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Sylvia Safdie

My programming booklet text for the exhibition I curated at articule:

According to Michel Foucault “reflections exist in a placeless place,” one which is real and connected, yet unreal at the same time. Consisting of a partially opened, upright book with empty pages at the bottom of a copper well, Keren no. 4, by Montreal artist Sylvia Safdie stood solitary within the intimate space. The contained book, reflected and distorted on the inner curve of the copper, appeared to open and close while walking around the well. Engulfed by the colour, the white pages seemed to burn, their edges curling and flickering. Obviously destructive, this association with fire can also be interpreted as preserving; eternal flame memorials form this connection. A quiet meditation, Keren (Hebrew for light ray) reveals a continuous cycle — one of devastation and preservation.

An earlier review of Sylvia Safdie’s exhibition at
Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery, Owen Sound
published in Canadian Art, Fall 2002, p. 134-135. Review of Safdie’s exhibition Extensions at Owen Sound.

As Walter Benjamin noted, “Collecting is a form of practical memory,” closely related to autobiography. In Sylvia Safdie’s exhibition “Extensions,” the evidence is everywhere to support this idea, most demonstrably in the largest work of the show. In a piece representing nearly three decades of travel, more than 400 small metal pots are filled with unique samples of earth collected from different parts of the world, then arranged on the gallery floor in a huge grid. Safdie shares this impressive collection for the first time outside her Montreal studio, where she has a room devoted to this work. Called earth (1977–), the piece is an archive that documents the obsessive ritual of collecting. These souvenirs become extensions of the collector’s identity, reminders of individual experiences mapped against a developing life history.

Memory persists as a theme in two other sculptural works. Be’er (1993) means “well” in Hebrew and the idea is created metaphorically in the work by two facing circular mirrors—one face-up on the floor, the other suspended face-down from the ceiling. Together, the mutual reflections create an infinitely receding spiral. In Sefer no. 60 (2000), a book is separated from a large rock by a sheet of glass. The book’s empty white pages are reflected onto the rock, carrying reference to ancient writings and a surface prepared for inscription. In both works there is a sense of invitation. Safdie opens imaginative space through the use of reflection, encouraging viewers to pull their own memories and experiences into the work.

The themes of biography and the passing of time are carried into the darkened space of the second exhibition room. Tree no. 1 (2002) is a bare, 12-foot-high tree cast in bronze that hangs upside down from its roots, nearly touching the ground. It is accompanied by two videos. Walter/Leaves (2001) is a large, hypnotic video projection depicting an old man staring through a window. Moving leaves from a tree outside are reflected on the window-pane, at times veiling his face. Safdie slows down the image to match the pace the pace of quiet breathing, which allows us to observe the harmony between the leaves and the opening and closing of the frail man’s eyes. Slowly we become aware that we are viewing the same image seen by the man, and perhaps hoping that this shared scene won’t be his last. On an adjacent wall is a piece called Gulls (2002), where seagulls hover mid-flight across a tiny screen. In another room, five drawings of trees, titled Notations (2002), are numbered or catalogued like diary entries, and might be interpreted as observations of rootedness.

Collectively, these works explore themes of stasis and mobility and are concerned with the contrast of continuation and interruption. Safdie’s show “Extensions” is a conjunction of such opposite but parallel activities. The entire installation functions as a continuous alternating loop, circling from one generation to another, weaving places and seasons together with observation and experience. It is about the process of remembering—both hers and ours.
By Ilga Leimanis