Seeing is Believing?: Nina Canell’s ‘Near Here’ and Unearthing the Flows of Connectivity
One of the many river-related places we visited during our team meeting in Newcastle in early June 2014 was the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (est. 2002), which lies at the foot of the Millennium Bridge on the river’s Gateshead (south) bank. Our visit was rather rushed. The art had to be squeezed in between returning from our cruise downriver on the Clean Tyne Project’s vessel and a hasty pie and pint back on the north bank at The Red House, before heading out of town for a walk along the south branch of the Tyne.
Fortunately, my own lightning and hopelessly incomplete tour did encompass a Level 2 Gallery exhibit by Swedish artist Nina Canell. ‘Near Here’ (18 April to 20 July 2014) was a collaboration with Camden Arts Centre, where it was developed and had featured earlier this year. Camden’s ‘Family Guide’ to Canell’s installation explained that she’s ‘fascinated by forces that affect us every day but that we can’t see with our eyes – things like electricity and air. If we can’t see them, how do we know they exist?’ The Baltic’s website introduces the exhibit in more traditional ‘artspeak’: ‘Transforming electrical currents [and] atmospheric elements into sculptural components, her assemblages fuse matter, radiance and sound to create delicate and ephemeral testing grounds’.
What was uppermost in my mind during what were literally a couple of minutes spent with her work was (naturally) the idea of connectivity. Environmental connectivities reside at the heart of our project and supply the ties that bind together our three strands. We are constantly on the lookout for these ties (and glue), which usually reside underground or beneath the surface, like the infrastructure of sewage pipes, water pipes and broadband Internet cables, not to mention the electrical wiring and plumbing within the walls and under the floorboards of where we live. Where the analogy breaks down, though, is that in our research materials, not all of these connections between point of supply and point of consumption are in fact connected or ‘live’.
‘Near Here’ takes materials like cables, steel, water, concrete and voltage to create sculptural materials that blend matter, light and sound. The Baltic’s press release (17 February 2014) explained that her work gives ‘substance to the intangible and lightness to the physical’. What it also does is render the invisible visible, and brings the apparently far away closer to us (near here?). The piece entitled ‘Overcoming the Current Resistance’ (2012) – making its first European appearance, having premiered at the Cockatoo Island power plant during the 2012 Biennale of Sydney – comprises a curtain of neon tubes composed of circa 200 elements suspended in a copper frame. The work’s gaseous components create what the release refers to as an ‘ever shifting, pulsing electromagnetic energy field’.
The installation that I found most striking, though, was a water-filled tank raised on a frame like a display case (‘Forgetfulness (Dense)’). The exhibit it contained was a suspended length of underwater telecommunications cable that bore an uncanny resemblance to a fat liquorice all-sort with a particularly colourful filling. I was drawn to the combination of power and water, especially to how the heavy object carried its weight lightly within the supporting liquid, which rippled and flashed when it caught the sun. The severed nature of the weighty-looking cable also appealed to me: the power supply had been cut off, literally, from its source, at both ends, and the environing water was destructive rather than life-restoring. And in this project, we’re in the business of re-establishing severed connections.
Reading up on Canell after my visit, I was relieved to find that I hadn’t been too reductive in embracing her installations as richly suggestive material for our project (nor in thinking that if we’d commissioned her to make artworks for the project, then this is more or less what we’d have got). I quickly found a reviewer who completely understood its relevance to our project. Through objects such as ‘amputated’ cables, she explained that Canell ‘puts industrial, mundane objects that connect the sources of energy of our modern world into the viewer’s consciousness’.[i]
And then I found a video interview in which Canell explained that her aim in ‘Near Here’ is to ask questions such as what is nearness; to use her art to examine notions of proximity and distance; to explore how sound frequencies that do not register on the scale of human hearing can be made noticeable; and to examine and expose the nature of linear forms of connectedness. The electric cable is a highly productive medium for Canell to get to grips with ideas of movement and fluidity. And the severed cable is particularly useful. She wants to find out what happens when you interrupt a connective form – in this case, by chopping up into sections an underwater telecommunications cable. Apart from bringing to mind something edible – a sushi roll bursting at the seams, or a tortilla wrap stuffed with multi-coloured strands – bigger thoughts bubble up: where can art take environmental historians? Can works such as those in ‘Near Here’ deliver a deeper understanding of the flows of water and energy? My closing question, though, is a little wackier, raising questions concerning the sentience, intelligence and hard drive memory storage capacity of supposedly inanimate objects (in this instance, the cables concealed in the walls of classrooms and bedrooms). It’s taken from Camden Arts Centre’s ‘Teachers’ Guide’ to ‘Near Here’. One of the suggested starting points for teachers preparing to visit with a class is this question: ‘Do you think these cables can remember any of the messages they carry when they are switched off?’
[i] Katherine Morais, ‘Nina Canell: New exhibition explores connections that make up our environment’, Artlyst, 29 January 2014, at http://www.artlyst.com/events/nina-canell-near-here-camden-arts-centre