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Features / September 15, 2014

Infinite Playlist: Eleanor King has an Ear for Objects

Sound runs through Eleanor King's work like a heartbeat. So does a dedication to endless practice, Sarah Fillmore writes.

Sound runs through Eleanor King’s work like a heartbeat. It drives the work. It builds, steadily, and moves through space, through walls, through objects. Using instruments and other conveyors of sound as building blocks, she creates sculptural installations that have physical and aural presence. As compositions, their structures are balanced and considered, creating a visual analogue of the syncopated beat.

Truth be told, King is a bona fide rock star. This Halifax-based artist plays drums and the keyboard and sings, too. As a member of the bands Wet Denim, the Just Barelys and now-defunct the Got to Get Got, she has toured music festivals across the country. This summer, Wet Denim played a coveted main-stage spot at Sackville’s art-drenched Sappyfest. She’s been known to lead a dance party on a back deck, in a van or on the beach. She has accompanied a karaoke party on an out-of-tune pump organ in the loft of a barn and made everyone sound good. King is the kind of artist who finds ways to make performance part of her practice.

King’s Endless Practice (2011) smartly sums up the non-glamorous side of the work of an artist—the repetition, the tedium, the grind. This drum stack emits a low-level recording of a muffled drumbeat (played by the artist herself) that, as she describes it, “sounds like the annoying garage band next door, always practicing the same song.” The drums she used to build it were discarded or borrowed, though all intact and usable. In their unaltered states, they sit in silence, ready to be dismantled and put back into play. Their skins show the battery of concerts past and untallied hours of practice endured. The stack is dizzyingly high, installed to the highest possible level in every space it is shown in.

The job she has chosen, that of an artist, is hard work. The labour involved in the making of an artwork often gets masked by the polish of the finished product. There are hours and hours of practice—often-monotonous work that can feel unrewarding. Through repetition, the hope is that the body learns what it is that the brain wants it to do, and that the two forget to be separate. This exercise opens a new avenue of discovery for an artist: time seems to slow down and the brain is free to open in a new way. Those hours of repetitive work, for King, have resulted in intelligent, seemingly effortless works. One is made to wonder how she makes her works look so easy, so familiar and smartly approachable.

David Diviney, curator at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, invited King to be part of the summer 2014 exhibition “Rock Show: At the intersection of art and music.” She was a natural fit, presenting Endless Practice alongside an Annie Leibovitz photograph of Keith Richards taken in 1972; Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg’s Head (2004), a carved-polystyrene amplifier and found Styrofoam cooler; and Greg Forrest’s bronze sculpture of Keith Moon’s Drum Kit (2002), among others. The exhibition showcased smart, sexy work that speaks of music’s intractable connection to art and artists.

King has worked with sound in myriad ways, and the performer in her informs the visual output. With King’s work, beats resonate. That distant drumbeat heard from Endless Practice seems to come from within, from next door or maybe from all around. There is a steady rhythm that drives the work forward. King has often harnessed sound, whether ambient or produced; she works with physical beats, with visual rhythms, with aural and haptic sensations.

In recent installations at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery and the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, King made site-specific wall paintings, using colours and patterns to represent political and historical points reflective of each venue’s geographical context. At the SAAG, her installation, Stacks (2012), dealt with the region’s complex history of settler culture—how those who moved east from the West brought environmental colonialism, agriculture and coal mining with them—as well as the province’s current investment in the tar sands. The wall painting referenced the irrigation patterns in the fields outside Lethbridge, seen from above. Rocky Point (2014), her site-specific work for Pan Wendt’s exhibition “Somewheres” at the Confederation Centre, mapped the storied history of Rocky Point on Prince Edward Island. The names of the painting’s patterned colours  were listed in the wall text: Black Sable, European White, Acadia Gem, Sand Motif, Eleanor’s Emerald, French Silver, Glazed Earth, Deep Waters and PEI’s Morning Breeze. These titles tell the story of this place, located at the mouth of Charlottetown’s harbour: Rocky Point—like all of Canada—was originally Aboriginal land, but now just part of it is a Mi’kmaq reserve. Rocky Point was also the scene of the expulsion of the Acadian people from PEI in 1748. As with Garry Neill Kennedy’s An American History Painting (The Complete List of Pittsburgh Paints Historic Colour Series) (1996), housed at the National Gallery of Canada, the titles of the colours inform the reading of the work. King’s painting demonstrates an attentive response from a student to a master. An informed viewer will see the resonance of place and history, physical and art historical, embedded therein, like that beat from inside the drum stack.

King’s work pays homage to Kennedy, the godfather of what is now the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University, as well as to the forefathers and foremothers of sound art—artists such as John Cage, Jean Tinguely, Robert Smithson, Laurie Anderson, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. Through her recent foray into wall painting, King explores a visual mapping and place-making/setting that reveals a deep debt to Kennedy’s work. His time at the helm of NSCAD, from 1967 to 1990, marked a period during which conceptual art was at the heart of artistic production at the school. In that heady time, artists like John Baldessari, Dan Graham, Martha Wilson, Daniel Buren, Vito Acconci, Lawrence Weiner and Sol LeWitt made work at NSCAD; the seeds he planted then have taken root and continue to flower to this day.

King is part of the latest generation of NSCAD royalty. Her training was rigorous: intellectually driven and physically demanding. King’s sojourn through NSCAD’s sculpture department was led by Thierry Delva. In addition to his training as an artist, Delva is a classically trained stonemason with excellent skill and sharp wit. NSCAD’s brand is built on its heyday as a hotbed for conceptual art. King was raised in that environment and now builds on that foundation. Her work is the stuff the school holds true. Her work is always rooted in thought—the ideas (made manifest through the integrity of the materials used, as well as the ways in which they are used) reign supreme.

A couple of years ago, a visiting artist set up his work in the school’s Anna Leonowens Gallery. As King took a critical look at the sculpture installed, she stated her disapproval of the artist’s “unnecessary” use of glue. In her words: “Thierry would say, ‘sticky-poo’! You just don’t do that to wood. I would have had my ass handed to me in school if I had used glue like that.” The statement stuck and tells much about the artist’s training and how it informs her work. Her sculptures rely on a sense of truth to materials and integrity of form and play on that innate sense of precariousness. Without a binding element, the works depend on gravity, and results are often unpredictable.

For Record Stack (2012), King stacked hundreds of vinyl LPs in their sleeves, forming a curved column that strains under its own weight. She is conscious of that weight, and the column’s perilous arc and wavering presence is anchored at the top and bottom by aircraft cable strung through the small holes in the records’ centres. It is critical that the records remain unchanged and ultimately playable. King talks about an ideal moment when the piece lives in a collector’s home—he or she looks over at the column and is able to pull the record of choice out and spin it on a turntable. The tricky truth here is that it’s actually impossible to do that— it’s either an artwork or a collection of records—but it is important to King that it can function as both.

King maintains her own filing system—an order for the work as well as the materials she employs. With Record Stack, she plots the course following a chromatic scale. This same scale is also used in other works, such as her record drawings and wall paintings. Her visual vocabulary ranges from somber, almost menacing blacks (found in a mass of discarded electronics used to form the base of the installation Stacks at the SAAG) to bright, popsicle-coloured pastels (used for the stripes found in her 2012 painting installation Party Room Sunrise).

While on a residency in 2011 at the Banff Centre, King was able to take stock of her practice and see her work in a new light. Her work often begins with a call for obsolete or outdated technology, machines or discarded parts thereof. She often works from a bank of this material to build environments or sculptures. King let go of her usual process with this residency and found that this shift brought her a degree of freedom. Using a single audiotape reel (left behind in her studio), coloured pencils and a large, black roll of paper (“borrowed” from residency-mate Raymond Boisjoly), King set about making a new body of work. The drawings she produced are cool, techy traces of the circumference of a reel-to-reel canister, made using each of the coloured pencils until they were worn to nubs.

King has worked these drawings into her broader oeuvre. She creates undulating worm-like figures, at times evoking the Spirograph drawings popular when she was growing up in the 1980s. These stacked forms feel like sound waves—echoes of the music that once lived on the records, CDs or reels she uses to draw them. These same objects have formed stacks in a number of her installations—a column of CDs, titled Redacted Stack (2013), filled the window of *QueenSpecific, the window exhibition space programmed by artist Joy Walker on Toronto’s Queen Street West, in a show curated by Jennifer Simaitis and Stefan Hancherow. Stacks of videotapes, their colourful sleeves sorted by chromatic scale, snaked up the walls in her ode to obsolescence at the AGNS.

In 2009, King was invited to be part of a group exhibition at the AGNS, titled “Sometimes Always,” curated by John Mathews, then programming coordinator at the Centre for Art Tapes. Her work was well situated among peers whose interests in outmoded technologies matched her own, such as the Artifact Institute, Clive Murphy, Craig Leonard and Factotum, among others. King’s installation, Obso-less-sense (2009), took the form of what she names a “post-apocalyptic boutique junk shop.” Piles of old televisions, turntables, speakers, tuners and amps formed distinct districts within the gallery space. Those electronic elements that did still work were plugged in and left to hum, white noise mingling with radio static—a strategy used again in Stacks to evoke the sound of running water. Computers displayed the words “NO SIGNAL” bouncing across their blue screens. King had the gallery’s piano brought into the space; it functioned as a stand-in for the hundreds of free pianos listed on Kijiji and Craigslist. Here, visitors were invited to add their own performances to that of the machines. For the run of that exhibition, King set up shop in her exhibition space, making jewellery from surplus resistors to pass the time while engaging with visitors. Her presence was an obvious human one in an otherwise machine- and tech-based environment.

Sound sometimes comes in its other form: silence. In King’s work, silence can be as loud as a drumbeat. For instance, with her Redacted Records series (2010–11), King has reworked the rhythm. Like a remix, she uses the interior sleeves of vinyl album covers—their graphics and liner notes—as a canvas. The Redacted Records read as waveforms, the whited-out words creating a visual rhythm. Treated as drawings, sitting on a small ledge, these works bear the marks of time, their battered edges betraying their roots as found objects.

Always a fan of obscure or outdated technologies, King looks to these relics as source materials. She finds ways of imbuing these apparently dead materials with new life, sometimes using them as physical building blocks and sometimes just using them for inspiration. For the 2012 Sobey Art Award exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto, the assembled works provided a sort of portrait of the artist and her interests. Building on the presence of Endless Practice, she also showed Record Stack, a record drawing called Spinning Record (2012) and a new projection, Typewriter Ribbon (2012).

A final nod to King’s multiple talents: in 2013, she was invited to be the first curator of Halifax’s well-established arts festival, Nocturne. This wasn’t her first curatorial venture—she frequently works with artists to realize projects. Her collaboration with Hancherow at the Anna Leonowens Gallery, The King and I (2010), was a hugely popular and smart art bar—the kind of bar we all wish was permanently installed right down the street. The duo capitalized on two interrelated histories: those of NSCAD University and of Halifax’s bar culture. Anna Leonowens, the British governess to children of the King of Siam, was a founder of NSCAD. The King and I, of course, is the name of the film and musical inspired by Leonowens’s memoirs. As director of the gallery, King built the bar into the exhibition schedule, capitalizing on a week-long window of time between shows. She and Hancherow turned one of the three gallery spaces into a gathering place. Their bar displayed works by artists with a deep connection to NSCAD, whose works stem from or reflect on the culture of getting drunk (or, as Duke and Battersby succinctly put it in the title of their video work, Being Fucked Up). Forrest’s exquisitely carved Glasses of Guinness, a video of David Askevold’s performance Two Hanks and Craig Francis Power’s hooked rug Fun, were served up alongside cold pints of local brew and bowls of chips. Hancherow and King served drinks and cleared tables—acknowledging the place that so often functions as the artist’s other studio: the bar.

For Nocturne 2011, King collaborated with artist Andrew Mazerolle on the piece Rock and Roll. For the duration of the one-night festival, Mazerolle and King put a band in a van, or rather played the roles of members of a non-existent band from the ’90s, ghosts of sorts from the heyday of the East Coast’s indie-rock past. Their van pulled up curbside around the city at locations of legendary (but now inoperative) music venues and the two artists busied themselves with unloading equipment, then reloading the same, without any gig satisfaction. Along the way, they picked up their own groupies—followers who sat and talked with the artists, drank a clandestine beer in the back of the van, sang along to songs by Sloan, Thrush Hermit or Eric’s Trip blasting on the stereo and participated in this guerrilla form of art. That endless practice and seemingly pointless activity built a frenzied following. King gained many new fans in Toronto when she showed at MOCCA as the Atlantic nominee for the 2012 Sobey Art Award. Her work was acclaimed and whispers could be heard: “Who is she? Where did this artist come from?” She was a hit. But as with all overnight successes, hers is hard earned. It comes from working hard, being smart, taking chances and, always, from an endless practice.

This is the cover story from the Fall 2014 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, visit its table of contents. To read the entire issue, pick up a copy on newsstands until December 14, 2014.