3 Grains of Wheat
Patrick Iberi: Thank you for finding time for this interview John. I’ll begin with Sculptural Objective (1968-1981). For our readers, this is your creative output (spanning fourteen years), which was collected and exhibited at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. A lot has been written about the conceptualization of some of these works and the deliberate probing of the viewer’s otherwise reliable sense of sight and reasoning. Is this the central theme in all your work?
John Greer: My work has always been conceptually based. For me art / sculpture is articulating mind through matter within the art construct. As the title of the exhibition implied, in “Sculptural Objective” I was trying to make the viewer aware that we can perceive ourselves both, as subject and object.
I have always been interested in challenging the status quo. If we do not continually question the premises on which our culture is built, it will solidify, break and die. Changes and renewals are a very necessary thing for the survival of any culture. Culture is a living thing.
The “mirror works” worked in a number of ways. For me they are about seeing yourself as an object among objects and seeing yourself outside of yourself. This perceptual base is fundamental to experiencing my body of work right up to the present. A viewer is essentially a body looking at other bodily things.
Some of the pieces, like the schematic paper airplanes made of dressmaker’s elastic, the cast iron skies, the swinging feathered plumb bob and Humble Ending (Sayonara) were all about becoming bodily aware while intellectually experiencing the work.
I also worked with text-based sculpture. Silent reading seems to be a more cerebral activity then engaging with sculpture, when in fact, it really isn’t. These text pieces endeavoured to bring awareness to your physical body while you were silently reading the words engraved or written as incorporated within.
For me the problem of the mind-body split is a major source of our misunderstanding of the environment in which we exist. My work seeks to continually remind us that we perceive from a body. The mind is not in the body; mind and body are one.
People tend to forget that reality is an agreed upon construct and collectively that particular construct is a culture. I try to provoke awareness and with that I am trying to keep minds flexible. Everything should always be questioned, especially our sense of sight and reasoning. Remember that insight is about engaging our mind.
P.I.: The configuration of the four life-size full-back statues in Sirens is very arresting and it symbolically evokes the iconographic nude sculptures of nineteenth century Italian masters, but your influence for this work is rooted in Greek Mythology, which was the catalyst for European sculpture and architecture. I’d like to know the materials used for this piece of work and also how does it symbolize the four cardinal compass points?
J.G.: I would say it has very little to do with Italian carving. But it does have a lot to do with Greek art. Not only mythological, but it also has to do with the memorial function of the figure in Greek sculpture, particularly in the archaic period from which these are sourced. I purposefully use the backs sourced from the original life-size figures and turn the backs into the front of the sculpture. The same forms have been used in a number of different materials for specific reasons. The aluminium shell-like forms of “The Sirens” are using contemporary material technology. I am interested in the hollowness because for me it signifies a mold or a container where something is out in the world. I use this notion in a number of other works, from the negative of the “axe-head goddess”, the “Black Seeds” and “The Source” for example. In the work “Black Seeds” for instance, because the kernel is no longer there, it signifies that it is in the world. It has been used for sustenance; its idea has been exported. The presence of it “having been” is important, and the wonder to where it has gone. Within the “Sirens” piece, there is the presence of an idea extended or out, gone in the world. That is the same as its use in Greek times. As a memorial it signifies the absence of someone having been. In a sense it is about the immortality of ideas. That immortality of ideas is what a culture is. Its ideas build upon ideas.
The work is a kind of confirmation of humanism. When I talk about immortality I am not talking about a human having an afterlife. I am talking about the afterlife of ideas, as they become part of the fabric of a culture.
The four cardinal points are an idea of direction. After GPS they don’t have the same function, but they are a model of looking for guidance and direction. I apply this system on my Sirens in accordance with their dresses. In mythology the sirens where calling Odysseus to the island to capture him. I see that as similar to the human mind desiring security and fixation.
“Facing East” is a sculpture using one of the figures. The figure is carved in marble and is standing on the door-sized Turkish stone. When you go around to the so-called front side of the sculpture, the two-dimensional silhouette side can appear to be coming or going. This ambiguous understanding or mentally directional approach serves the same function as my schematic elastic paper airplanes. (You can make them appear flying towards you or away from you.)
One has to remember when looking at figurative sculpture that one is not looking at another human being. One is looking at a referential object that has come into being for an intellectual reason.
As you go around the front, the ambiguity of the silhouette is a challenge to one’s expectation and presents alternatives. It turns things inside out or upside down. Not as a game, but as a tool.
P.I.: At the core of being a sculptor is being recognised or associated with your style of work but for a veteran like yourself, most of your publicly exhibited works over the years bear no semblance to each other. Is this a conscious resolve? Does the plateful assortment belie an intrinsic desire to represent every idea or thought in whatever form and medium regardless?
J.G.: You’d have to consider me as a conceptual artist before you think of me as a sculptor, then you will understand my use of material better. My public work is very recognizable as mine – not through what I think you mean by “style” but through my use of metaphor and symbolism.
Style in art for me is a minor thing as compared to looking at an artist’s body of work as a whole. Understanding of the work comes from seeing the bridges between the pieces that make up a complex, unified voice. This overview is particularly important in our postmodern world. A good example of this is Gerhard Richter. His various distinct styles are outstandingly rendered in service to his voice. Picasso is an even earlier example of using a variety of styles as a tool for expression.
P.I.: You recently received the prestigious Governor General’s prize in Visual Arts in recognition of your lifetime achievement and significant contribution to contemporary Canadian visual art. How big a motivation is this as a working artist? Does this award validate you in anyway?
J.G.: Receiving that award is a sign of acknowledgement from my peers and the larger community. It confirms that my work is a valued contribution and as such it is a big encouragement. I don’t see it as a motivation.
An artist’s motivation in my mind is not to seek approval. As an artist you try to reconcile yourself with the time and place you find yourself in. Investing yourself in this search is the motivation. It is a commitment that I am expressing in my work: “Ladder of Commitment”, 1976. It is a one-rung ladder and exemplifies that if you are committed, you are there!
P.I.: You’ve been quoted elsewhere as only interested in making Thinking art. What does this mean?Is this a yardstick for critiquing your work? Don’t you think this cerebral logging transforms your work into a theoretical adventure? Are you at all bothered with traditional and simplistic aesthetic terms implicit with making art?
J.G.: Remember all culture and its artefacts have been first thought out and then some are realized into material existence. I think that art should be encountered with this basic question in mind: Why has this thing come into existence at this time in our cultural history? This does not negate the aesthetic considerations that are essential to the articulated state. An artwork must first be engaging materially. It must provoke wonder. Duchamp said: “…the degree of crudity is as important as the degree of refinement. It depends on what is being expressed. It must be to the right degree.”
Aesthetic is much more complex than mere embellishment, it is about a “rightness”. I feel art should be engaging and accessible to the (art) uninformed, as well as the informed. The informed will hopefully be able to dive deep into its meaning.
Art must have an enriching possibility to be considered to be of cultural significance. It must be vital.
All of my work comes out of my life experiences. Certain of these experiences are then coalesced into objects; objectified within the construct of western art and then made public for a responsive consideration. This confirms meaning and hopefully enriches life. A meaningful life is more than theoretical adventure.
P.I.: Your earlier summation of the symbolism in your work coupled with the distinct use of metaphor is very illuminating and had me thinking of the imagery in Tap Dance, your 1976 installation piece in the aforementioned Sculptural Objective showing. Four galvanised steel buckets steel on the floor catching dripping water from four buckets suspended above. That work is laden with metaphor, could you kindly offer more insight about this work?
J.G.: This is a metaphor for life. Taps leaking like holes in the roof. The water sounds can be rhythmic, or extremely annoying. This perceptive ambiguity of a cacophony is within your control, you can decide for one or the other. You may perceive it as music or as torture. The leaky roof is like the open mind, where ideas trickle in. New ideas to some are torture; to others they are exciting.
This work is related to the schematic elastic paper airplanes in “This space – That space” where your mind is the control tower.
P.I.:“...We are so trained in assigning to each image its potential living space that we have no difficulty whatever in adjusting our reading to a configuration in which each figure is surrounded by its own aura...” This assertion is culled from a section of E.H Gombrich’s Art and Illusion (a study in the psychology of pictorial representation). A chapter in the latest edition is devoted to what is considered as “the beholder’s share.” This calls attention to The Cosmic Fish - one of your sculptures, which you describe as an imagined shape of the cosmos. How so? Is the image of a giant fish in a gray liquid matter as definite as the idea of an inaccessible cosmos? What is going on in this work?
J.G.: You must remember that you are endeavouring to understand my sculpture as mediated through a photograph. This is a sculptor’s problem, as the experience of the object is everything. When one is given a photo of a hand grenade and then later given the object, there is a great difference in bodily experience.
When you step on the tail of the cosmic fish and face its head the angle of the tail tilts your body about 5 degrees, giving you a subtle feeling of falling forward, and lightness in your stomach. It is meant to be a point of departure for thinking about the cosmos from a very personal and subjective place. It is positioned for imagining the infinite possibilities of shape.
I think the question of infinity is tied into the cosmos. When you are standing on the granite, looking at the reflection of the sky in the black pool that is moving overhead and underneath, it poses the very big question: “Where in the cosmos are you really standing?”
P.I.: Humble Ending, Reflection and Gathering are some of your work commissioned and installed in Italy, Canada and S/Korea respectively. As sites of memory and experience, do these locations hold more than a piece of your creativity?
J.G.: Humility is a component of all three works. The particular anticipated audience was considered in these three works, as well as their likely mental state. Encountering “Humble Ending” on a single path in a bamboo grove is meant for one or two people at a time and one can’t help thinking of the physical gesture and mental regard implied in the word “Sayonara” which reveals itself as you bend forward; even in a private bamboo grove in Italy.
The memorial “Reflection” brings loss to mind and the fragility of life and for many it is a place to remember a personal loved one who has been self-sacrificed. It is a memorial to our humanity.
Gathering is in a family park where adults or children can sit under the beetle-like wing covers and meditate or collect their thoughts in a protected space where one’s back is covered/ protected. The work creates a safe, thoughtful space. Kids can climb and spring off re-enacting the impetus to take imagined flight.
P.I.: As a conceptual artist/sculptor, what new medium or materials would you be interested to try your hands on if any?
J.G.: The material choice is always in service to the idea. But some materials that are at the moment on my back burner are laser-light, water and steel.
P.I.: Can Three Grains of Wheat be absorbed under a collective or body of work that requires a profound appreciation of the ability of an artist such as yourself? I’m referring to your use of space and the distance between each grain.
J.G.: A number of my works are shown seemingly scattered on the ground. These works are to be encountered as if you casually walked into a group of people. In these works anticipation and memory become part of the experience. There is also a shift of scale in many of these works, where a familiar form is greatly enlarged. This shifts your normal relationship and intensifies the experience.
I often use forms sourced from edible things, like nuts, grains, fruit, etc. These stone or bronze forms refer to sustenance. As sculpture they become sustenance for the mind. Cultural objects are referring to cultural sustenance.
I usually position these objects as if they are casually cast out of a hand. They become part of a dialogue in the world as you recognize the form and experience it with your body. As objects in a new scale, they are very rich new things. Their detailed surface asks for a new physical exploration. As you contextualize these sculptures in regard to their source, this experience turns into an investigation of the mind. They are to be considered and thought about.
P.I.: Despite the surge in new media and forms, visual art as synonymous to culture is still considered a middle class interest within the social framework in Canada and globally. Do you think this perception can ever change?
J.G.: You are addressing a complex issue here. I don’t quite agree that visual art is synonymous with culture in Canada now. In fact, culture seems to be literature, music and film. There is a lot less of a public voice for visual art, look at reviews in newspapers for example, or discussions on radio. Is there still the perception that Museum-going is a middle class interest? Globally? For my part, I do not think the Bourgeoisie has ever fully understood the significance of visual art.
Visual art is a discipline like all other disciplines. It has nothing to do with taste (likes and dislikes). If you have a toothache, you don’t consult a heart specialist or a mathematician. You see a dentist. There is a great confusion regarding the purpose of culture, especially when corporate or bottom-line entertainment is trying to usurp culture. This dynamic is at our peril, for without a culture we cease to exist as a people; our humanity is at stake.
In Canada the notion of culture as something to attain is a leftover old colonial model. Different cultures have different notions of the meaning of the word “culture”. Some cultures define it as basically the way they live. The usurping of culture is a global problem and a new form of imperialism. I sincerely hope the value of artist voices will be understood in its deeper and more meaningful way. The status quo perception of culture must change.
P.I.: Could you share with us what it takes to install some of your sculptures? I imagine a lot of efforts must go into this.
J.G.: Of course it takes a lot of effort to install my work. I do have to know about the logistics of moving, sometimes very heavy things. Crane rental, container shipping, and import-export procedures and so on... I have a passable 7000-pound capacity forklift. But don’t forget that it can take longer to install an installation using dressmakers’ elastic then installing a 3-ton object!
I remember once when I arrived at a fairly new museum and discovered that their loading elevator could only handle one ton. My show was in several crates, one of which weighed almost two tons. The museum director started to panic. When I suggested we rent a crane to lift the crate into the museum he imagined it would cost a small fortune and would involve a great deal of time. I called the local crane-rental company and within the hour it was inside the museum at the cost of 60$.
I do have a lot of experience having installed around 45 of my own solo exhibitions, numerous group shows and public commissions. I also ran a sculpture department for over 25 years mostly as the only full time teacher and have been called upon by students and ex-students regularly to help them install shows and solve logistical problems.
Experience creates know-how and problem management is exciting, and when this is in service to cultural voice the effort is more than worthwhile.
P.I.: I’m privy to a fiery statement delivered by you as a panellist at the 1988 opening of the New Art Gallery, Nova Scotia where you spoke up for “the value of art that goes beyond embellishment” and added that economic models by government legislation get in the way of true artists and this gives way for the commoditization of art. You concluded in that statement that “culture is not a consumer product” and mustn’t be bottled as just “tourism and entertainment”. What has changed? Does the government’s arts policy and initiatives at the moment meet the needs and aspirations of Canadian artists?
J.G.: Absolutely not! In fact there has been little improvement and I would say even slippage in the past 25 years. Governments have spent millions many times finding that the status of the Canadian artist is extremely low. They also are aware that artists themselves highly subsidize Canadian culture, yet the public cliché is still that artists are a financial drain on Canada. This low status is a shameful loss for Canada. When I work in Italy for instance, I don’t feel embarrassed to claim to be an artist. But here in Canada I feel I am a bit of an oddity at best. I am not the only artist to feel this way. This will not change until the purpose of art is understood. Artists and politicians are involved in the same undertaking - perceptual change.
This is why in totalitarian regimes it is necessary to silence artist’s voices. One has to look at the motifs behind needing perceptual change. Life always imitates thoughtful art.
P.I.: You have taught sculpture over the years as full professor; from that vantage position, what do you make of the art modules in colleges and universities?
J.G.: The vitality of the student mind will always be a rare treasure. Some schools squander this treasure while others refine it. This makes all the difference. In my view there is a serious crisis in academic institutions. Critical thinking is being devalued and education is becoming in service to corporate needs.
On the bright side I see a thirst for a renewed interest in existentialism and humanity in the face of runaway greed. I remain optimistic.
P.I.: What lies ahead in the future? MTLS is pleased to follow your progress.
J.G.: I am in talks with a couple of museums about large-scale shows in Canada. Recently, I have been working on opening up some possibilities in Europe and I intend to pursue exhibition opportunities in Asia.
P.I.: Thanks for your time John. All the best to you.
J.G.: The pleasure is mine and I want to seriously thank you Patrick for your interest in my work and for hearing me out.
You can view any of the pieces of artwork in this gallery by clicking on the thumbnails below:
John Greer has exhibited his work since 1967 extensively in Canada, USA, Iceland and Korea. He taught sculpture as full Professor at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax for 26 years and is now working full time on his sculptural work in his studio in West Dublin, Nova Scotia, Canada. Recently, he was working for a number of years partly out of Dallas, TX, USA and since the mid-eighties he has been spending regularly extended work periods in Pietrasanta, Italy. His most recent solo exhibitions were “APPRÉHENSION - APPREHENSION” at Galerie Samuel Lallouz in Montreal, PQ, “Reflecting on Culture” in Halifax, NS and “Alluding to Illusion” in Dallas, TX, USA. He is the recipient of numerous awards and grants; most recently he received the prestigious Governor General’s Award in Visual Arts in recognition of his lifetime achievement and significant contribution to contemporary Canadian visual art. John has realized a number of public commissions, among others “Gathering, 2001” for a family park in Seoul, Korea and “Reflection, 2001”, the memorial to Canadian Aid Workers in Ottawa, Canada. His work “Origins, 1995” is permanently installed in the Ondaatje courtyard of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and he has works in major national collections. In 2009 he installed the piece “Humble Ending” in La Serpara, a sculpture garden North of Rome. John Greer prefers sculpture as his language and tries to engage the viewer in being a human, thinking object among objects, a being “of” the world, a cultural object. More details about John and his work can be found at www.johngreer.ca
Patrick Iberi has a background in philosophy. He is greatly interested in existentialism and works as a freelance writer, with attention (in varying degrees) on essays on the arts, literary criticism and poetry. His writings have appeared in both print and online publications. A forth-coming collection of poems tentatively titled “Echoes of a desolate voice “is in the works
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