Corwyn Lund: “Word Count”
Koffler Gallery Off-Site, Toronto
April 25 – June 30, 2013
Curated by Mona Filip
By Heather White
The 1929 documentary Regen was all rain, no people. It was director Joris Ivens’ very niche take on the city symphony: a film genre comprising poetic montages of daily life in a given modern town. While most city symphonies glorified urban industry and romanticized the worker, Regen cropped out these socialist ideals to focus on the formal effects of water falling or fallen on Amsterdam. From his later vantage as a celebrated socialist documentarian, Ivens would see this early film as “without much content.” What was social about Regen was relegated to the periphery of process: Ivens had installed “a system of rainwatchers, friends” across the city. They would telephone to report the effects the rain was making near them. Ivens, who always had his camera prepared, was on perpetual alert for their calls.
Corwyn Lund’s monitoring of rainfall for his 2012 documentary “48 Abell St Ice Rink” engaged no such system. He watched the rain himself, and for one specific effect that would start his film rolling: he needed the rain to fall, fill the large ditch of a particular Toronto construction site, then stop. If the temperature soon dropped severely and suddenly, a temporary ice rink would emerge, thick enough that a lone skater could loop around it for hours. Camera crews would hasten to film her circuit from a spiral of ascending vantages. The skater in her independence might figure Lund in his solitary storyboarding; the artist describes wanting “to both skate on this ‘backyard rink’ and to make a video documenting it.” In the end, though, the film went unrealized.
Commissioned by the Koffler Centre of the Arts, whose programming consistently privileges site-specificity and the itinerant, Lund transmuted his unmade movie into writing. The unshot “48 Abell St. Ice Rink” became Word Count, a text that begins, as if warping time, “Video Proposal / 48 Abell St. Ice Rink.” Lund printed his 5788 words on heavy paper and pasted them in columns on the plywood hoarding that barricades public access to the 48 Abell St. construction site.
Lund is not particularly a writer. He is primarily a sculptor, versed in many materials, who might have chosen more pictorial or concrete means to convey his vision. Why, then, words? Perhaps the medium’s relative invisibility underscores the failure of the rink project to ever transpire. Lund certainly doesn’t engage words poetically – this, given the lyricism of his proposed piece, is conspicuous. Built of plain prose that details project specifications, artistic influences, and autobiography, Lund’s text is less art, more art grant proposal – and aptly. Grants are key, and their writing a pragmatic reality, for those who want to make their livings at art. Lund’s words circle the beginnings of a new condo that replaces a hub of artists’ studios, and they thematize artists’ material living conditions. He outlines, for example, his own history of displacement from a slew of Toronto apartments. The text portrays the artist, qua grant applicant, teetering between capacity and lack: accomplished, but without the requisite resources to realize his ambitions.
Of course, the proposal is a ruse; the installed text is already the finished project. So Lund also recalls the artist who confronts the sublime: defeated by his helplessness in the face of its immense power, he proceeds by turning his inadequacy into material, resourcefully spinning artwork from the threat of impending nothingness. Romantic philosophers theorized this dynamic by describing encounters with natural phenomena that overwhelmed — mountains, or the sea. In the twentieth century, Jean-Francois Lyotard reset the sublime encounter in the artist’s studio. The blank canvas was the mountain that overwhelmed the artist by flaunting the possibility of its never becoming anything, and the artist’s task was to render that threat. Necessarily, every such attempt fails and triumphs, by distancing the threat it sets out to describe. Lund’s rink substitutes for Lyotard’s canvas in that both are blank things that beg, but fail, to be glorified as such. What’s striking is that Lund’s failure wasn’t necessary, but circumstantial.
His obstacles were not existential, but logistical; the doom imposed by the forces of contemporary real estate is not especially spiritual. As Canadian cultural critic Northrop Frye noted in 1991, “the condominium….is perhaps another, well, ‘threat’ is too strong a word, but it’s something one has to cope with.” Coping is not transcending, and Lund’s work can’t, even temporarily, keep the building boom at bay. Construction continues its relentless march through Lund’s set and keeps his project perpetually in immanence. The rink-depth ditch is now a crater of machines and foundations. Audiences can peer down into it like into a crystal ball, to see building efforts proceeding – as indifferent to Lund’s installation as they were to the movie it describes. Several panels have been removed to accommodate the construction-workflow. To read the majority of the columns, viewers must see past a fenced-off buffer of brick piles, mesh rolls, and tools.
The entire text does exist, unobstructed, on a website to which an on-site QR code links. But Word Count’s best insight requires this dust and debris and dismantling: that pristine possibility can’t survive the current conditions. Lund’s movie would have been beautiful –indeed, sublime – in its rendering of “almost no content.” It’s more relevant, though, and more affecting, as a movie unmade.
-Ivens, Joris. The Camera and I. Berlin: Seven Seas Publishers, 1969.
-Shaffer, Deborah. “Fifty Years of Political Filmmaking: An Interview with Joris Ivens.” Celluloid Power. Ed. David Platt. Metuchen, N.J: The Scarecrow Press, 1992.
-Lyotard, Jean-François and Lisa Liebmann (Translator). “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde.” Artforum. 22/8. April 1984, pp. 36-43.