No one could ever accuse Leo Tolstoy of creating a light read when he penned War and Peace, but the latest exhibit at the Kelowna Art Gallery suggests the story isn’t the only weighty construct within those pages.
Halifax-based artist Steve Higgins has a unique view on how societies are built.
Using sculpture, printmaking and charcoal drawings, he deconstructs and manipulates, warps and unfurls our world in an exhibit finishing its national tour at the Kelowna Art Gallery over the next two months.
“I’m really interested in structure—whether that’s political structure, hierarchical structure, or power structures,” Higgins said from the gallery where he helped open the show Friday.
Looking at War and Peace, he explained, presented an interesting opportunity to examine the physical text of the books used to tell a society’s story, going beyond the meaning of the text to look at the book itself.
Tracing the “rivers of white,” as type-setters would call them, Higgins illustrates another side of War and Peace—the structure of information.
A river of white is the little squiggle of clear space between words that seem to take on a shape of their own, like small worms wriggling through the page in a design inadvertently laid out by the typesetter. Using the infamously dense text of War and Peace, Higgins traces these rivers of white on each page of the book to form the foundation of a print series built solely from the physical makeup of a story.
“What that revealed to me was that there was a subliminal structure to that book,” he said. “And that subliminal structure destroyed the narrative altogether.”
He worked on acetate, drawing between the lines over and over again with a pen in a process so exhausting he often resorted to the veil of sunglasses to keep working.
All three sections of this exhibit—entitled All Things Considered: Thoughts about Cities and Histories, and War and Peace—were incredibly labour intensive, he admitted.
On the back walls of the gallery are wall-sized charcoal collages of steel structure that look as though they’ve been crumpled together, the pieces of bridge and building and skyscraper mashing into dense scrap as though ripped from a sketch pad.
Higgins hand-cut stencils for each line from drawing paper, placing new marks onto the paper’s surface in a process that took several months per drawing to complete.
In front of this backdrop a series of sculptures, similar to architects models in scope, illustrate what these steel elements look like when properly laid out as city planners and architects, corporations and governments do.
Higgins spray-painted each three-dimensional model after laying out the structures to illuminate the dehumanizing elements of built cities.
Each model shows a redaction of the power structures which allow skyscrapers to separate people and suggest freeways should take precedence over existing neighbourhoods.
“Ultimately what I’m interested in is how those structures suggest an ideology,” he said, noting that somehow industrialization has illuminated people’s right to chose how we live.
One sculpture inspired by Paris, for example, looks at how squaring off large boulevards creates control, allowing police to slip easily into living quarters and ensuring the reining rulers never face threat of an unseen uprising—even if it means the beauty of the less planned, medieval neighbourhoods is lost.
Higgins’ work will be on display at the Kelowna Art Gallery through Dec. 31, and has shown in three other Canadian cities.