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Home » Resources » Scrum: Media Centre » Artist Information » Glynis Humphrey Nomination for 2007 Lieutant Governor of NS Masterworks Arts Award

Glynis Humphrey Nomination for 2007 Lieutant Governor of NS Masterworks Arts Award

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In October 2007, Breathing Under Water was announced as one of five finalist artworks in the annual Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia Masterworks Arts Award. Criteria considered by the adjudicators include:

1. Technical quality of the work.
2. Artistic merit of the work.
3. Impact of the public presentation of the work.
4. Contribution made to the historical development and future practice of the artform.

Breathing Under Water was nominated by MSVU Art Gallery Director Ingrid Jenkner, and seconded by Sara Angelucci, artist, and Jan Peacock, artist and Professor, NSCAD University.

Nomination for the Masterworks Arts Award

I have the honour of nominating the multi-media visual art installation Breathing Under Water 2005-2006, by the Nova Scotian artist Glynis Humphrey.

This work has already been exhibited on two occasions: first in Montreal, at Galerie Powerhouse La Centrale (2005) and secondly in expanded form at Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery, Halifax, (2006) at my invitation. The major exhibition catalogue documenting the work contains an essay by Heather Anderson, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and further writing by Nicole Gingras, an independent media arts curator based in Montreal. Gingras is recognized nationally as a leading interpreter and presenter of contemporary performance and media art. Copies of the exhibition catalogue are enclosed.

Background of the artform
The format of Breathing Under Water is “installation,” a practice of dispersing multiple components in space that became current in North American artmaking in the 1960s. Installation art forms an environment for the mobile viewer, offering an immersive experience that is different from the physically detached contemplation of a single object, such as a painting or a sculpture. By the 1980s, installation art often incorporated video and sometimes other forms of projection, together with interactive sound and sculptural elements. The work of the internationally respected intermedia artist Jan Peacock (Halifax) typifies these developments. Glynis Humphrey studied under Peacock while at NSCAD in the early 1990s.

“Body art,” a branch of performance art, arrived in the same decade as installation, pioneered by proto-feminists such as Carolee Schneemann (New York). During the late 1960s and early 70s, artist’s video gained currency in the US and Canada, while performance for the video camera was taken up by women artists such as Martha Rosler (New York), Lisa Steele (Toronto) and Martha Wilson (Halifax).

Humphrey’s deployment of her own body on camera is consistent with the feminist ethic of politicizing the personal that arose in women’s performance and body art of the 1970s. Her hybrid installations fuse her recorded performances (body art) with physical situations (installations) designed to transform the viewer into a performer as well.

What makes Humphrey’s work exceptional in the context of projection-installations is the use of non-verbal bodily sounds together with intimate video subject matter and highly schematic sculptural components. While Humphrey’s mentor, Jan Peacock, often deploys spoken words and texts, the signification of Humphrey’s work invariably arises in the absence of verbal language. The senses are fully engaged.

The previous major media installation exhibited by Glynis Humphrey was Gorge, presented at MSVU Art Gallery in 1996 as part of the emerging artists exhibition series. This strikingly original work involving floor-mounted video monitors displaying strobed close-ups of food being consumed, together with textile elements and a gigantic, walk-through ball gown, now stands as a prophetic precursor to Breathing Under Water. Gorge is still talked about in the Nova Scotia arts community, as the unforgettable statement of an important emerging talent.

It should be noted that the artist’s uncompromising vision and straitened financial situation have restricted her production thus far to the two exquisitely realized works mentioned above. Breathing Under Water was eight years in the making. The technical complexity of this work is not immediately apparent, but fully supports its emotional intensity and accessibility to the mobile spectator.

Description of Breathing Under Water
The installation at MSVU Art Gallery fully occupied a space 60 feet long by 30 feet wide and 22 feet high. One wall was dominated by a video projection of a fleshy woman in a diaphanous gown, both submerged and with her head above water, shot in close-up and rhythmically edited. On another wall, mounted above eye-level, a 20-inch flat-screen monitor displayed a second video of the same figure in long-shot, seemingly suspended in outer space but on closer inspection floating in water with breathing apparatus. Near each video a parabolic speaker suspended from the ceiling emitted low sounds of breathing and splashing. A series of large weather balloons suspended at various heights, and attached to speakers both guided the movements of spectators and engaged them in touching and listening to the complex, heartbeat-like rhythms. The highly localized sound emitted by the parabolic speakers provided a different experience from the distorted, murmuring, ambient sound transmitted through the balloons. The twilit installation was thus acoustically alive, spatially dramatic, and rich in opportunities for both visual and physical engagement. I found it notable that the gallery’s non-specialist audience felt the work to be as enthralling as did the art community. Several reported a primordial feeling of relaxation, akin to a regression to the womb. (A selection of anonymous visitor comments is enclosed).

Merits & Impact of Breathing Under Water
It is the sensual terms of engagement that render Humphrey’s installations so universally appealing. No other artist in Nova Scotia makes similar work. Her work has more in common with feminist multi-media artmaking in Montreal, where media artists often accommodate multi-cultural audiences by producing non-verbal interactive art. This characteristic suits their work to exhibition abroad, in non-English-or-French-speaking venues. Humphrey’s way of working thus advances the artform as practised in this province, at the level of audience accessibility and international exhibitability.

Among Humphrey’s innovative uses of her media I would single out following aesthetic principles: verbal language is rigorously excluded; one’s encounter with the work is invariably experienced as a dramatic, mobile, viewer-centred situation; and space is shaped by sculptural elements that augment the effects of the audio-visual components without privileging the sense of sight. As Nicole Gingras puts it, “From the moment they step into the gallery, visitors feel the vital force animating the work. This comes through, first of all, in the sound...Humphrey offers visitors not one but several possible paths, spaces in which they can move through successive visual and acoustic experiences...”

Open to the subjective particularities of men and women and persons of all ages, Breathing Under Water subtly incorporates the element of gender. The paradoxical femininity of a buoyant, adipose, middle-aged woman’s body, as displayed in the context of the installation, deflects the judgmental gaze and solicits an instinctive re-connection with the lost maternal body. I regard this as a significant achievement. The artist has built, without irony, on the “gender-neutral” style of Minimalist sculpture of the 1970s, which accounts for the spare elegance of her work. On the other hand she refuses to let go of her feminist politics, and provides an opportunity for insight that is refreshingly authentic and free of didacticism. In this respect her work serves as a beacon for younger Nova Scotian artists, many of whom are making woman-centred work with a focus on the body.

As an immersive, sensual, language-free environment, Breathing Under Water seems to have affected francophone audiences in Montreal and anglophone ones in Halifax with equal intensity. Gingras observes that, “The dynamics of desire and of the erotic tension between fear and pleasure are perceptible in the body’s convulsions, in the sometimes panicked gaze and spasmodic breathing. Here, the artist seems to suggest abolishing the border between an interior world and an exterior world, and explores the meeting or perhaps the fusion, of paradoxical environments.” In other words, viewers of this poetic work are likely to experience an intense transformation of consciousness. Isn’t that what we expect from great art?

Ingrid Jenkner

Comments from the MSVU Art Gallery Visitors’ book
(Names have been deleted; several of the comments were written by artists)

24 March 06
One of the most influential exhibitions I’ve been to in a long time. I wanted to stay longer than I could.

24 March 06
As an individual whose life doesn’t revolve around art I must say that this was the most interesting display. You can actually feel every breath and sound.

24 March 06
I am not much of an art follower...I experience the most incredible sense of serenity and calm during this exhibit. I also found a feeling of belonging and connectedness to other people. Most exceptional.

26 March
I stopped breathing sitting under the giant balloon with stretch marks, took comfort in the heartbeats of others. All brilliant in so many ways.

26 March 06
Interesting to touch the balloons and feel the heartbeats.

28 March 06
Ms Humphrey, should I ever be able to weave such enchantments I will die complete. Congratulations! Amazing.

21 April 06
Made me feel connected to my mother who has passed away. Very ethereal yet physically present.

21 April 06
I feel like being submerged in an aquatic and maybe pre-birth experience.

28 April 06
Thanks for doing this–so many curves in a square space–beautiful.

27 March 06
This inspires me to be fully within my body. Breathing into its every cell. Love my maternal body.

30 April 06
Unexpectedly soothing, something embryonic happening. Thank you for this experience.

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