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Reviews / February 1, 2013

Banned Books Take Flight In Robyn Moody Show

Eyelevel Gallery, Halifax January 18 to February 23, 2013

A bibliography of Robyn Moody’s installation Butterflies. Species at Risk at the Edge of Reason (2010–13), currently on view at Eyelevel Gallery in Halifax’s North End, might read like a who’s who of the literary world past and present. In seminal titles authored by the likes of Copernicus, Harper Lee and Salman Rushdie, Moody’s diverse list traverses centuries as it does subjects.  Where his collection coalesces, however, is in the fact that each selection has been met with varying degrees of societal backlash—up to and including full censorship.

Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, first printed in 1543, for example, offered an alternative model for the universe. Though it’s the framework for today’s astronomical views, the book was withdrawn from public circulation in the 1600s pending “corrections” by the Catholic church.

Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird was widely praised for its tackling of weighty issues—including class relations, gender roles and rape—though it has also been met with a steady stream of scrutiny for its use of racial epithets, among other concerns.

Salman Rushdie’s 1988 book The Satanic Verses, inspired in part by the life of Muhammad, was accused of being blasphemous in the context of the Muslim faith, leading to a series of violent attacks on one of its publishers and several of its translators. As for Rushdie himself, a fatwa calling for his death was issued by none other than Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, sending the author into years of hiding and seclusion.

Of the eight titles gathered by the Calgary-based Moody, others include 1964’s Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr., a work extolled as well as derided for its explicit portrayal of subjects like drug use and homosexuality; 1959’s Children of Our Alley by Naguib Mahfouz, which, like The Satanic Verses, was met with severe criticism from religious authorities (the Egyptian-born writer was later stabbed in the neck by extremists, and survived); and 1859’s On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, a treatise that is the very foundation of evolutionary biology, but which is still scrutinized by many who negate its theories in lieu of creationism.

Despite the heavy burden of these objects—a burden which rests in their loaded content and in the polarizing conversations they’ve elicited, and often continue to elicit—Moody brings these books into a context that conveys peace and harmony more so than tension and controversy.

Each book is presented atop a mechanized device of varying height—not unlike a lectern—and is opened roughly midway, allowing one to read a couple of pages if one so chooses. A series of motors, gears and belts delivers an articulated, though ever so subtle, flapping movement to the opened books, as if mimicking a set of wings. Focused, theatrical lighting—an unconscious nod, perhaps, to the drama that has unfolded around the embattled titles—illuminates the white surfaces of the paper pages, their synchronized actions, and the area proximate to each kinetic sculpture. The books glow and appear to hover above their highly crafted (if not idiosyncratic) stands, and the books are carefully spread around the space so as to evenly occupy it—like butterflies resting on wildflowers spread across a field.

In his zoomorphic references, as in his titling, Moody establishes a link to the ongoing dialogue between nature and culture within his practice. For more than a decade now, the artist has looked to the precarious relationship between humans, technology and the natural world as a starting point for a number of highly ambitious works.

Moody’s recent Hope Lake as seen through the eyes of Manley Natland (2009) is a case in point; it’s another expansive kinetic installation that takes its cue from a real-life story—a 1950s plan to set off controlled, underground nuclear explosions in order to extract oil from Alberta’s tar sands. In Hope Lake…, the artist delves into the past as a means of examining contemporary politics and environmental concerns, and in doing so, he asks, “How far have we really come?”

As in Hope Lake…, Moody’s Butterflies. Species at Risk at the Edge of Reason draws our attention once again to history as a trigger for thinking about the present state of our civilization. This gives one pause to consider the true focus of Moody’s poetic display:  Is it really the butterflies that are at risk, or a different species altogether?