Christine Davis

For more than a decade, Christine Davis’s installations have combined artifacts of the body (contact lenses, a metal dress patterned on genetic encoding sequences), photographs of skies (clouds, solar eclipses), and images of books (English dictionaries, Copernicus’s Cosmology) to consider constructions of the self. Taking shape at the intersection of science, pain, and beauty, her work betrays the influence of Deleuze (on time), Bataille (on Sade), and Kristeva (on love); it’s no surprise to learn that Davis’s early training was in Paris. This might explain why her installations have always been markedly different from those of other English-Canadian photo-based artists, with the possible exception of Michael Snow.

Pluck, 2000, is Davis’s first foray into time-based work The artist is concerned here with duration and what Henri Bergson identified as “flux,” the aspect of perceptual experience that cannot be spatialized in representation. The piece relies on an icon of modem art and cinema, the bird. A large screen made of hundreds of black feathers was suspended in a darkened room. Davis extracted the frames from a found color film of a female trapeze artist, made them into slides, and projected them on the screen in a slow sequence of continuous computerized dissolves, reconfiguring the temporality of the original footage and creating a sense of ephemerality and disintegration. The densely saturated colors—particularly the reds of the velvet rope around the woman’s neck, the flower in her hair, and the garish ballerina costume—fuse with the surface of the feathered screen to create an astounding effect: The projected image becomes tactile.

In fact, the variegated light of the dissolving images, reflected and absorbed by the feathers, takes on the quality of an Impressionist painting. It is not only the illusion of brushstrokes created by the feathers that recalls the Impressionist project but also the capturing of an elusive temporality that is both mundane and marvelous. The first image in the sequence is a close-up of the subject’s face, mouth and eyes wide open as if in horror; later she smiles as she spins perilously in the air. The trapeze artist relies on split-second timing in this spectacle of danger. Her performance is less an act than a routine: It is precisely through the repetition of the same, through the elimination of chance, that she will succeed in not falling. It is by calculating her movements to the most precise degree—that is, by making her actions cinematic—that she will defy the odds.

The installation’s title plays across various registers: the plucked feathers of the screen, the trapeze artist plucking the bar from the air as it swings toward her, and finally the process that so disturbed Bergson, extracting a moment from time and reducing it to a sequential, cinematic linearity. All these aspects coalesce around the problematic of flight. Images of flight call to mind not only the photographic experiments of French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey, the first to take pictures of birds in the wild and reconstitute the illusion of their movement in the studio, but also the work of Romantic artists from Blake to Breton, whose emphasis on freedom relied on flight as a central metaphor. Birds in so many instances have stood for a temporality that needs to be rescued from space, that would provide an escape from the instrumentality of the everyday. In this context, Michael Snow’s fiberglass geese hovering in the atrium of Toronto’s Eaton Centre shopping mall are a pivotal example, even a culmination, of this sense of the end of time, of the profound closure that haunts modernity. With Pluck, Davis picks up where Snow’s Flight Stop left off some quarter-century ago, only now the birds are the screen on which “the taming of chance,” to use Ian Hacking’s expression, is performed.

Janine Marchessault