Length, Breadth, Thickness and—Duration by Beth Stuart22 January 2020
by Daniella Sanader
If you’ve spoken to me recently, I may have told you my (unresearched and unsubstantiated) theory about dreams and déjà vu. I usually proceed to explain that while I rarely remember my dreams, I am regularly struck with quietly disorienting bouts of déjà vu, something like once or twice a month. I like to speculate about these things as if they exist on a spectrum of cause and effect—the idea that sublimated dream imagery, while consciously inaccessible, bubbles up elsewhere in one’s perceptual life, grafted briefly onto shapes and colours and other structures of the world we move through. (1) That uncanny doubling, a sudden familiarity: it’s a sensation we all recognize, but one that quickly dissolves the very second you try to focus on it, let alone attempt to put it into language.
As I write this, we’re nearing the end of a decade. It’s moments like this when time feels particularly elastic, or structurally impossible—friends are sharing their 2009/2019 selfie memes and commenting on how 2009 feels just like yesterday or perhaps also forever ago—somehow ten years is both distances, both feelings at once. Yet I’m digging through old notes for a different date—November 4, 2018—when I visited Beth Stuart’s equally elastic, equally impossible exhibition at The Power Plant in Toronto. Just over a year may as well be a decade in the ecology of an exhibition review, where timeliness and immediacy often equate to the relevance of the text. Is there any use in covering something (more than) a year after it was shown? In piecing together an articulation of someone’s work from old, semi-decipherable notes and archived cell phone images? Yet Length, Breadth, Thickness and—Duration operates on a different timescale. Stuart’s work has lingered in my peripheral vision these last thirteen months, flaring up in unplanned moments like a different kind of déjà vu.
When attempting to remember Stuart’s show, I’m first struck by that colour. It’s a weird, visceral peach-pink that covers the walls, floor, and ceiling of The Power Plant’s second-floor gallery, rendering the room somehow primordial, weightless. Looking back over installation views, it’s almost as if all dimensionality of the space is obliterated. No angles, no corners, no direction: just a soupy, electric peach—it’s still crackling behind my eyelids. But I’m getting ahead of myself; memories rarely unfold in the appropriate order. A mottled grey antechamber precedes the peach room, laid out with a poised symmetry that seems to imply ceremony or significance. It took a moment for me to register the two soft, geometric shapes hanging on opposite walls as garments, their small neck holes eventually prompting an association with the scale of my body. Nearby, two delicate stands hold shallow dishes, crinkly with tin foil and the flaky residue of water sourced from the neighbouring Lake Ontario. They frame a dark passage that separates the antechamber from the final portion of the gallery, where peachy light reverberates off the particular sheen of the passage’s dark walls. The black passage is covered in a curious scattering of shapes and glyphs, seeming both ancient and futuristic at once.
I should say, feeling compelled to describe the layout of an installation space, start to finish—it’s a rare impulse for me. When exhibitions encourage a singular path of engagement, I usually bristle with teenage annoyance and wander in a different direction. Yet the directionality of Length, Breadth, Thickness and—Duration has little to do with linearity and narrative control. Instead, in structuring the movement from chamber to chamber, Stuart’s architecture signals a different kind of transformation—a potential transference of states, or movement along a diagonal plane. In short, it’s a time machine.
Recently, I learned about another theory of déjà vu. Since the 1960s, some have attributed the feeling to a slight delay in neurological processing. We sort through perceptual signals in the temporal lobe on the brain’s left hemisphere, but the lobe receives this information twice; once from each side of the brain. If the lobe experiences a lag between these signals—perhaps only milliseconds in length—the brain might consider them as different moments in time, elongating their perceived distance. (2) I like thinking about this: the tiniest, most imperceptible of temporal hiccups stretching out indefinitely, becoming seemingly vast and impossible to pin down in the chronology of a life. Do I know you? Have we met? It’s a sudden shift in scope—from the granular to the atmospheric and back again. For a brief moment, the brain can perceive both scales at once. It feels time’s elasticity, all twisted warp and weft. Have I been here before?
The bias cut became all the rage in women’s fashion in the early half of the twentieth century, popularized by the work of French designer Madeleine Vionnet (1876-1975) (3). It was a simple, yet revolutionary shift in approach: cutting fabric diagonally across its grain in order to emphasize a garment’s stretch and ease, skimming across a woman’s body. While earlier trends in women’s clothing emphasized restriction and control, as The Power Plant didactics tell me, Vionnet’s bias cut offered women a different capacity for movement, and with that came a different level of access to space. In Length, Breadth, Thickness and—Duration, a series of forms are scattered across Stuart’s peach-pink walls, loosely based on Vionnet’s garment patterns and laid out in strips of diagonals, zig-zags, and curves. I hesitate to call them paintings or sculptures, because they are in fact both (or neither): bases of aluminum and foam built up with layers of Venetian plaster mixed with pigment. To make another gleeful jump across history—and Stuart’s show is filled with these diagonal slices—it’s a process no different than the frescoes of ancient Rome. Stuart’s plaster forms are built up and burnished down again, with variegated layers becoming shiny and thick like bathroom tiling, melted cheese on a slice of pizza, or skin newly healed over a burn wound.
I’m looking back over these thirteen-month-old notes, scrawled as I was sitting in the midst of Stuart’s installation space. I kept repeating the words a garment, an architecture, a garment, an architecture, and in hindsight, that fixation comes as no surprise. Stuart’s work makes these two concepts malleable; she prompts me to recognize that they are both simply structures a body lives in, vessels to control movement and the passage of time. What would architecture cut along a bias look like? Would it skim across my body differently? Could the thickness of time be felt in the gaps between wall and skin, slipping onto an oblique axis? Spending time with Stuart’s burnished plaster forms, I start to wonder if they’re providing instruction for accessing this collapse of time and space—they are patterns for sewing, after all.
In thinking about garments and architectures, there’s a final pivot to make, another cut across history and a two-minute walk downstairs, outside. Stationed beyond the walls of The Power Plant is a reconstruction of a Victorian-era bathing machine facing the edge of Lake Ontario. It’s another structure that signals the transference of states: dry to wet, concealed to exposed, modest to slightly-less-than. Across the eighteenth to early-twentieth centuries, these wheeled structures were carted to beaches, giving the British genteel class (primarily women) a private area to change into bathing clothes and be transferred into the water itself, safe from public view. Staged alongside Length, Breadth, Thickness and—Duration, and activated through an accompanying performance (4), the bathing machine adds another node to Stuart’s chronology: a recognition that the power to structure time and space is a power of coloniality, bound up with ideals of morality and wealth, identity and access. It’s a power that divides ease of movement unevenly amongst its subjects along lines of race, gender, class, ability. It’s important to articulate that the diagonal views of Stuart’s installation don’t forget these dynamics in favour of some amorphous fantasy of an alternative. Rather, her work recognizes that any act of time travel remains inseparable from the politics of its various nows—the structures of power that delineate time from space from flesh.
This whole time I’ve been writing, I’ve been unconsciously lapsing into describing Stuart’s work in the present tense—as if the show is still open, as if I’m standing there right now—before I catch myself and begin to self-correct to a more editorially acceptable past tense. The exhibition is over, after all, and all linguistic logic dictates that I position myself—writing in the present—against some clearly delineated past experience. I’ve experimented in adjusting my language: from present to past and back again, alongside a couple of awkward attempts at something more future-oriented. Nothing seems entirely right, so I’ve chosen to remain here, now, in the present. In a thickness of time that is simultaneously the today of this writing, the today of this publishing, the today of this reading. It’s also November 2018 and the 1920’s and 2009 and the Victorian era and ancient Rome and elsewhere—else(when)—the nowhere of déjà vu. It’s today, when I visited (will visit/am visiting) Beth Stuart’s Length, Breadth, Thickness and—Duration at The Power Plant in Toronto.
1. In researching this piece, I’ve learned that there is evidence to suggest the contrary of my little theory: apparently, people who remember their dreams are more prone to bouts of déjà vu. Read more here: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/gymn5m/there-is-more-than-one-kind-of-deja-vu
4. A performance accompanied Length, Breadth, Thickness and—Duration in which Stuart and two performers carted the bathing machine along the wide pathways of the Toronto Islands, followed by a procession of onlookers. Arriving on the beach, she and another entered the machine and changed into the soft, geometric garments from the installation’s antechamber. They waded into the lake and their outfits fanned out across the water like oversized jellyfish. It’s a gesture I can only access from a distance, from a small screen playing wind-crackled performance footage on a loop in The Power Plant’s foyer.
Length, Breadth, Thickness and—Duration by Beth Stuart ran from October 20 – December 30, 2018 at The Power Plant in Toronto, ON.
Feature Image: Installation view of Length, Breadth, Thickness and—Duration, 2018. Photo courtesy of the artist, Susan Hobbs Gallery and The Power Plant.