purest form, these experiences of the miraculous are extremely difficult to reconcile with the rigours of documentation and the requirements of funding agencies, the expectations of which are reified and exposed here. Lund’s focus on elusive urban phenomena is difficult material on which to sustain a contemporary artistic practice. In this work, the intensity of one such moment is fully exposed, and something new is added: the equally intense feeling of the impossibility of making such material the basis of a work of art. This generates a powerful affect that hovers about the site. It is a sort of melancholy, and because its source is not entirely explicit, it readily attaches to various nearby and related objects. The long-standing urban factory building at 48 Abell that formerly housed a community of artists is only the most obvious. Word Count offers a surprisingly powerful monument to the lost building and community, in part because the affective flow does not end there. The work implies a wider unease with urban re-development, globalization, and climate change. By positing his beautiful idea in the form dictated by the bureaucratic management of art and then publicly displaying it on the margins of the last site in an old industrial district to capitulate to re-development, Lund conveys a newly pessimistic vision of the erosion of the aesthetic basis of urban life. He invites the reader to extrapolate beyond his admission that his unrealized video proposal is unrealizable, and to conclude by declaring it unrealistic. But if we do so, we are caught in his endgame – suddenly, unwittingly, we become the jurors who reject his proposal, and along with it, the miraculous possibilities of the city.

Click here for the full Word Count text

Corwyn Lund is an artist, currently based in Toronto, whose work explores the intersection of sculpture and site. His formative urban interventions create dynamic physical engagement between the viewer-participant and the city-at-large. Subsequent gallery-based installations continue to explore the relationship between the body, sculptural form, and context. Since training in art, design and architecture, Lund has participated in artist residencies in Banff and the Netherlands. His work has been exhibited nationally and internationally and is included in several private, public, and corporate collections. Lund is represented by Diaz Contemporary in Toronto.

Kenneth Hayes is an architectural historian and a critic of contemporary art. In 2008, he published a book titled Milk and Melancholy with Prefix ICA and MIT Press, and in 2010, he completed a PhD in architectural history at Middle East Technical University in Ankara Turkey.

Design: Tony Hewer | Editing: Kathy Daymond | Photos: Nick Kozak
Digital publication to the exhibition Corwyn Lund: Word Count
Presented by the Koffler Gallery Off-Site at Epic Condominium Development
48 Abell Street, Toronto
April 25 to June 30, 2013  | Curator: Mona Flip

© Koffler Centre of the Arts, 2013, in collaboration with the individual contributors.
All rights reserved. ISBN 978-0-920863-98-5.