Alison Syme

The Various Contrivances of Philomene Longpre
by Alison Syme, August 2011.
Main Gallery, Sept 6 – Oct 7, 2011

Xia. In a darkened gallery space, on a luscious, luminous carnation ground, a velvety black charcoal bloom – like the dusky, polleny heart of a poppy – is both the setting and the trace of a captive’s struggle. The caught creature’s body is sheathed in pale pink; periodically a dark vermilion wing unfurls from the body or curls around it. In a state of rest, she appears to float weightlessly in her dusty den, but she springs into activity as the viewer approaches. Legs scrabble; head and arms jerk mechanically; hands reach out to either side as if to ward off something or someone sensed but unseen. But even as she writhes, slowly turns, or curls up into a foetal position, the near-weightless being remains trapped in her flowery prison. To the sounds of crickets, water, creaking wood, industry, and traffic, the life-sized figure’s identity oscillates between swirling dancer, suspended siren, and franticly fluttering bird or butterfly. Incalculable time passes as we watch. As she moves, the creature becomes more and more coated in black dust; her facial features disappear Under a velvet mask. At moments she vanishes, flickers out of sight; at others she freezes in strobe light. As though a microcosm enormously magnified, the figure in her radiant carnation snare seems like a close-up from a nature film. The tableau is beautiful and harrowing; we are captivated by this scene of capture.

Xia’s orchidaceous contrivance is not anomalous in Longpré’s oeuvre: her other video systems also stage natural historical allegories. In Formica (Latin for ant), a tethered red figure writhes as more and more shiny lashes bind it in place. In Octopus, we encounter a grey-sheathed creature gradually ensnared by sticky, white, tentacular filaments. The figure is projected onto a mobile screen composed of dangling, transparent ribbons. As its struggle to free itself reaches a climax, the screen itself starts to move, swaying like seaweed in a strong current; creature and environment dance together as the figure shakes itself free only to become tangled once more. Most relevant to our understanding of Xia is Cereus, named after a large, night-blooming cactus. The Cereus installation takes the form of a large but delicate transparent flower. Its petals slowly open as visitors approach; they are also the membranes onto which the image of a miniature figure is projected. In its pellucid floral prison, this character is a mirror image of the viewer: Longpré has compared visitors to Cereus to the sphinx moths that are drawn to the nocturnal blossom.

What is the nature of perception, of our susceptibility to sensorial wiles? Elaine Scarry has examined the imaginative consequences of the “antecedents of human perception in the membranes of plants;” she describes the way petals function imaginarily as figures of the “mental retina” on which images are formed for us.1 Cereus offers us such a floral model of perception, one in which the viewer’s own capture is foregrounded. Drawn to the beauty of the strange blossom and riveted by the ephemeral figure seen on a fragile membrane, the viewer is captured, like a pollinator, by the flower’s contrivances. Perception of the visual field inevitably entails recognition of that field as a trap, full of lures.

But Longpré’s works are not pure nature poetry; on the contrary, her sophisticated, sensitive systems are technologically driven. She describes Cereus as “a robotic structure driven by pneumatic actuators;” at its heart is a laser projection device. Reed switches activate the kinetic structure of Octopus. Xia incorporates infrared and ultrasonic sensors to detect the presence, position, and sounds of visitors; the illusion of the fairy’s three-dimensionality is created by layering HD video to create a holographic effect. The cyborg scenes Longpré orchestrates not only draw us into the visual field but also inculcate awareness of the mediated conditions of perception itself, of our immersion in an environment in which nature and artifice are inseparable.

The artist’s conceits are medium-specific. In Octopus classic film is the snare: the greyish submarine figure is projected in black and white on the strippy screen, accompanied by the sounds of sped-up film reels and the clicks of projection. The grey-scale image suggests the muted colouration of the underwater realm and the temporal depths of old cinema, while the luminous filaments ensnaring the figure, like light spots on damaged celluloid, threaten not only the character but the narrative with break-up. In Xia the paper screen and lush charcoal are both vegetable substances. The carnation ground unfurls onto the gallery floor, tempting the viewer to step into the floral trap. The viewer’s condition is like that of the projected figure who, flitting and wallowing in her powdery lair, is ethereal fairy and mud-painted native, Ariel and Caliban at once. Drawn to both the dream of flight and the gorgeous colour, we are caught in nets of light and stained with our own desire.

1 Elaine Scarry, Dreaming by the Book (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1999), 68, 49.

Alison Syme is Associate Professor of Modern Art at the University of Toronto. She received her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 2005. Syme is also the author of A Touch of Blossom: John Singer Sargent and the Queer Flora of Fin-de-Siècle Art (Penn State University Press, 2010).