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Features / August 11, 2014

Gravity’s Rainbow: A Visit With Libby Hague

“A fragment is not a fraction but a whole piece.”—Lyn Hejinian, My Life

It was while attending her recent “Family Dynamics” exhibition at the sparkling white room that is Toronto’s Verso Gallery that I decided all over again—after already admiring Libby Hague’s work for years—that one really ought to give oneself up, utterly, unreservedly, joyously, to an artist who would list “gravity” as one of her materials.

“In Hague’s production,” I scribbled in my notebook, “gravity never pulls anything down. Rather, it buoys things up. Although Hague contrives a serious kind of gravity (gravity as gravitas), a gravity into which objects depend (i.e. they hang down into it), they are nevertheless made vivacious by it. Hague’s two-way gravity is as resilient as bedsprings.”

I’m writing here about gravity because gravity was one of the ingredients for her cheeky, insouciant and yet sweetly vulnerable Big head, big heart, the happy child (2013) in “Family Dynamics”: a dangling, gangling near-figure leaning against the gallery wall, its painted stick legs apparently supporting (despite their radical lean) a big, flat, wall-hugging “head” and “trunk,” bound to one another with rope (like two inter-slung parcels, or like the cording and tendoning in the body).

The work is listed as employing papier mâché, woodcuts, upholstery tacks, rope, Irish beach treasure (Irish beach treasure?) and painted wood…as well as the aforementioned gravity.

I felt I had to ask her what “Irish beach treasure” was. I emailed her. She replied: “You seem eager about its secret nature and I don’t want to disappoint you because I imagine you like secrets, but the beach treasure was something I found on Inisheer”—one of the three Aran Islands in Galway Bay, where Hague had a residency a couple of summers ago—“which became the body of the Big head, big heart etc. figure. It’s one of those helpfully suggestive and adaptable things you find on a beach when the object’s prosaic origins are worn away by the sea.”

The Verso figures—for they all stubbornly remain figures, even as they try to skitter away towards the realms of purely abstract constructions—possess an ingratiating and yet amusing, almost off-putting winsomeness. The wall-mounted I didn’t touch anything (2013) figure (papier mâché, net, red beads and copper nails) has such a cat-that-got-the-cream mock-innocence you want to give it a swat. Dimples (2013), with a yellow “spine” made of papier mâché strengthened with aqua resin, sports a beaded smirk that is deliberately almost too cute for words.

A black, witchy, multi-titled work called My back hurts (I hate dancing), (let me see those hands), (don’t make a spectacle of yourself) (2013) is an irresistible black hole of amusingly overwrought negativity, a wall-puppet playing the part (to the hilt) of the repressive parent. Its opposite number, Uninvited guest (enters from the skylight) (2014) (papier mâché, plaster, woodcuts, hooks, large and small copper nails and six stylish belts), is an elegantly fabricated, hanging kite-like construction that seems to be clambering down into the gallery from a skylight. It is tricked out rather like a circus trapeze artist—light, airy, assured. The rigging holding it in place resembles the mysterious structural tensegrity systems (cables, shining guy-wires) of the upper reaches of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus big top (my personal vision of heaven).

I love the way Hague finds things. Whether on a beach on the Isle of Inisheer or in another kind of aisle in a local Goodwill store (she showed me a collection of decoratively outlandish belts—silver, studded, acidic colours—she had harvested for next to nothing and about which she was as happy as a kid on Christmas morning), Hague finds what she needs. She is the Queen of Serendipity.

Or maybe, at the risk of sounding a trifle mystical, the things she needs find her. Sculptor David Smith once wrote, “…beauties come / to be used, for an order / to be arranged.”

The most magisterial musings upon the mysteries of choice and selection that I know occur in Wallace Stevens’s long poem “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” Stevens writes about the necessity of choice, but suggests that creative choice ought not to be a choice that acts by excluding things. This sounds a bit like having your cake and eating it too. But Stevens notes, of his poet-protagonist, that “It was not a choice / Between, but of. He chose to include the things / That in each other are included, the whole, / The complicate, the amassing harmony.”

“The complicate” is Hague’s home-form, her locus, the end of her production and its beginnings. She continually builds “the amassing harmony.”

Only to take it all apart again. When I was in her studio this February, the place—Hague’s visual grammar school—was an exuberantly febrile clutter of objects, substances and stuffs that Hague has recently gathered about her. There were brightly painted cardboard boxes, dangling ropes, cords, belts, a pink lampshade and a hideously ugly ceramic vase (with an artificially cracked surface), now made less ugly by acting as the vessel from which sprouted an orange rod that, in turn, supported other jaunty, suspended things. There were pinned and strapped webs and nets of bright paper strips, shards of fabric and patterned cloth and small plaque-like woodcuts punctuating the walls or suspended and bobbing away from them. It was a carnival of fresh, unexpected materials and endlessly coalescing, dissipating and re-forming ideas. Her studio runneth over. A heaving, teeming plenitude.

Just for fun, I looked up “plenitude” in an online dictionary and was delighted to find that the list of plenitude-equivalents offered there was a perfect Rabelaisian expansion of what we may term the “Hague-ian Complicate”: abundance, barrel, basketful, boatload, bucket, bunch, bundle, bushel, carload, chunk, deal, dozen, fistful, gobs, good deal, heap, hundred, lashings, loads, lot, mass, mess, mountain, much, multiplicity, myriad, oodles, pack, passel, peck, pile, plateful, plenty, pot, potful, profusion, quantity, raft, reams, scads, sheaf, shipload, sight, slew, spate, stack, store, ton, truckload, volume, wad, wealth, yard.

It was all there in Hague’s tumultuous studio.

Sitting casually on the floor (it seemed to have momentarily alighted there, like a butterfly), right at my feet, as we sat and talked, was a red-yellow-green painted construction like a rough, highly provisional, diminutive hand-puppet theatre (or the idea of a puppet theatre), lath-like, roughly strapped and offhandedly knotted together. But because of two hinged, leg-like strips of thin wood dangling onto the floor and two more arm-like strips of papier mâché affixed higher up on the construction, the thing looked like a rough, approximate puppet in itself.

A marionette dreaming about its own theatre? A puppet theatre dreaming about its own inner protagonist puppet—the articulate spirit of the place? The rough little piece transfixed me. “A puppet theatre?” I asked Hague. “Perhaps a puppet theatre and a puppet, all in one!” she told me. A puckish, dizzying elision. A momentary specimen—a core sample—of “the amassing harmony.”

I couldn’t keep my eyes off it. That was last week. But then, yesterday, a week later—knowing I was writing this article about her—Hague emailed me a new view of her studio: “These pictures are from my studio today,” she wrote. “I don’t stay still [a considerable understatement], so you have to write the piece while it is still true. I am my own problem-making machine.” A problem-making machine—and a problem-posing machine and a problem-solving machine all at the same time.

It’s a rich, glorious photo she sent. There are pendulous, droplet-like objects (various containers seized up in teardrop-shaped hairnet bags: Hague loves hairnets and uses them often) that appear to have fallen decisively to the floor (their hairnet comet tails still tethered to the wall far above them). And there are a couple of suggestively architectural structures—cardboard shapes—resting side by side on the floor like charmingly ramshackle apartment buildings (painted red, yellow, green), endearingly unintegrated objects, each of them held in a loosely contrived net (like a slack, exhausted geodesic dome) of black cords. The net is punctuated with the small, bright, abstract woodcuts Hague makes all the time—that look like official seals or gift cards or tags printed with operating instructions.

But there was no sign anywhere, alas, of my puppet-cum-puppet-theatre (she told me later that it still exists, way over at the other side of the studio, beyond the range of the new photograph).

“The relational space,” writes poet Susan Howe in The Midnight, “is the thing that’s alive with something from somewhere else.” Hague lives and works in relational space.

And many of her relational spaces are enormous—vast, proliferating, gallery-filling installations. One thinks, for example, of her Be Brave! We are in this together (2012) at YYZ Artists’ Outlet; or her Hold Me Tight (2011) at Art Toronto; her ambitious Sympathetic Connections (2011), part of the AGO’s “Toronto Now” series; Being Natural (2010) at the Durham Art Gallery and the truly epical One step at a time (2009) at the Art Gallery of Mississauga.

For Hague, the intention to represent, the decision to display—at a large scale—must always, of necessity, be incommensurate in its realization with the nascent idea of the project. Indeed it’s unlikely there will be a nascent idea of the project. It’s not always easy to become what you behold in your mind—or form between your hands. “I don’t build models or anything like that,” Hague says. “When I begin a large installation, I never know from moment to moment how it’s going to work out—or if it will.”

That’s what the ostensibly innocent, childlike, omnidirectional playing in the studio is about. Prefatory to Hague’s heading into a large site-specific work is the time in which, as she puts it, she “internalizes the language of construction” that she might possibly end up using. “What are the gestures I can eventually make?” she asks herself, trying some of them out in camera. Playing in the studio is a laboratory of means and meanings to come.

“I have a print background,” she reminds me, “and my work tends to begin with the modular idea—and proceeds towards complexity. I try to build complexity. ”

It is within this burgeoning complexity that you can see Hague reaching out to encompass the social, the political and the utopian/dystopian energies and undertows that so often serve as the armatures upon which her installation work is ordered. In Sympathetic Connections, for example, in an environment that employed both abstract and representational forms (in Japanese paper), Hague parsed and grammaticized the warring hemispheres of nature and nurture between the turning, grinding wheels on which we attempt to live and to understand our lives.

Juxtaposed to her cascades of paper tumbling from the ceiling, for example, the viewer encountered (albeit rather peripherally) a wall-mounted print of a nuclear power plant, an image—as former AGO curator Michelle Jacques noted—inspired in part by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan earlier in 2011. Sympathetic Connections, said Jacques at the time, “provides a timely exploration of our problematic relationship with the natural environment, invoking universal themes of responsibility and dependency, vulnerability and rescue, and risk and luck.”

For Hague’s One step at a time, artist John Armstrong, writing for Canadian Art online, identified the work’s program or agenda as “a Girl’s Own journey into the dark heart of urban consumer culture,” a trajectory negotiating a shaky arc through minefields of greed, gluttony, selfishness, surfeit, deprivation and despair.

With her major works, Hague decisively leaves behind the charming “toy medium” radiance of her more momentary pieces (my long-lost puppet/theatre, for example) to fold everything she makes and thinks and believes into these fluttery, tentacled, webbed, pinned and slung, clearly impermanent but somehow authoritative places, sites, loci, habitations, provocations—that are her major works.

In an artist’s statement written earlier this year, Hague notes that her work “looks at our precarious world and considers how, without an external code, we can determine and maintain humane social relationships. I look for poetic and material expression,” she writes, “for these moral and existential; challenges.”

In the trajectory of its exhibition time, Hague’s work is never halted into totalizing, summarizing, end-stopped statements. She explores, but she does not conclude. When a work has run its course, it is dismantled, re-examined, rethought, and in its inevitably unsettled mode, returned to a state of play. For Hague, her works are a two-way street, every bit as absorbing to her in dissolution as they are in the process of construction. It is when a work is going rather than coming that she is likely to discover and revel in the Homo Ludens aftermath of her own expressiveness. “I love to de-install,” she says.

This is a feature article from the Summer 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 or the App Store until September 14.