Canadian Art

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Ève K. Tremblay: Words of Fire

A feature from the Spring 2012 issue of Canadian Art
Opening spread for &quot;Words of Fire&quot; by Daniel Baird, <em>Canadian Art</em>, Spring 2012, pp 86–91 / photo George Whiteside Opening spread for "Words of Fire" by Daniel Baird, Canadian Art, Spring 2012, pp 86–91 / photo George Whiteside

Opening spread for &quot;Words of Fire&quot; by Daniel Baird, <em>Canadian Art</em>, Spring 2012, pp 86–91 / photo George Whiteside

“It was a pleasure to burn,” the 39-year-old Quebec-born artist Ève K. Tremblay intones, standing in the bright front room of her Union City, New Jersey, studio space, the Manhattan skyline visible from the windows. “It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.”

On her worktable beside a Mac PowerBook is a photocopied page from Ray Bradbury’s visionary 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, marked up with blue pencil to facilitate memorization as part of her ongoing work Becoming Fahrenheit 451, which she began in 2007. The project includes photographs, videos, performances, installations and drawings—her copy of the novel was on display in Montreal this past winter as part of the 2011 Québec Triennial. “I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to do,” Tremblay tells me after breathlessly reciting the first few lines of the book, referring to the performances she was preparing to present at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal in December. Having recently returned from installing an exhibition in Bergen, Norway, she seems a little exhausted. “I don’t want to get totally overloaded again, so this time I think I will try to memorize just the parts that I like the best.”

In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury envisions a dystopian future in which books and reading are banned because they are the source of restlessness, uncertainty and, ultimately, unhappiness; most people keep themselves in a state of empty, mindless bliss by watching interactive television shows on the luminous walls of their houses. The main character, Guy Montag, is a fireman whose job is to incinerate any fugitive books that might be found hidden in the city. But after meeting a spirited, poetic and beautiful teenage neighbour, Clarisse McClennan, Montag has his doubts, and by the end of the book has joined a secretive guerilla band of “Book People” who memorize the classics in order to preserve them for future generations. Bradbury’s masterpiece undoubtedly presaged our era, devoted as its characters are to comforting entertainment rather than difficult reflection, but Tremblay is less interested in it as a prophetic allegory than as an occasion for a much more personal kind of quest.

“I was living in Berlin on Torstrasse next to a video-rental store called Filmgalerie 451,” she tells me. “One day, I looked up at the sign with my arms full of groceries and I remembered reading the book as a teenager, and seeing the film François Truffaut made of it, and I thought about the people in the book who memorize books and I wondered which book I would pick. I couldn’t choose, and then I thought that if I memorized Fahrenheit 451 it would include all of the books.” She continues, “this project led to many hours of memorizing and of observing what was happening in my mind, the process of transforming words into images, repeating word after word and replaying the invisible movie in my mind, saying the words in a low voice so they would stick to a narrative. Then I made many artworks in different mediums related to these actions.”

In a still from a 2007 performance of Becoming Fahrenheit 451, Tremblay is on the ground with her head propped up against a white gallery wall, eyes closed in concentration, book held with both hands on her stomach. She is dressed for a winter exhibition opening in a long black coat, a blue scarf and leather boots, but she seems completely absorbed, adrift in memory. In the lovely photograph Forbidden (2007), the book is splayed on the branch of a bush, autumn leaves and red berries in the sloping foreground, woods in the background; in Forgotten (2007), the book is set face down on a stone in a dry streambed, dead leaves gathered in the crevasses between rocks. While both of these images directly allude to the narrative of Fahrenheit 451—especially the riverside woods to which Montag flees near the end of the story—others are more oblique. In A Bible (2010), a big bible with ripped and crumpled pages rests open on a cement barrier in front of a chain-link fence that surrounds what looks like an industrial facility, the battered old keypad for the gate’s lock affixed to a fence pole beside it. In the beautiful and dramatically chiaroscuro Dancing Books (Triumph over the Fear of Collapse—Spine #5) (2011), books are stacked in a precarious curve, shadows swarming around them; here, the books themselves seem to be becoming animate.

Ève K. Tremblay—she goes by “Ève K.” because Quebec is full of Tremblays— grew up in Val-David, Quebec, in the Laurentians. She was largely raised by her father, the ceramist and sculptor Alain-Marie Tremblay, and spent weekends with her mother in Montreal. “My brother and I had a playroom that was more like a studio,” she recalls. “Most of the toys were pens, paper and paint. There was nothing forbidden in that room! Next to it was my dad’s studio, and upstairs was the studio of my stepmother, Indira Nair, who is a printmaker and painter. For years we could paint, draw, dissect cars—whatever we wanted. I would change my bedroom set-up every two weeks, trying to figure out how the same things could fit together in different ways—I did some pretty complex Smurf installations!”

Tremblay went to high school at the Catholic boarding school Collège Notre-Dame in Montreal (she was in one of the first classes that accepted girls)—a dramatic departure from the free and creative atmosphere of her childhood—and went on to study communication at Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf and French literature at l’Université de Montréal. Tremblay was not initially drawn to the visual arts but to acting and theatre, and spent a year studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York. In the end, she was frustrated by the creative limits of acting. “I told friends at the time that I wanted to ‘drive my own car,’ metaphorically speaking,” she says. “I was tired of all the waiting actors do; I wanted to do Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust in photography.” She continues, “acting, according to Sanford Meisner [the Neighborhood Playhouse uses his teaching methods], is doing things under imaginary circumstances. I try to do ideas I have an emotional connection to—it’s about being specific, having a kind of physical relationship to it. When you are an actor, you do the scenarios that you’re given, and I realized that I am more talented at creating the scenarios.” At 25, Tremblay enrolled in the photography program at Concordia University.

Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust in photography! Of all the great modernist writers, Woolf and Proust may be the ones with the most refined visual sensibilities: Proust could go on for pages about water lilies and wrote movingly about the work of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Jean-Antoine Watteau and Rembrandt; in both To the Lighthouse and The Waves, Woolf describes the physical world with great freshness and beauty that reminds one of John Constable and J.M.W. Turner. As it turned out, though, Tremblay’s second mature body of work, L’Éducation sentimentale, alludes not to Woolf or Proust but to Gustave Flaubert, and it returns to the scene of her uneasy years at Collège Notre-Dame. In La baiser solitaire (2000), a skinny-legged schoolgirl sits on a classroom window ledge, behind the window’s sheer, silky curtain. A trick of the light makes it look as if she is kissing herself, with the city in pale light visible behind her. In La reine des Aulnes (2000), a girl is giving a friend a piggyback ride on the edge of a pond; the two girls are lit in bright white light, the water and the school buildings deep in moody, blue shadows. And in L’ange suspendu (2000), a girl, shot from above with her arms and legs splayed wide, is lying on shadow-raked gravel. In the work, hung upside-down, she looks as though she is flying.

The images in L’Éducation sentimentale definitely have the intimate emotional connection that Tremblay aspires to in her best work. In order to shoot on the grounds of Collège Notre-Dame, she had to get a special letter from the communications director, a former teacher of hers. “At first, I was super nervous and insecure when I went there—I felt I was regressing totally in time—but at some point it became a real playground for me,” she admits. “Each time a surveillance person came to see what I was doing, I showed them the letter and was left to play. This is when I first experienced how creating new actions or new narratives in the same space can help heal the bad emotions associated with that space in the first place.” The photographs in L’Éducation sentimentale are about the innocence and vulnerability, the awkwardness and poetry of one’s teenage years, and with their keyed-up lighting and saturated colors, they are also self-consciously theatrical in a way that evokes Cindy Sherman’s photographs from the 1980s. The girls in L’Éducation sentimentale are performing Tremblay’s memories and emotions.

Tremblay’s powerful use of colour, redolent with expectancy and often melancholy, gives narrative possibilities a dreamlike presence. In La dernière goutte (2001) from the À la recherché des placebos series, a man and a woman squat holding hands at the far end of a teardrop-shaped swimming pool. They are wearing latex gloves and medical masks, looking anxious and conspiratorial. Behind them, a hedge has turned an autumn orange; dead leaves bunch in the shallows of the pool’s translucent Mediterranean-blue water. In Day for Night (2003), from the Zoosemiotik series, blurred, ghostly-white wolves appear out of the woods and haunt the edges of a pond that is coloured a solid, chloroform green. Both La dernière goutte and Day for Night are spooky and highly cinematic, and both are almost abstract in their composition—one is drawn less to the figures than to the pools of saturated colour. The images in Honeymoons, a collaboration with Tremblay’s then-boyfriend, the artist Michel de Broin, are, by contrast, far more personal. In one photograph, Tremblay, decked out in a grey-green raincoat, is on the phone at an emergency call box, looking out toward a rough, foggy sea as though reporting a foundering boat or a drowning man; the water and horizon are almost the same colour as her coat. In another, Tremblay stands in a meadow in a black leather jacket and short shorts, her light-brown hair tousled by wind, beside a yellow sign reading “Warning: Federal Offense.” At the end of the meadow are three cadmium yellow cones, and beyond, pine trees and hills. A second panel has the cones close in the foreground, another set farther down the break of trees; one assumes they mark some kind of nuclear facility, an intrusion of the military industrial complex into what otherwise looks like remote wilderness.

“I went to a psychoanalyst for four years, and that has influenced me a lot,” Tremblay tells me. “I still do deep-relaxation meditation, and ideas sometimes come to me that way. I’ve also read a lot about neuroscience, and that’s something that has influenced the way I think about things. When I started doing the memorizing for Becoming Fahrenheit 451, I already knew I was good at memorizing, but I took it as an experiment—I sort of started watching my brain to see what it did.” Some of Tremblay’s strongest work can seem at first glance cool and impersonal. In Mémoire anticipée d’une jeune fille dérangée (2004) from Tales Without Grounds, for instance, a teenage girl with black hair holds freshly picked lettuce up to her face; behind her, a massive greenhouse sweeps back, the skylights and windows a soft winter blue. In another photograph, Voir au loin (2005), the same young woman stands on the edge of an irrigation canal in the greenhouse, gazing out across an indoor field, the artificial sunlight giving the plants an eerie, orange glow. But the apparently removed, clinical tone of these photographs is deceptive: they are, I think, interior landscapes—what the Chilean surrealist painter Roberto Matta calls “inscapes”—inner theatres in which memories and dreams and fantasies coalesce. Rather than being cold, they are meditative, and the young woman Tremblay frequently uses as her subject—a cousin—serves as the artist’s imaginary double. That double more often than not looks bewildered and lost.

In our remarkably unreflective, impatient culture, governed as it is by the fleeting surfaces of images and the kind of instant gratification that devices like the iPhone make possible, “introspection” is largely thought of as a static phenomenon—a searchlight beamed on an inner self—when it is really a process far more elusive and transformative, private and shoreless. Some of the most poignant pictures in Becoming Fahrenheit 451 are, in fact, quite intimate and a little inscrutable. Tremblay asked friends to memorize lines from books they felt close to; in St. Jean de Perse sur son balcon (2007), one friend is found on the balcony of her apartment in Berlin, sitting in a blue chair with a shawl draped across her legs, surrounded by plants, absorbed in reading. In Mai Hofstad Gunnes Becoming Ash Wednesday (2007), a young woman sits in profile, gazing out over an open copy of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Other Writings, dead leaves scattered on the rocks sloping up behind her. The photographs in Memory Mapping Hope Gardens (Location Scouting) show small urban gardens in Bushwick, Brooklyn, which Tremblay wanted to use as memory aids while learning Fahrenheit 451—she originally printed them as flash cards, associating each image with specific sentences. Halloween (p.140…how long he stood…) (2009) is a little garden surrounded by a crude white picket fence and housing baskets of purple flowers and a scarecrow dressed as a witch, with a shed and trees in full autumn colours in the background. And in Fruits in Winter (p.41…things felt nothing…) (2010), a wicker basket with bright plastic fruit is set on half-exposed garbage bags in the snow.

“My life was semi-sedentary at the time, and I spent lots of time alone, carrying the book around and filming myself memorizing in various places,” she says, speaking of the period when she started working on Becoming Fahrenheit 451. “I had recently noticed that my memory was not as sharp as it used to be, and this was in part because of my ungrounded lifestyle, so I started using the traces of this nomadism as mnemonic devices to store some of the sentences in the book. Basically, this is not a very scientific brain experiment—making invisible scenarios, shapes in my mind. I like to say they were invisible movies, perishable art, invisible sculptures and drawings. The invisible part of this project is the most important, but it’s not just conceptual—it changed me and therefore changed my life.

“For the past couple of years, I’ve spent most of my time on projects related to Becoming Fahrenheit 451, but with new stories and memories, exploring the poetry of failed memory,” she continues. “Through this project, I could more openly reconnect with other mediums I had studied or worked with in my late teens and twenties.” One of the mediums was film—Tremblay had made films when she was younger and had even applied to (and been rejected from) film school—and over the past few years she has made several remarkable videos. The young girl wandering through the ornately furnished rooms of a French chateau in In & Out The Memory Palace (2008) is on a symbolic quest—for the key to her past, perhaps, an object that will stir the memory of something crucial she has forgotten—and finds herself in a room listening to Louis Armstrong sing “Let My People Go”; eventually, she leaves the house for the chateau’s beautiful gardens. In There is Dark Matter in Your Front Yard (2011) the young woman falls asleep beside a globe and a pillar of books, with one book open in front of her. By the end of the video, she is outside with apparent strangers, having a discussion about birds. Tremblay’s videos stylistically evoke the work of the late avant-garde master Raúl Ruiz, moving from the claustrophobic interior of memory and dreams out toward a larger and more encompassing encounter with the world. Here, Tremblay seems to be following Bradbury’s insight from the 1950s. Montag is driven to the side of the Book People not because he has a fetish for books, but because of the joy he sees in a young woman’s love of the world. Books and art aren’t about books and art; they’re about life and the world.

While Tremblay still sublets her studio in Berlin and fantasizes about going back, she is moving away from her nomadic life and seems quite settled in her Union City apartment, which she shares with her boyfriend, Alex Clark. It’s only 15 minutes from Port Authority in Manhattan by way of the Lincoln Tunnel on an eccentric private shuttle bus, and the rent rivals similar places in Berlin and Montreal. Though she can’t get a cappuccino nearby, she can get a café con leche and excellent pupusas at the Salvadoran restaurant down the street. All she needs, she says, is for a few friends to get over their fear of New Jersey and move into her neighbourhood. And she is working on new projects in a variety of mediums—on her desk, there’s a book filled with quirky collages she is making from images cut out of science magazines. Although Tremblay is not planning to undertake another project as all-consuming as Becoming Fahrenheit 451 anytime soon, the experience has, she says, changed her. “One day I will be in an old-age home forgetting about parts of my life but reciting Fahrenheit 451,” she says, laughing. “These days, I think a lot of seniors have better memories than young people with all of their gadgets; many are about to forget that we can memorize things, and the power of the brain in general. Memorizing can be very useful for creative thinking, and it can be funny too—you get all the weird benefits and creative defects of the analog life whose hidden internal structure is not made of 0s and 1s.”

This article was first published online on April 26, 2012.

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