All that is solid melts into air
Alma Louise Visscher is crawling. She is on her hands and knees, transferring her weight slowly. The viewer can tangibly understand the cause of her hesitant but consistent forward motion. Throughout her documented performance, she cautiously crawls onward over smooth, dark grey rocks near the water lapping at the edges of the large, soft sculpture strapped to her back.
A bulk of fabric and plastic sheeting has been gathered together into curved, voluminous contours, this flesh-toned bustle trails behind her like the foot of a snail or a ruined bridal veil. You only see the angle of this textile volume as it obscures the artist’s body, with only lanky limbs extending from its apex to a standing position, weaving over the shore into a dense forest path. The Walk, a digital video of Visscher’s performance donning only the wearable sewn sculpture, presents a sensual romanticism with an undertone of subversive violence in its crouched contraction of the female form, acquiescent to the raw landscape.
Visscher is interested in “the space between the corporeal and metaphysical realm”. She hand-sews and serges the wearable soft sculptures, which she refers to as ‘prosthetics’. The word, derived from ancient Greek, refers to an attachment or artifice that replaces a missing element of the body, a part that is lost.
If Visscher’s soft sewn ‘prosthetic’ is a missing element of the corporeal, it appears to be an element from an emotional source, represented as an ephemeral, feminized structure the artist cannot shed through the duration of her documented Walk performances: a beautiful tumour she is condemned to carry.
As a costume, the bustle form originates as an excess of fabric to accentuate the rump of a woman during the Victorian era, a flagrant and ostentatious display of sexuality in a time of restraint. The internal boning of the bustle was an extension of the corset, the most complex architecture of couture: an appendage to the feminine body akin to the nuptial plumage in nature evolved for mating rituals.
Visscher employs these techniques of corsetry and paneling as she stiches together her wearable soft sculptures, and describes the art of sewing “as a traditional architecture of femininity”. Growing up in British Columbia to a supportive yet conservative Dutch Protestant family, Visscher’s mother taught her daughters the basics of sewing.
After arriving in Edmonton, Visscher had a dream of “a floating tent that was lit from within”, and began suspending these wearable sculptures as installations, giving volume and light to the forms which then took on a cloud-like presence in the gallery.
Cumulus clouds are the ones that seem like cotton balls in the sky. Puffy, voluminous forms tiered vertically with a flat-bottomed base, they mosey along the horizon line as immense liminal mountains constructed only of condensation and air.
Cloud Reliquary, installed in 2011, is illustrative of this cloud formation. Visscher states: “my use of clouds is a stand-in for transformation and mutability by invoking their poetic and metaphysical qualities: fluctuating, ephemeral, in-between – with references to nature and a built environment.”
The volumes, hung from the ceiling of the space were created from white, ivory and pale pink fabric pleated and stitched, stuffed and draped yet bearing no visible weight – aside from the references to flesh and the feminized body. Visscher describes the bulbous forms as both obscure and body-like containers, shifting from one place to another: “they become icons of both the superfluous and the sacred”.
Cumulo is Latin for a pile, or a heap; the organization of a pile structurally relates to the way molecules self-organize in chaos theory. These nonlinear systems of organization assemble according to several core fractal patterns found in nature: self-similar structures such as spirals, waveforms or foams. Foam structure is a coagulation of spheres, organized as the smallest surface area for the volume enclosed. A foam pattern, or several spheres together, distributes forces like gravity in a very efficient way – outward from the centre point of the volume. This angular dispersal of gravitational forces is fundamental to setting up a tent properly – one of mankind’s most simple shelters.
Visscher’s work Wish image one: what happens when we close our eyes (2011) extends this primitive dwelling along its singular centrepoint of supporting rope, the end points emphasized against the draped tented walls with circular textile bustles emanating from its’ interior spaces.
Yet this structural principal of force distribution can hold up more than a pup tent, it is also integral to carrying the point loads and soaring heights of one of our most extravagant architectural achievements, the Gothic cathedral. Religious architecture utilized the peaked roof first, creating great height with the steep pitched slopes of roofline arriving at a heavenward apex. These buildings were designed to draw your eye upwards to an illusory, celestial space.
England was where I first encountered the Gothic cathedral. Approaching via the grounds, the structure expanded across the horizon line and its muted masonry mass united with the opaque grey of an English sky. The conservator of the cathedral told me generations of men had hand-built the walls from local stones, without really knowing what their construction would finally look like, or if it would ever be completed in their lifetime. Looking at the illusory weightlessness of the cathedral before me, it became intrinsically apparent the necessity for faith in the toil of it – each chiseled mark embedded in stone created by hand, stacked upwards unendingly.
Belief in something one cannot demonstrate is akin to the creative process, aligned to religion historically and in so many contemporary contextualizations, where the artist is unaware of the direction of their making yet fully trusting of its process and outcome.
Visscher’s interest in Judeo-Christian writing lies in the descriptions of the spaces between heaven and earth - the dimensions of oblivion and limbo conflated together and illustrated by descriptions of resurrections and acts of ascension. She attempts to create volumes that similarly oscillate between two places, floating and flailing at the same time.
During the act of sewing, Visscher became entranced with the parts of a pattern, recognizing in each a fabric façade as compositionally complete in itself. She expanded on this interest through the work Through the Forest for the Trees, completed in 2013: a temporary public art installation in the ravine of Edmonton’s river valley.
Near the entrance of the pathway through the forested ravine, the path parted around a small grove of trees, converging again behind them. Visscher felt the tree canopy represented a skeletal outline of a cathedral structure in the height of the boughes and the open volume revealed between them. Using a utilitarian canvas tarpaulin, she emulated the archways and clerestory elevations by suspending the folds of canvas with rope to the tall branches.
She states the “arches harken an attempt to defy gravity, yet are pulled down by their own weight - suggesting our contemporary wariness towards the gesture of the triumphant arch”. Yet she admits to again inserting the corporeal feminine into the work by the addition of the pale pink cloudlike textile forms bound to the trees, and in the vaginal formwork of the canvas archways themselves. It is another way of connecting to the sublime, via the overt sexuality of ecstasy.
A flying buttress was designed to resist the forces that would push a cathedral wall outwards and bears the load of a vaulted roof. It visibly appears as half an arch “flying” across the spaces of a masonry structure. Technically it meant a great deal in terms of the physical height that a cathedral could then reach, creating an experience for those who entered and flowed through the spatial compressions and vaulting effects designed to inspire awe.
The space of transcendency captivates Visscher: “Perhaps it is this continual sense of flux that is the most poignant aspect of our continual attempt to fit within nature, that provokes us to continually re-imagine ourselves.” In her latest installation, Cathedral Cumulus (2014), she builds an equation between the structural elements of the pinnacle of Gothic architecture and icon of cloud formation. Paired with another iteration of her performative practice in the digital video Walk (Cumulus), the soft sculptures are utilized as a second skin: wearable movements set against the prairie sky. What unites these works is the entropic process of transmutable phase change: when a substance in nature transforms from solid into liquid into gas, and back again – as air and water into clouds, or stone and faith into cathedrals, and our bodies in limbo somewhere in between.
Curator, Art Gallery of Alberta
Alma Louise Visscher: Cathedral Cumulus June 20 – August 17, 2014