Sylvia Safdie, Inventory, 2021, organic and mineral materials, steel, bronze, glass, brick. Installation view. Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay.

Sylvia Safdie, Inventory, 2021, organic and mineral materials, steel, bronze, glass, brick. Installation view. Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay.

Sylvia Safdie

For decades, Montreal-based artist Sylvia Safdie has walked, retracing through her peregrinations the lost terrain of her childhood in Lebanon and Israel. As she meanders, she collects stones, fungi, leaves, seedpods, branches, and other such fragments. To those who lack her naturalist’s eye, most of her findings seem ordinary enough. Other objects—such as giant kayak-shaped pods or the enormous leaf she hauled back from Brazil, bisected, cast in bronze, and then collapsed upon and around a stone like a pair of broken wings—thrust more expansively toward the imagination. This sculptural herbarium, arranged on wall-length shelves and in grids on the floor of her studio in a repurposed industrial building in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Griffintown, enhanced the show’s aura of exotic modernism. Wandering awestruck around Safdie’s sixteen-thousand-square-foot live/work space, filled with drawings, paintings, sculptures, musical instruments, potted trees, and totems collected during her extensive travels, I felt as if I had stepped not only into the stream of Safdie and John Heward’s shared creative life, but through time itself. (Heward, an artist and renowned percussionist who was Safdie’s partner for almost forty years, died in 2018.) For artists of my generation, it has been nearly impossible to acquire such enormous spaces in the middle of any bicoastal metropolis.

Like Freud’s iconic psychoanalytic couch, preserved in his London house, Safdie’s Wunderkammer already seemed like a memorial to the lost twentieth century. Displaced from their adopted habitat and transported to the Fonderie Darling, a cavernous art space a few blocks from Safdie’s now-endangered dwelling, these relics acquired even more of a funereal charge. Although curator Caroline Andrieux astutely preserved the overall arrangement of the artist’s studio for “As I Walk,” Safdie’s exhibition here, its restaging in the dramatically lit main hall of the now-defunct foundry—where the artist previously fabricated some of her specimens—transformed a workable cache of objets trouvés into an inviolable homage to the sanctuary where she thinks and creates.

The results were haunting. For Safdie is not only a scavenger extra-ordinaire, but also a translator of the wonders of our increasingly precarious habitat. The relics she selects must call her by her name, because once in her hands they invariably become sculpture, bearing the mark not only of the biological and geological forces that created them, but also of the artist’s unmistakable aesthetic. By casting replicas of some of her collected treasures in bronze, iron, and glass, Safdie meditates on the pathos of the mimetic impulse. The human urge to remake the world in its own image is, after all, part and parcel of the work of mourning. With all of their material heft, Safdie’s sculptures are particularly suited to evoking the spectral nonalignment of presence and animacy that one experiences at the sight of a corpse. While the artist’s exquisite facsimiles of leaves, mushrooms, and pomegranates in bronze and iron preserve the remarkable details of their subjects’ original forms—which, except for the glistening fruit, are displayed adjacently—their metallic entombment references both our ongoing destruction of nature and Safdie’s own cultural dislocation. Even the most precisely bronzed mushroom cannot reproduce its role in the ecosystem, just as a pomegranate enjoyed in wintry Canada can evoke but never return one to a Mediterranean homeland destroyed by the violence of war and nation building. Walter Benjamin famously argued that the aura of objects is changed irrevocably by the process of reproduction. I would add that immigration further mediates Benjamin’s concept of “the original”: Safdie’s approach certainly embodies this notion.

Like Louise Bourgeois, whose work is remarkably kindred to her own, Safdie employs elemental forms and part-objects to speak to the fraught nature of intimacy and the difficulty of making reparations. This is nowhere more apparent than in the flattened rocks Safdie compulsively gathers and pairs with other similarly shaped stones or cast-glass doubles. Coupled on the floor, these otherwise easily overlooked forms become feet, eternally stilled in peripatetic fellowship. Likewise, angular shards of various minerals, which Safdie binds with single bands of steel or half encases in metal slips—which in the hands of a different artist could read as primitive weapons—evoke the poignant impossibility of trying to hold fast to the eternal. In a series of videos of waves gently caressing first a stone and then her own nude flesh—all breathtakingly projected on the floor to resemble a large reflective pool—Safdie reminds us that all matter is eventually washed clean by time.