Daniel Olson uses performance as a means to ignite his material production. The Montreal-based artist transforms existing objects with somewhat discrete interventions, at times enhancing or exaggerating their use value. For example, he adds a bell to a wooden walking stick, which can be rung with the simple flick of the thumb; he adheres a magnifying glass to a music box, exposing its inner workings; or melds a fan to a music-maker so both operate simultaneously. For Twenty Minutes’ Sleep the artist revisited earlier installations where he combined objects, sound, video, photographs and performance, to create an office space that sets the stage for a shifting cast of characters.
For a number of years I have thought of my ideal artist’s studio as a small office with a glass paneled door on which was painted my name in gold letters, windows covered with venetian blinds, a hat rack, filing cabinet, framed degrees on the wall, and a desk with a typewriter, a telephone and a bottle of booze.
Here in this staged space, something has happened. For the exhibition Twenty Minutes’ Sleep Daniel Olson combined sculpture, sound, video, photographs, and common objects to depict a place that is reminiscent of his ideal studio. There was a desk, venetian blinds covering the windows, a hat rack, a phone, and drawers to keep files and maybe some whiskey. It was a good place to work, but at what?
Olson’s ideal studio seemed more suited to the iconic private eye of classic film noir than the contemporary artist. It is easy to envision the hardboiled detective, sitting at the desk staring intently at nothing in particular, contemplating a series of circumstances, ordering and reordering, drawing conclusions, then discarding them. The investigator is doing his job, but the space was the only tangible manifestation of this work.
Olson self-consciously built this office space, a quintessential place for working, as a stage for his work. On the walls, set in the corners, lying on the floor were the products of his labour – things that he made out of the simplest of observations and easily overlooked gestures. A rickety chord organ incessantly hummed random chords from the lower end of the musical scale (38). When played, even if just for one or two notes, the organ revealed its instability as it sways slightly on its four unstable wooden legs. Into one of the walls, Olson inserted a standard bathroom fan grille (33). Mounted on the wall instead of the ceiling, the grille looked like an announcement speaker. Olson took this literally, and behind the grille placed a live speaker, emitting the recorded sound of a fan. Using video, Olson created a subtle light and sound show by playing a defective dimmer switch attached to the overhead light in his living room (51). The light bulb buzzed, and the frequency of the sound changed with the intensity of light. Another of Olson’s videos captured the peculiar sounds the artist’s kitchen kettle made when the water is boiling. It was hard to believe that the artist did not manipulate the kettle’s two note whistle, but variances in steam pressure were enough to produce the sounds (50). Lying oddly on the floor near the exhibition’s entrance was a layered piece of plywood with four oversized harness hooks fastened to it (35). This work seeming obstruction was Olson’s remake of Trébuchet, one of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades for which a standard four hook coat rack is removed from a wall and mounted to the floor. Olson’s remake, also called Trébuchet but in english, was more than an art historical referent used to demonstrate the lineage of his thinking or to celebrate the already copiously acclaimed artist. More to the point, Olson’s Trébuchet sincerely worked to conjure Duchamp’s ghost — whom if anyone could flawlessly occupy this ideal work place.
The solitary artist who loses time struggling with ideas in the isolation of his studio is as cliched an image as is that of the hardboiled detective. It is no longer a given that the artist’s studio is the primary site for the production of contemporary art whether we locate this shift in practice beginning with the development of Minimalism or within the wider framework of Conceptual Art. But even as we sit post-studio, the artist’s studio still figures prominently. Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage), Bruce Nauman’s project for the Dia Center, is a multiple projection that shows documentation of the artist’s studio at night in the summer months of 2000. In this endless multi- pointed view of the artist’s work place not much obviously happens beyond the predictable antics between his cat and the uninvited mouse. Hirsch Perlman, in a series of photographs titled by date, documented his studio over four years and the work he made using little more than the leftover materials (cardboard boxes and tape) from his move from Chicago to Los Angles. And Damian Moppett who, as part of his recent exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery, presented drawings, watercolours, and videos, depicting different views of his studio, showing the various stages of his production in preparation for the exhibition.
In these projects the studio is not just a place where things are made, but is also the material of the work. This constant formalization of the studio in some perverse manner reinvigorates the notion of the romantic artist studio as the sanctified place of production, optimistically signifying an endless potential to create meaning, alter understanding and shift rigid assumptions. But this reinvestment does not wholehearted by carry with it a return to grand idealism such as the belief that making has to lead to something, instead it gives value to the smallest of actions allowing meaning to arise at any given time and occur without a clear objective.
Olson materialized his ideal studio with similar intent — as an indication that new meanings are being presented, while simultaneously deflecting the seriousness and totalizing effect of any newly derived meaning, which should remain as ambiguous as the lessons of an endless string of anecdotes. Olson’s method of working is somewhat happenstance, led more by circumstantial observations than by a directed and conclusive research. He fiddles. Nothing is so precise and his process is more about tinkering than fixed outcomes. Often it is hard to see the efforts of his work and maybe the constructed space of Twenty Minutes’ Sleep is offered as proof that something has happened, justifying even the smallest of actions.
i Daniel Olson, 2002.
ii For Twenty Minutes’ Sleep, Daniel Olson revisits earlier installations, such as Retour d’Ivoire, 2000, Private Investigation, 1998 and The Morgue, 2002.