Daniel Corbeil

From re-created artifacts of travel and technology, Canadian artist Daniel Corbeil constructs fictional narratives about the paradigm shifts that accompany progress. In 1990 he suspended a full-scale model of a kayak—animal skins stretched over its wooden frame, the whole varnished with tar—in midair above a bed of smooth stones; it was accompanied by an archival photograph of two kayaks beached on a rocky northern shoreline. In another project, a full-scale aluminum-and-wood model of a small plane was carried out into the bush, where it became a prop in a series of photographs of a staged crash. Corbeil has also shown photos of his replica of a mine site in northern Quebec (his home region, Abitibi-Témiscamingue, is a rugged area of resource industries, native communities, and pristine forest) made to scale out of industrial detritus.

In the installation on view here, Balénoptère: simulacre technique (Baleen whale: technical simulacrum, 1998), Corbeil sewed an airship fifty feet in length, fifteen feet in diameter, out of reflective aluminum-covered fabric. This white elephant filled the gallery so that visitors brushed the walls to squeeze around it. With Balénoptère in place, it was virtually impossible to see the space it occupied or envision the object in its entirety from any one point of view. Its impressive physical aspects notwithstanding, Corbeil’s installation operates as a giant metaphor for historical change. Corbeil seeks “to understand the technical symbols of our society not by studying them, but by remaking them,” thus gaining insights into technologies other than the dominant ones we use, finding the losers and the failures (like blimps) as relevant and meaningful as the successes. As an ironic aside, he affixed the front-end directional symbols originally used on airships to both ends of Balénoptère. The ambiguity these markings create reminds the viewer that creativity works in many directions, and that the one we recognize as progress is often a more arbitrary choice than we think.

John K. Grande