John Dickson

25 June 1998 - 1 August 1998
Opening Reception 25 June 1998 8pm

Main Gallery:

John Dickson

The Enlightenment provided an ordered model of the universe. That model was mechanical. The mechanical universe was solvable, computable, predictable. That was the hope. A doubting hope. Some prefer to say that curiosity motivates, then as now, humanity’s search for answers; and admittedly, curiosity does have feel-good appeal – a creative, forward-looking aura. But I emphasize doubt because of this word’s specific affective resonances: doubt is a pausing, a glancing word, both suspicious and invested. I use it here to invoke the conflict of simultaneous nostalgia for and dissatisfaction with some thing. This is the sensibility that frames Dickson’s exhibition.

On first encounter, the work in this show appears a bit cool, minimal, mechanical – perhaps a little self-satisfied with its own regulatory systems. But gradually, a subtle and nuanced sense of self-doubt unfolds. This is, in the end, its critical moment, its poetry.

The Work

The above has to do with how I anticipate the work will feel when it gets to the gallery. I can’t know how it will sound, how it will reflect light, how it will receive me or accuse me of viewing it. Instead, I offer a view of the work as it developed.

In Dickson’s studio an eight-by-eight-foot carpet of beer bottle caps is doing a ‘wave’ (like in sports stadiums). When the carpet gets to the gallery however, the caps – scrubbed of their colourful logos Ü will not read so specifically of beer or carpet. Nearby in Up the Wall, wire clippings move, literally, up the wall – as if a continuous stream of tiny ants were carrying twigs to some hidden destination. Upon reaching the top, the wire twigs drop back into a pile on the floor where they are retrieved and dragged up the narrow path again in an endless cycle. In the gallery, will those delicate pieces of wire (cast-offs from the construction of the bottle-cap carpet) become a moving drawing?

Even as I propose these minimal descriptions of Dickson’s work, I draw upon external references. I offer a reading because the configuration of materials means something other than a straight-forward or literal presentation of objects. In literature, we call such a device a trope and Dickson’s work is quite tropical.

First of all, there is the allusion to water and physics: the wave. Dickson, who began his formal education in oceanography, has always been interested in things watery and this interest leaks into his art here and there (as in his beautiful yet haunting Vertigo, 1995). Then, there is the idea of repetition: repeated motion and repeated process. Repetitive patterns in nature are accepted, but when humans exhibit the tendency too strongly, we think it compulsive. So what do we make of the repetitive labour involved in making that plane of beer caps (the hours spent piercing each cap and linking them together, over and over)? And what of the repetitive wave motion generated by means of mechanical gadgetry? It reminds me of high school science projects with their means-for-ends problem-solving – a conflicted performance of science and method…”   Up the Wall has a similar feel. The moving metal clippings are so natural science-ish. What forces are at work here? Are we being asked to solve the mechanics or just enjoy the ride? Perhaps the lightly veiled mystery renders the questions moot. Like a Zen rock garden, these patterns of wire gently turn our thoughts in another direction. Unlike the ordered and enslaved bottle caps, these changing, random configurations of line are almost magical, prophetic in their simplicity. And knowing that the wires are the residue of the wave piece makes the metaphysical aspect of Up the Wall even more potent: the spillage of order is chaos; the chaos is poetic; and in the end, it is this randomness beneath all order that post-Mendelbrot physics now accepts as an underlying principle of science.

Watching these works, I recall the particularly satisfying sense of accomplishment (and confidence in Order) I experienced when – without instructions – I took apart and fixed an old wind-up clock. (That thrill marked my successful internalization of the laws of mechanics.) It is a nostalgia for such moments that I sense in Dickson’s work: a yearning and mourning for that satisfying belief in closed systems and do-able projects. Paradoxically, it is often this horizon of closure that makes creativity tangible, possible even. I compare the idealism of modern thought to the cynical exuberance of some postmodern thinkers (Baudrillard for example). In acknowledging and accepting the impossibility of the modernist enterprise (if I may speak so blithely), the postmodern alternative seems shaped by a language suspicious of depth and adoptive of tropes that emphasize open-endedness. While liberating for some, these tropes stir up feelings of loss, emptiness and futility for others. The movement of Dickson’s work begins with this dilemma.

Like ‘mechanical’ sex, the repetitive movements are unable to acknowledge the emotional vacuum that they gesture toward while proclaiming the universal principles they enact. The pulse of these works is, however, diagnostic rather than simply didactic. Dickson’s tentative mastery is inflected with a double-edged sadness: a mourning for the promise of closure and a reluctant admission of its futility. I see success and failure figured in this work, without judgment, with sympathy. A playful pathos tinged with hope.

Kym Pruesse