Thursday, October 30, 2008

Mark Laliberte: Sexus

After finding a personally poignant sentence in the novel Sexus by controversial yet groundbreaking author Henry Miller, Mark Laliberte created a site-specific sculpture of the same name that brings form to text. The quote is not exact in his installation for the Window Box Gallery at Gallery 1313. Each brick is etched with one word from Laliberte’s version of the quote which makes the sentence, “Word against word brick against brick put one brick against the other like an honest brick layer.” In this installation, the bricks are haphazardly massed in a pile with the words scrambled, rendering the sentence, at first glance, illegible.

Miller and Laliberte have both had their share of persecution for their literary works. Each faced trials for violations of obscenity laws, and each was cleared of charges. Obscenity laws have a long history in Canada’s artistic community as representing governmental oppression and misunderstanding, censoring works that are unfairly judged by the same standards as deliberately harmful or immoral materials. In Sexus, Laliberte links his own literary practice to Miller’s, thereby visualizing the historic struggle faced by artists to have true freedom of expression.

Considering the brick as a symbol for words, a wall would be a sign of writerly success. In Sexus, the wall is broken and non-sensical, indicating a thwarted artistic attempt. Often this difficulty to lay bricks, so to speak, to build something up, can be traced back to the forces against writing, against expression. Frequently these forces can be chalked up to prejudice, fighting that which is not understood or conventionally accepted. But is it possible to determine set rules for that which is acceptable and what is not? The disorganized presentation of these words suggests that the tools we conventionally use for understanding are not applicable or useable here in the reading of this work, that a new perspective is required.

Laliberte’s work reflects an interest in the obscure, fuzzy areas of knowledge that are beyond our grasp or ability to define. He frequently creates collages or mergers between media that create hybrids, resisting limitations of form, definition or rules. His attributes his artistic practice to inspiration from subcultural forms of expression, such as comics and zines, that blend images with words to create meaning, while resisting academic or traditional literary methods. This experimental nature of his work is clear in Sexus. By using his own variation on Miller’s quotation, he subverts institutionalized practices and their demand for “purity.” Laliberte describes this as a method of control, the need to cite sources and use exact quotes to allow words to be traced back to their original author. Laliberte, though he pays tribute to Miller in the title of this piece, still uses Miller’s words for his own expression, claiming originality and recognition for his artistic individuality. Experimentation is not bound by rules, and so is necessarily a tool for freedom.

Crucial to this work is Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophical concept of the rhizome. In nature, a rhizome is root structure that grows horizontally and sends up shoots vertically. As a model for thinking, it suggests our apprehension of the world occurs in a non-linear form, creating intersections of meaning in multiple axes, rather than in a flat line or logical progression. In terms of linguistics, understanding occurs in a more far reaching way than is typically acknowledged or imposed. Associations can be made with individual words, which shoot out multiple meanings on their own, rather than having meaning when taken together as part of the straight line of a sentence. Sexus, a disorganized pile of words, challenges our way of thinking, and encourages us to exercise a different perspective, to branch out and create new meanings for these words instead of depending on conventional methods of understanding and forming them into a single line. By shrugging off the limits of one medium and combining it with another, Laliberte’s experimentation with form opens up discussion about why we have limitations, why they are imposed, and what we miss out on if we conform to them.

In the context of the space this piece is being exhibited, Sexus has even larger implications. Formerly a police station, the building at 1313 Queen Street West is now a site of inclusivity, openness, freedom of expression, and cultural support. The rooms that were once prison cells are no longer areas of restriction for failure to conform to rules. Oppression and punishment have made way for far more beneficial services to the community of Parkdale. Just as the bricks of Sexus represent, this neighbourhood has its own set of struggles. It is difficult to sustain a community that has so many forces against it, and restore it to a degree that benefits all those living within it. But perhaps in order to do this, as signified by Sexus, some hybrid needs to take shape in order for strong walls to be built up, and the weaker ones broken down.

Mark Laliberte: Sexus on view at the Window Box Gallery, 1313 Queen Street West from 29 October - 23 November 2008.

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