B.C. Binning and Alvin Balkind Galleries
Kevin Schmidt’s solo exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery presents a survey of recent works including two major new pieces, EDM House and High Altitude Balloon Harmless Amateur Radio Equipment, both made in 2013.
Schmidt is an artist who has consistently developed a body of work that addresses notions of a displaced spectacle, often within a consideration of the sublime. This ongoing proposition is tackled not so much through exclusive references to landscape, of being awestruck at the point of apprehending such beauty and wilderness, but by juxtaposing seemingly disparate elements within these environments. Works are often situated in remote locations, where Schmidt stages remarkable events which transfer elements of urban culture into untouched natural contexts. In this way, he simultaneously examines both the seductive elements of contemporary cultural production and the constructions that surround the idea of nature.
Commissioned by Fogo Island Arts, EDM House was produced by the artist over five months during the winter of 2013, using a small cabin in the interior of British Columbia. An abandoned house in the middle of an isolated winter landscape has its outside festooned with garlands of colourful lights akin to a suburban celebratory display. The building also glows from within; the illuminations synchronized to the rhythm of an electronic beat, creating the illusion of a night club in the middle of a secluded mountainous setting. This was the first European homestead in the area, built by Norwegian settlers in 1905, and like many such buildings in the new world, it evokes the desire for a new start away from poverty, crowding or persecution elsewhere.
Electronic Dance Music (EDM) typifies contemporary digital production in that it is disseminated on social media, an online community of enthusiasts, suggesting the individual as an alternative brand. Drawing parallels between the original settlers’ intent to escape to pastures new and contemporary “hobbyist” production or DIY culture as a counter to corporate dominance, Schmidt seeks to interrogate such ideas via a surreal combination of the spectacular. In addition to the light display itself, EDM House also functioned as a local radio FM channel, broadcasting the artist’s compositions within a small radius to those few passersby. The eerie nature of happening on this by chance is captured in the video projection, conjuring an occasion that is at once magical yet sinister, delightful yet strange. These anxieties are reflected in the horror-movie technique used to document the work, for as the camera rolls forwards or back, the zoom counteracts meaning the house stays the same size within the frame as the background swells or contracts.
Comprising a home-made camera and a large-format slide projection, High Altitude Balloon Harmless Amateur Radio Equipment used a weather balloon to capture an image of the Earth by launching the equipment 35,000 meters into space. Both the timing and the right conditions to release the shutter were carefully calculated so that the camera — made of Styrofoam and duct tape and fitted with a 90-mm Linhof lens and a 4-by-5 inch film holder —pointed away from the sun toward the horizon, the resulting photograph of the stratosphere presented as an immersive projection in the darkness of the gallery. Encounters with such images are usually confined to the internet, low-resolution images limited to the size of a screen. In contrast, here the image takes on an all-encompassing quality as well as a tangible physicality, revealing the curvature of the Earth, the vivid blue curve of its atmosphere, the blackness of space beyond and the surface of clouds, earth and water below. Undeniably beautiful, the image is foiled by the means of its presentation and its production.
Like many of Schmidt’s works, High Altitude Balloon Harmless Amateur Radio Equipment makes clear the narrative of its construction and process, unexpected parallels drawn by bringing together different “realities.” This will be elaborated in a forthcoming accompanying publication made by the artist, a manual for other people detailing how to replicate the project. Device, staging and duration are integral to the contemplation of landscape and culture. Standing between the projector and screen, visitors are silhouetted against the image becoming part of the scene akin to the lone figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818). High Altitude Balloon Harmless Amateur Radio Equipment suggests a new form of the sublime — one not indebted to the romantic idea of experiencing nature first-hand, but based on extending human vision by technical means. The image offers us the opportunity of experiencing unseen spaces through the process of looking; the world as contained within the picture.
The combination of settings for the artist’s work, notions of the heroic coupled with seemingly amateur quests, all are recurrent elements in his installations. Schmidt’s interest in the epic expresses the desire to go beyond the limits of knowledge and to chart other territories. Yet in his work manufactured spectacle is tempered by skepticism. Schmidt counters accepted conventions by using visible reminders of handy-man construction and theatrical devices — smoke machines, stage lights and DIY photographic equipment — while seeking to produce experiences that speak to his interest in the tension between doubt and faith. The possibility of art is critically reconsidered by reflecting on the manufactured seductions of spectacle or the romantic search for some truth as embodied within scientific expeditions.
The exhibition in Vancouver is made in collaboration with Kunstverein Braunschweig, Germany.
Born in 1972 in Ottawa, Kevin Schmidt lives and works in Vancouver and Berlin. He was the recipient of the Canada Council for the Arts’ International Residencies program at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin for 2013 and the Fogo Island Residency Program, Newfoundland in 2011. In 2008, he received the VIVA Award from the Jack and Doris Shadbolt Foundation for the Visual Arts in Vancouver. Recent solo exhibitions include Don’t Stop Believing, Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, Toronto; A Sign in the Northwest Passage (billboard project), The Power Plant, Toronto; Epic Journey, Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal; A Sign in the Northwest Passage (as part of Subjective Projections), Bielefelder Kunstverein, Germany; Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver; Galerie van der Mieden, Antwerp; and Wild Signals, Galerie Barbara Thumm, Berlin. His works have been in a number of significant group exhibitions including L’Avenir (looking forward), Montreal Biennial (2013); True North, Anchorage Museum, Alaska (2012); Up North, Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton (2011); How Soon is Now, Vancouver Art Gallery (2009); Wild Signals, Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart (2008); and Depiction Part IV, Witte de With, Rotterdam (2007). Schmidt is represented by Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver.