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Sara Angelucci: Provenance Unknown

by Emelie Chhangur, Curator
Art Gallery of York University, Toronto, 2015
108 pp., illus, 42 col. Paper, $24.00
ISBN: 978-0-921972-69-3.

Reviewed by Jane Hutchinson
Transtechnology Research, Plymouth University, UK


This captivating book contains a richness of content that belies its physical size. It is the catalogue for Sara Angelucci's exhibition, Provenance Unknown, staged at The Art Gallery of York University in Toronto in the spring of 2013. And so it is perhaps fitting how I find that leafing slowly through the pages brings to mind the action of wandering, initially without focus, through an exhibition space. Certain items entice the reader (viewer) to look closely, sometimes repeatedly returning for another look in an attempt to make sense of the work on display. So I find I am responding to both the book and my idea of the exhibition.

The book presents, by virtue of its being produced in association with and a reflection upon an exhibition, an introduction and commentary upon the artist and the work, and a partial account of a past event. Rather like the morphological creatures in Angelucci's Aviary, I find it has an uncertainty and instability of form. In addition to the many colour images (these comprise more than half of its content showing the installation in the gallery space and all of the individual works), which map to the three sections of the exhibition space, the book contains three short essays. These are each associated in the structure of the publication with one of the installations, but are not restricted in content, allowing the authors to comment upon any element of the work. While this approach provides for a comprehensive account of the work and freedom in their contemplation of the themes of anonymity and identity, memory and loss, the voice that is missing in the text is that of the artist, speaking for herself. The authors (other than the curator) rather curiously are not acknowledged and biographical information is not provided, so I resort to Google for this and follow up the many references to the work of W.G. Sebald scattered through the texts and with which I am at present unfamiliar. I wonder here whether the authors were directed specifically to certain literature by Angelucci or Chhangur, or if instead the artist's work alone is responsible for this harmony of citation.

The first essay 'Sounding Silence' opens with a passage from Sebald's 'Campo Santo' in which he refers to Nabokov's 'preoccupation' with the study of spirits, "...fleeting, transparent beings of uncertain provenance and purpose." This essay is written by the exhibition's curator, Emelie Chhangur, who unsurprisingly speaks for Angelucci, variously and confidently asserting the artist's intentions, (although perhaps they are her own, it is hard to be certain here), of "[offering] a space of contemplation between what is knowable about the human form in the photograph, and what can be imagined from the other side" (p 9). I am uncertain of her meaning here, what 'other-side' is she referring to? Similar small but frustratingly incomprehensible phrases are found in the other essays: "the palpable presence of absence" (p 36) is one such.

Chhangur refers to Angelucci's earlier preoccupations with her own identity and family lineage and her role as an amateur historian who through an 'eccentric enquiry' opens up a space in which the subjects of the lost portraits may come to life. It is curious then that the taxidermy birds, in their short lives glorious vital flashes of translucence and flickering light, even fixed in the artifice of the diorama are still beautiful, still alluding to movement through the light-reflecting glass of their display cabinet, although deathly-eyed, and brittle-feathered. Whereas rather than re-invigorating the portrait subjects, the artist's clothing of them with feathers, obscure and even appear to suffocate the human bodies represented, allowing only their eyes to indicate life, perhaps in an appeal to the viewer for a return to their usual anonymous form.

It is this unauthorised re-purposing of the photographs, no matter how meticulously done, I find most troubling and unnecessary. I have the same sense of disquiet when encountering carte-de-visite and cabinet cards cut up for decoupage and scrap-booking craft projects, or clumsily pierced to display the latest range of earrings in a jeweller's shop window. That the studio portrait is a record of intent, of its subject towards significance, that it records the aspirations of the sitter towards being noteworthy, special, and somehow of value is ignored by those who trivialize them. I am relieved that Angelucci's Aviary has not required the destruction of the original photographs. It is in these that I recognise "moments of poise and record" (p 62) rather than in the 'strange personages' described by Woodley in the last of the three essays.

Why are the photographs insufficient in themselves? Why the impulse to combine them with photographs of endangered and extinct birds? Of course the rationale is provided on the artist's behalf by the curator's essay. Chhangur refers to the work's revealing of "...other species not yet known to any system of taxonomy" (italics in the original). Well, perhaps: but the subjects in these photographs lived at a time when taxonomic classification was of great interest to academics and lay persons alike. Harriet Ritvo's 1998 book, The Platypus and the Mermaid and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination, provides a comprehensive account of this nineteenth century enthusiasm, when even the stitching together of taxidermied animals to prove the existence of mythological ones was a practice undertaken by showmen and 'scientists' for the education, amusement and wonder of the Victorian audience. The unknown human subjects of Angelucci's Aviary might have themselves been familiar with Grandville's characters, or known fairy stories inhabited by human-bird, human-animal, shape-shifting beings. Now, digitally enabled morphological beings populate the virtual social and game worlds of the internet. Chhangur seems to overlook this long history of such manifestations in her consideration of Angelucci's digitally manipulated photographic presentations.

The second essay, written by Claude Baillargeon, [1] presents an informative and coherent account of the installation. Titled 'Enchanting Reimaginings' it mimics in form the artist's presentation of her work "... as a three act drama of mourning, rebirth and remembrance" (p 34). By chance, my reading of this essay took place in woodland, where natural birdsong presented a sharp contrast to the artificiality of the toy bird whistles of the artist's 2011 composition The Venetian Forest, which was originally intended as "... an allusion to the medieval wooden pilings still anchoring Venice to its marshy lagoon" (p 35). Visitors to the exhibition would hear this recording of a 'live' improvised performance of the work in the space assigned as a nineteenth century domestic parlour, its un-natural sounds emphasizing the lack of life, even of traces of life in the almost empty room. Listening to the recording of this composition brings to mind a mechanical singing bird in a cage, an automata 'toy' encountered as a child, fascinating in its almost lifelikeness, but only ever able to repeat the same few phrases, over and over, just as the portrait photographs are repetitive in presentation of pose and expression--almost lifelike but never quite fulfilling photography's promise. To take a portrait photograph requires the acquiescence of its subject, unlike the birds who did not fly willingly into the diorama wishing to be preserved there. Baillargeon comments upon Angelucci's passion for opera as an influence upon her work, so undoubtedly she would have encountered and was also perhaps influenced here by the many dramatic incarnations of Mozart's Papageno; [2] an ordinary man whose business is to catch and sell birds, carrying a cage upon his back and softly constrained by a cloak of feathers. [3]

In his 'Act Two', Baillargeon rather fancifully describes the portrait photographs as the "untethered spirits of anonymous beings" (p 37) in a "chimeric world", recalling Max Ernst's "bird-like humanoids." Then following Chhangur he also cites Sebald and the influence of Angelucci's favourite passage from Campo Santo. Here we are given further information and an insight into the artist's creative process, one of adaption in response to encounters with the ornithology specimens of the Royal Ontario Museum, where Angelucci finally selected the photographs to suit the characteristics of the birds, rather than her original intention of the reverse.

In 'Act Three' and in the still images taken from the multimedia installation of The Anonymous Chorus I find welcome relief from the deathliness of the feathers of Aviary. This is the part of the exhibition I regret having missed. Baillargeon provides a full and descriptive account evoking the immersive experience, in particular his likening of the form and presentation of The Anonymous Chorus to the popular nineteenth century public spectacle of panorama and diorama is apt. The responsibility for the narration, the story telling that would have accompanied such illuminated images is for this work carried by the chorus. [4] I sense here warmth in his words, suggesting he found this the most satisfying and moving element of the work. [5]

'Asleep in the Dust' is the third essay. Its author E. C. Woodley [6] begins by describing his recollections of seeing a film of his grandfather as a young man "[who] looked supremely beautiful in his good clothes" (p 61). He explains how the past, presented in the few moments of film, appeared to him as 'uncluttered'. The deliberate emptiness of the exhibition's first space might also provoke such a response, Woodley's interpretation and Angelucci's almost empty 'parlour' present a vivid contrast to the cluttered and elaborately decorated public and domestic spaces of the nineteenth century. I am uncertain whether the artist's allusion is to the domestic parlour or drawing room, or the public/private liminal space of the photographic studio. If the latter, then the sparsely furnished first gallery space presents a contrast to the multitude of seemingly unnecessary objects visible in so many portrait photographs, sometimes so many that they engulf the subject, imprisoning them in a fabricated surreal landscape. In Angelucci's Aviary pictures, flightless creatures are imprisoned by their feathers, just as are the grotesquely beautiful taxidermy birds in the glass cabinet, carefully positioned with wings spread in frozen flight. These representatives of 'spirits' appear to me to be quite "... unable to transcend [...] our known universe" (p 37), and so the allusion breaks down.

Woodley writes about the alienation of nature in the cities, where sightings of birds are so unlikely as to be 'fantastical'. He suggests that Aviary's subjects are taking up their rightful place in an ancestral portrait gallery where they present as models of dignity and genetic complexity. But I wonder how he would respond had the photographs of the birds been overlaid with the clothing of the anonymous subjects of the carte-de-visites.

Woodley's account of The Anonymous Chorus is rich with description and justifiable praise, although the poetic religiosity of his likening of the work to a "Messianic prayer" and for example, his references to the creation of the Earth in Genesis, and the spotlighting of individuals in the photograph as "... rather the light of the annunciation" feels a little uncomfortable. There is however much in his essay that will chime with anyone puzzling and struggling with what these portrait photographs are, their significance and meaning, and why are they kept and have value long after the possibility of identifying their subjects has passed. (It is just possible that the infants in The Anonymous Chorus are living, and the children and grandchildren of the people in the image would be able to recognise and name them, so returning the image in fact, rather than in an artistic interpretation, to its point of origin).

In conclusion, this book in its simplest form presents a visual record of an event plus three expert and insightful commentaries about it. I find in its pages rich provocation for thought and discussion and have compulsively returned to it, over and over, setting other work aside. I have gained from it a sense of what it would have been like to visit the exhibition and been in the gallery space. My engagement with and response to the book, and through its contents, Angelucci's work has been supplemented by her generous sharing online of some of its individual elements (http://sara-angelucci.ca/). Although, rather like watching the big match on television, I hear an expert commentary and am privileged in seeing both the overview and the detail but miss something intangible that cannot be transmitted by text or image or sound: only attained by being present.


[1] Google helps me here.
[2] A character in The Magic Flute
[3] I find a visual analogy here to a photographer.
[4] A 'list of works' including the music is usefully provided and comprehensive acknowledgements are offered to the many collaborators.
[5] As I do all-be-it second-hand on Vimeo.
[6] Google is less helpful here, and I am still uncertain who E.C. Woodley is.

Last Updated 2nd October 2015

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