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Susan Feindel: See Below
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From the exhibition catalogue Susan Feindel: See Below, published by MSVU Art Gallery, 2010
See Below is Susan Feindelís first painting project to have been conceived as a spatially coherent and fully staged (with sound and lighting) approximation of the ocean floor environment depicted in her paintings. As a theatrical evocation of a still mysterious place, See Below reflects the artistís continuing interest in rendering visible that which cannot be observed by the unaided eye. The installation builds on previous exhibitions alluding to remote sensing and medical imaging technologies, such as Scan (Dalhousie Art Gallery, Halifax, 2005) and Landscapes Beneath the Sea (Arts Place, Annapolis Royal, 2003).
As installed at MSVU Art Gallery in March 2009, See Below was composed of six unstretched, approximately 17-foot-long canvases positioned in a row on the floor with their long edges parallel, spanning the length of the subterranean room. These canvases, collectively entitled It will smell like the breath of a new-born baby, depict areas of the ocean floor that have never been seen by the unaided eye, but only acoustically scanned by side-scan sonar. The view afforded by the mezzanine overlooking the installation replicated the vantage point of the ship-board oceanographer surveying the sea bottom. Curtained off at one end, the three Perforation Map drawings were lined up on special Plexiglas-covered stands.
The sole source of light was a single lamp suspended within inches of each canvas, with the row of six lamps forming a diagonal that bisected the gallery. Covering the floor from wall to wall, textured black roofing paper made the edges of the canvases, which are painted in black ink, appear to bleed into an immeasurable depth. As they navigated in the darkness around the canvases, the viewerís attention was directed downward instead of straight ahead, as in conventional painting installations. By re-orienting the spectatorís gaze to the stretches of horizonless terrain at their feet, the installation dissolved the gallery architecture and, in effect, submerged its viewers. Accentuating the sense of submersion, an ambient soundscape, Sediment Chorus, an audio recording of Norwegian marine sediment, replaces the texture of sediment with the scratchy, composed sound of its own movement. (To listen, follow this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Jt6LTibuCE&feature=related.
Susan Feindel has accompanied ocean scientists on several research voyages aboard ships operated by Canadian and Norwegian oceanographic institutions. The darkening of the gallery floor and the dim lighting are intended to evoke the ways in which a deeply submerged territory may be surveyed from onboard a research ship, via cameras with powerful lights or acoustic energy reflected from the seabed.
The ink and wash map drawings return viewers from the ocean floor to the surface, but again Feindelís concern is with the unobserved. In the drawings, the normally invisible global flows of fish migration and magnetic anomalies in the earthís crust are indicated with perforations in the paper. These minutely textured pin-pricks would remain invisible were they not lit from beneath, producing a lively sparkle.
Earlier land-and-seascape paintings by Feindel are as much material as pictorial. Their dirt-encrusted, heavily impastoed and furrowed surfaces re-enact the flows of nature and human interventions into them. The See Below floor canvases, derived not from observation but from relatively immaterial side-scan sonar printouts, lack the tactility of the open-air landscape paintings. Yet their hand-rendered marks and immersive scale, together with the murk and ambient sound, engage the sensorium just as compellingly as in her terrestrial works. Unlike the remote sensing imagery that inspired it, the immersive space of See Below asserts the primacy of bodily experience in knowing and understanding. It fosters feelings of physical and emotional connection, as opposed to scientific detachment.
Compositionally, the canvases follow the format of printed side-scan sonar records (refer to the Appendix for more detailed information about this technology.) The source printouts for the See Below paintings represent various depths; the longest dimension of each canvas represents a three kilometre span of ocean floor. Like side-scan sonar, which provides a downward-looking view of the ocean, the paintings have no top or bottom and consist of seemingly topographical tonal vistas flanking a featureless central band. In the printouts this band indicates the sound shadow below the ship and is therefore white. In her paintings Feindel reverses it to black. Otherwise she approximates the code of the printouts, which symbolize tonally the hardness of the surfaces reflecting the sonar signal along a scale of white through black, with black being the hardest.
To make the floor paintings, Feindel wetted the stretched canvas and applied India ink using sponges, brushes and sprays. She also employed dry media together with erasure and wire-brushing. Over-sprayed grey washes suggest granular areas of sediment. Some areas have highlights applied in white. Ever open to accident in her use of materials, Feindel has allowed iron oxide stains leached from the ink to remain. The paintings are gridded in coloured pencil, emulating the appearance of the side-scan sonar printouts in which the grid proportions denote distance and scan width.
Several of the habitats presented in the paintings are subject to destructive fishing techniques, oil and gas exploration, and munitions dumping. For example, in It will smell like the breath of a new-born baby 3 a maze of cross-hatched black lines reproduces scallop rake marks scarring the sea bed on Georgeís Bank, near Nova Scotia. Sediment and organisms have been scraped off, exposing the underlying substrate which the sonar records as black. In contrast to this evidence of human intervention, in It will smell like the breath of a new-born baby 6, ancient iceberg scours off British Columbia show as whitish trails, their tonality suggesting that they have been filled with sponge reefs that are softer and less sound reflective than the original post-glacial deposits.
Unlike the side-scan printout with its crudely toned areas and numerical notations, or a scientific map illustrating fish migration, Feindelís floor canvases and Perforated Map drawings disclose key qualities of nature, such as beauty and fragility, that are subjectively intuited rather than objectively verifiable. Feindel takes scientific findings and processes them subjectively, producing hand-made works of art whose ambiguity and incompleteness with respect to their declared subject matter render them more receptive to the viewerís interpretive impulses. Of course, the artistís creative reshaping of technological schema also transposes them into metaphorical realms that are of particular interest to her.
A maternal encounter with biomedical imaging technologies underlies Feindelís fascination with ultra-sound and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). For example, her painting and drawing series Intensive Care (1983-1984) centres on a downward-looking view of a naked childís figure reclining, as though on the operating table or in the bed of a scanner. The vantage point is the same as that of the See Below floor canvases; the subject of Intensive Care is the artistís child, who was born with a heart defect. Yet, unlike the clinical gaze, Feindelís is worried, wondering and empathetic. She insists on identifying human bodily processes with ocean organisms, and my (our) body with the
Side-scan sonar and biomedical imaging technologies reflect the widely held belief that the truth lies beneath the surface and needs to be seen to be fully understood. Ultra-sound, a technique derived from sonar, provides a window into the pregnant body. The fetal sonogram often serves as a social document, the first portrait of the unborn baby. The ocean, with its deeply submerged and visually inaccessible ecosystems, is somewhat comparable to a pregnant body. Feindelís sonar-derived art depicting the oceanís scarred and fragile interior also serves as a social document, within the genre of landscape painting, and in the service of environmental conservation.