This exhibition was the first exhibition in Vancouver of the work of bgl, an artist collective based in Québec City. The acronym bgl is the first initial of the surnames of the three artists Jasmin Bilodeau, Sébastien Giguère and Nicholas Laverdière. They create large scale installations, public art projects that are responsive to the intended environment or surrounding culture. Combining humour and social critique, using popular consumer culture to address global and local political issues, they have worked together for over ten years, exhibiting widely.
The first cellular phones came out in 1983. Even though they weighed almost two pounds, had huge battery packs, thick antennas and cost over $2000, the early wireless technology was a marker of success and privilege. In its beginnings the cell phone represented the free market, and became an essential business tool for those moving money and product. It was a primary prop for Michael Douglas in the movie Wall Street, the archetypal representation of eighties excess and a ruthless portrayal of American corporate culture. “If you don’t use the technology, you are not part of the class.” In the late nineties, the Quebec-based artist collective BGL, composed of Jasmin Bilodeau, Sebastien Giguère and Nicolas Laverdière, captured this sentiment. They handcrafted and sold over 700 solid wood cell phones. With cardboard constructed vending trays strapped over their shoulders, BGL marketed their version of the cell phone, one that couldn’t connect you with your next business deal, but could give you the air of possibility. For only $25 you could hold a tangible sign of success. They used this wireless device as a symbol to reflect how the new technology was being sold, pointedly addressing how at this moment in time its image was equally important as its function.
I held one of BGL’s wooden phones. My interaction was playful. I posed with it, fake talking to some imagined other. It was kind of funny. But ten years later do BGL’s hand-carved replica’s still carry a humourous element? There is no need to justify having a cell phone these days, qualifying it as a business need or under the rubric of safety and security. The onus is on the non-user to qualify why they aren’t carriers. Now that cell phones are commonplace, it doesn’t seem so novel or interesting to interact with BGL’s replicas, but there is still something about these representations that ring with humour. Maybe it rests simply in the representation of such a familiar and everyday item, and in the opposition in materials, turning multiple miniature manufactured components into one solid block of hand-carved wood.
As these objects gain distance in time from more direct issue-based references of class, inaccessibility and newness, humour comes to rest in the small sculpture as a representation rather than as novelty. These representations of common objects are absurd pushed to the ridiculous in the sheer number BGL has handcrafted. In “Funny Peculiar: Humor and Sculpture in Modern Art and After Minimalism,” art critic Peter Schjeldahl states, “Ideology in art often makes a brilliant effect when new. But as a creative resource, it has the shelf life of milk. Humor lasts longer.” For Schjeldahl humour resides partly in the fact that “sculpture intrudes a new object on a universe already full of objects, from galaxies to fingernail clippers.” BGL is certainly guilty of such transgressions.
Another early work is Se perdre n’est pas si triste (1999), for which BGL built out of wood a Mercedes convertible and a portable swimming pool presented on a raised platform of grass made out of painted strips of wood. The displacement of nature and the environmental aspects of these built sculptural forms are evident in their material. The amount of wood used to produce these representations doesn’t compare to the quantity of material used to produce the real items, or the energy needed to use them, but why consume in an effort to critique contemporary forms of consumption, in particular in relation to luxury items and leisure activities? Why cut down another tree? The work’s meaning is directly linked to its contrast to the original material and to the particularities of wood. The presence of the wood in its abundance and rawness seems absurd in its contrast to the function of the original objects, as well as seemingly antithetical to any environmental and consumer critique put forward by the work. But maybe the symbolism inherent in the nature of wood is justification enough.
BGL uses trees even when representing trees. À l’abri des arbres (2000), a multi-layered installation that starts with a nondescript entrance, leads into a room jammed with stacks of boxes wrapped in colourful and patterned gift wrapping paper. Dispersed amongst the massive colour field of presents are signs of a party. A pyramid of plastic cups, numbered birthday candles, napkins and balloons are added to an already chaotic display, which is densely crammed under a gridded wood frame that is covered in a layer of cardboard. Simple evergreen tree shapes (three stacked triangles and a rectangle base) are cut out of the awning to let through a soft light that reflects perfect tree shadows over the already visually hectic display. In wandering through the expansive maze of boxes, the visitor may stumble on a staircase that leads to an opening where they can peek their head through. Above the chaos is a unified and seemingly endless vista of pop-up cardboard trees. The frantic display of consumption, desire and excess below is transformed in a few upward steps to a calm, uniform and solitary experience. There is an obvious spatial and aesthetic division in À l’abri des arbres, but the body of the viewer still occupies both spaces. This also occurs in Sentier Battu (2001), a piece made for the Festival of International Gardens in Northern Quebec, where they created an even field of green with netting and tape to cover the evidence of clear cut below.
BGL turns trees into paper, paper into trees, common objects into solid blocks of wood or empty wooden shells. Identifying with one particular medium is common in artist practices and a simple formula of representation, but for the Quebecois collective it consistently begins in the forest. For MARSHMALLOW + CAULDRON + FIRE =, the tree again figured prominently. A large bough, constructed of layers of manufactured lumber and brightly painted green wood leaves, was balanced awkwardly on a camera tripod, rotating slowly. A chain saw was attached precariously to the end of the spinning branch. Another seemingly hacked branch rested on the floor, reaching into the gallery’s corner windows, filling the frame and blocking a clear view inside. The third major sculptural element was a glowing metal oil drum. Two twig-like branches balanced on its rim over red, orange, and yellow fluorescent Plexiglas flames, holding marshmallows.
For MARSHMALLOW + CAULDRON + FIRE =, they brought their own wood into resource-rich British Columbia to fabricate pieces of a tree. The ridiculousness of them building their own tree from their own processed wood couldn’t go unnoticed. It had some comedic effect. BGL uses humour as a means to make a point about our factored relationship to the landscape. Comedy is a well-known political strategy and form of protest; we find it currently most prevalent in popular television or on the web, and in art historical terms in the absurdities of Dada, FLUXUS and early Conceptual art. In much the same way BGL uses ridiculous puns, absurdist gestures or one-liners to address current social issues, most notably in relation to ecology and environmentalism. They do this by deftly blending popular culture references with art history. In MARSHMALLOW + CAULDRON + FIRE =, they depicted Johnny Cash’s burning ring of fire and the clichés of camping through the aesthetic constructs of Alexander Calder’s formal hanging mobiles and floor stabiles.
It was no coincidence that BGL used trees for their first solo exhibition in “Beautiful British Columbia,” where the natural environment is its most prevalent resource, manufactured as product and marketed as lifestyle. For BGL the tree is a twofold symbol. It stands for Romanticism, where we as subjects build a relationship to nature, and represents a breaking point where the tree is disembodied from nature and turned into product. I imagine the way they aesthetically chopped the tree into pieces being played backwards: all the pieces used to make the tree rewinding piece by piece back into one place to form a solid tree. But for BGL it is more like a horror film where the pieces never solidify into anything. The trees they used to build these pieces of a tree were already disjointed from nature, and their own subjective relationship to the landscape manufactured. Since the parts didn’t come from one solid mass, how can they be returned into one? The answer might be in BGL’s own formula MARSHMALLOW + CAULDRON + FIRE =, but at this point they are still searching the forest for the trees.